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U.S. Soccer ultimatum: Play for the academy or high school

By extending its Development Academy season to 10 months, the U.S. Soccer Federation now forbids its players to compete in high school
By: Brett Ransford/Gold Country Media News Service
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An ultimatum recently was handed down by the U.S. Soccer Federation, asking players in its Development Academy who also compete in high school to choose one or the other.

The California Development Academy, based in Loomis, is sanctioned by the USSF as one of 78 academy club teams in the country. Its players, who are selected as the elite competitive athletes in the Sacramento area, were told last week they no longer would be allowed to play for the academy and their high school teams concurrently.

CDA coaches Paul O’Brien and Marcos Mercado sent an e-mail to all 40 players on their under 15/16 and U-17/18 squads. The e-mail and USSF officials the next day verified what the CDA called a “clarification” of a policy in which CDA players were told in mid-high school season to make a choice immediately.

The USSF offices in Chicago didn’t respond to several calls from the Press Tribune seeking comment, but Jeff Flint, a CDA and Placer United board member, said, “The U.S. Soccer Federation has determined for the well-being of its athletes that they need to be participating in only one soccer program at a time. It’s up to the players whether they want to play for their high school team or the development academy.”

CDA is a combination of elite players from the Placer United and San Juan club teams.

2011-12 not a transition year after all

Ty Thompson, a Granite Bay senior and CDA player since the academy’s inception in 2007, said players were under the impression the 2011-12 season would be the final transition year before having to decide on the academy or high school competition.

“Before the season started, we were under the impression that we could do both. Even on our website, it said this was a transition year,” said Thompson, who won Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championships with Granite Bay in 2008 and 2010.

Thompson said he and senior captain Cody Giddings chose last week to leave the Grizzlies. Neither played in Granite Bay’s 2-0 victory over Del Oro on Monday night.

Flint said the CDA didn’t deny the timing put high school players and coaches in a tough situation.

“We’ve apologized for putting them in a difficult spot,” Flint said. “At the same point, we have a responsibility as the local development academy to be producing players that are potentially playing for the United States in the World Cup and Olympics. I think most of the kids are seeing the wisdom of staying with their academy for their soccer development.”

The California Interscholastic Federation’s Sac-Joaquin Section office has its own interpretation of the USSF’s mid-season decision.

“If the rule is to draw a line in the sand, that’s fine. But maybe our high schools shouldn’t allow these academies to use their facilities,” section Commissioner Pete Saco said this week. “It’s flat-out wrong that they’re putting kids in these positions. If they were in my area (Lodi), I can tell you they wouldn’t be using our school’s facilities.”

USSF sees academy as best coaching, training

The USSF’s move has stirred controversy.

A July 2 story on www.cdasoccer.com announced the CDA would join the USSF’s new 10-month schedule, which now runs from September through June.

The notice on the website said Hugo Perez, USSF Soccer Academy National Team scout, “acknowledged that High School soccer is an important part of American culture. However, the level of High School coaching and play is not conducive to developing the best players. While acknowledging that playing in a Development Academy may not fit all players, he maintained that the USSF 10 month schedule, associated training course and coaching standards were vital to advancing US soccer and developing elite players. Hugo further communicated that players who practice and play with elite players improve and develop faster through US Development Academies. An extended 3 month interruption in training and play because of High School play undermines continuity for Development Academy players and teams.”

Opinions among local coaches vary, from believing the Development Academy genuinely is interested in developing its players to believing they only want to make a profit.

Rocklin coach Grant DePue, who has won a section title and lost one player to the academy — Joseph Haug — said the USSF’s move sets a bad precedent.

“You’re putting these boys in a very difficult situation because they want to play with their friends,” DePue said before Tuesday’s Sierra Foothill League match at Roseville. “These are their peers they’re around six to eight hours a day … and we’re saying. ‘No, you can’t play with your friends anymore.

“The parents are the ones supporting that decision by the academy. The point in time the parents say, ‘No, I want my son to have fun with his friends and enjoy his senior year and play’ … When the parents start to support that and start to have the uproar, I don’t know how many players are waiting in line to say, ‘I want to pay the academies fees just so I can be an academy player.’”

Henry Reis, the varsity coach at Oak Ridge and an El Dorado club coach, said the USSF’s move is unfair.

“You know, it’s only a 10-week season and you’re done,” he said of high school soccer. “What kind of difference is it going to make?”

High school soccer vs. the academy

DePue said the academies are missing a bigger picture.

“There’s so many benefits from playing high school soccer in the sense that we’re supporting their academics; we’re supporting their social development,” he said. “We’re not just supporting wins and losses, and we’re not just about, ‘We got you a college scholarship to a DIII school.’”

DePue’s opinions were supported by coaches Chris Branson of Woodcreek, Steve Fischer of Granite Bay and Pablo Gutierrez of Roseville. Each coach is a teacher, and they addressed fundamental rifts separating the goals of the USSF and the development of young adults.

“I don’t understand where the CDA can get off telling teenagers what they can do with their free time,” said Fischer, who has coached Granite Bay to three section titles. “It affects our entire program directly.”

Gutierrez has taught in Roseville since 1975 and currently is the academic dean and assistant principal at Buljan Middle School. Like his coaching counterparts, Gutierrez lost a varsity player to CDA — four-year varsity player Gio Reader.

“(Academy) coaches are … making their programs priority in the sense they want to win. They don’t give a darn about the kid,” he said. “They want to have the best possible players they can put on the field. And that’s the bottom line. They want to show they’re the best coaches around, and they have that ego.”

One player tells the academy no

Not all the players involved have chosen the academy, however. Brandon Wallace, who was with CDA for two years, decided to play his senior year with his teammates at Vista del Lago, even though he said leaving CDA probably hurts his chances of earning a scholarship.

“It’s my senior year, and I just want to try to enjoy it,” Wallace said. “I didn’t really feel welcomed at the CDA, and I wanted to come back to where I thrive. The CDA is a high-quality club, and I was a little disappointed to leave, but I wasn’t happy there and felt I needed to do it.”

DePue and Gutierrez acknowledge that competitive soccer players stand a better chance of being recruited, since budget cuts in collegiate programs keep colleges from attending high school matches. Like softball, soccer coaches are more apt to attend tournaments, where they can see hundreds of players instead of one or two in a high school match.

DePue understands, but …

“I don’t think we’re emphasizing the right things in America. We’re in such a hurry for capitalism … like hey, grow up, go make money, get out in the world,” he said. “When do they get to be kids, and when do they get to play and have fun? It’s a bummer.

“At the same point in time, soccer’s one of those sports where you’re not going to get a scholarship out of high school soccer. I acknowledge that as the reality.”

Will the move away from high school soccer be worth it? Time will tell.

Gutierrez believes they’ll be sorry.

“Will the kids that make this move look back in 20 years and say, ‘Why didn’t I play with my friends?’ They will,” he said, working up a sweat as he pinned the net to the north goalpost before Tuesday’s match. “You know why? Because I’m one of those that played high school soccer. I can tell you I go back and look at my picture, and regardless what kind of team, there were great experiences. They don’t realize that in that yearbook, you’re going to get together every five, 10 years.

“These kids are a really good bunch of kids. And all those seniors I have, they will look forward to the times when they were together.”

Press Tribune Sports Editor Bill Poindexter and Matt Long of Gold Country News Service contributed to this report.