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Elite club teams not for everyone

Eric Sondheimer

January 25, 2008|Eric Sondheimer

The U.S. Soccer Federation needs to understand that its first-year academy development program, designed to groom promising young talent for international competition, is dividing people in the Southland who love the sport.

Each of the six club programs based in Southern California that was chosen to participate in the eight-month academy season has barred its players from simultaneously playing high school soccer, forcing dozens of elite players to abandon their high school coaches, teammates and friends.

Chance Myers, who played four years of high school soccer at Thousand Oaks and was the No. 1 player taken last Friday in the Major League Soccer draft, observed, "I wasn't put in that situation, but I'm positive all the kids who have to make that choice aren't happy."

A story last week detailing the dilemma faced by players such as Chris Cummings of Encino Crespi produced strong reactions via e-mails. Cummings made the decision not to play for the Celts in his senior year under pressure from his club team.

"The real problem is the vast majority of kids that are getting lured into these academy programs that don't have anywhere near the talent or opportunity Cummings does," wrote Dave Verso, the father of two sons playing soccer. "They are getting fed dreams of being professionals and getting seen so they will get Division I scholarships that in reality are very scarce.

"It was originally sold as free but is actually very expensive due to extensive travel requirements. Rather than getting free training in a first-class professional environment like youth players in Europe, they instead are just missing out on what, for most, is a great experience to play with their friends and display their talent in front of people from their community."

A father of an Orange County player lamented that his son, a sophomore, won't be following in the path of his older brother because he'll have to choose to play for his club team next season.

"This will be his last year of high school soccer," he wrote. "It is sad that unlike his brother, who is now on a Division I men's soccer team, he will not get the chance to earn four varsity letters."

U.S. Soccer insists that it encourages players to play high school soccer as well, but having the academy program in the middle of the winter soccer season in Southern California has left players with few options. Club soccer is considered a higher caliber of training and offers more exposure to college scouts than high school.

Myers, who spent the last two years at UCLA, said if he had to make a similar choice, "I'd probably have to go to club."

Susan Hansen, the mother of Stanford-bound tennis standout Logan Hansen of Brentwood, said her daughter encountered many of the same issues soccer players and their parents are having to deal with.

"If you're talented and winning big at the junior levels, it's tempting and exciting to aspire to a career as a professional athlete," she wrote. "Kids who reach this level, and their parents, get seduced by the possibilities.

"When Logan was 13 to 15 years old, she received countless offers from all the top tennis academies offering full scholarships to train with them full time and enroll in online high schools. However, Logan has never regretted her decision to remain at home, attend a regular high school and play all four years of high school tennis.

"It would seem that all elite-level junior athletes and their parents, regardless of the sport, would want to examine the odds of making a living as a professional athlete before making major, life-changing decisions about their education. At that point, weigh the costs of pursuing that dream -- financial, emotional and developmental -- and determine if it really makes sense to bypass high school athletic participation."

Johnny Marmelstein, girls' soccer coach at San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret's, said, "I have always coexisted peacefully with club soccer. However, club soccer has become big business. The directors and their coaches used to coach three to four months out of the year, then had to work like the rest of us. But now, they are selfishly making these kids and their families their personal year-round bankrolls. But at what cost?"

Another parent sees a positive in top players leaving high school soccer.

"The good side of the increasing club/high school separation is that it increases the number of kids who get to participate on high school teams," he wrote.

"Sure, the coaches are bummed to lose their best players. But for every kid that turns to club, there's another kid that gets a lot more playing time."

Said Mike Shimizu, boys' soccer coach at West Torrance: "If [U.S. Soccer] truly wanted to encourage these gifted players to experience all the aspects of playing a high school sport, they would just make it a rule that the clubs had to release them for their high school seasons no matter if they were in the fall or winter.

"I lost three players from my high school program, and I do not begrudge them for their decision. While we are a different team, we continue to do well and play what I hope people consider a good and entertaining style of soccer.

"In the end, I will coach those kids who want to represent their school and cheer for those players from my community who have chosen to do the academies instead of high school soccer. Both sets of kids are working toward positive experiences."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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