At different times over the past several months, Ben Swanger talked to his friends, teachers, coaches and brother about whether giving up his final season of high school soccer was the right thing to do.
One day, the senior midfielder turned his father, Carlos. “Dad, soccer is pretty much who I am (at Penfield). I worry about that.”
Charlie Cosentino was concerned what his Irondequoit teammates would think. “It’s hard for me to let them down like this, but they know the circumstances,” the All-Greater Rochester midfielder/forward said. “Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get ready for the future.”
Improving the future of the men’s national team is why the United States Soccer Federation asked 17-year-olds such as Swanger and Cosentino of the Empire Revolution academy to make a very difficult decision — one Swanger called the toughest of his life. Earlier this year, the federation extended the season for its 80 developmental academy teams nationwide from eight months to 10. Instead of running November through June, this year it starts in September.
That created a conflict. Players had to choose between high school soccer and their academy team. They could no longer do both, and also can’t play high school sports in the winter or spring seasons, according the USSF’s new rules. The federation thinks the higher level of commitment is the only way for the U.S. men’s program to start gaining ground on the rest of the world. It puts America more in line with the European model in which players are developed at a much younger age and in a professional club setting.
It means Section V will be without several of its top boys this fall and in future years if players choose the academy route.
U.S. Soccer does not have a similar program for girls. With the success of the women’s national team, it’s not necessary. They’re already top-ranked in the world and have won three straight Olympic championships. The men didn’t even qualify for the Olympics.
“It’s not affecting a lot of kids. You’re talking about 36 spread out over a large area,” said Brian Bliss, the Webster native and former U.S. national team player who is technical director for the Columbus Crew youth academy in Ohio.
The local academy club, Empire Revolution (formerly Empire United and the Junior Rhinos), includes players from the Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo regions. Among the 39 players on its Under-18 and U-16 teams are 11 who would have played on eight Section V teams. Empire recently became affiliated with the New England Revolution, a Major League Soccer club like the Crew.
Bliss, 46, draws the comparison to youth hockey. “The best hockey players in upstate New York don’t play high school hockey, right?” he asked, referring to teens leaving home to play in top Canadian junior leagues.
U.S. Soccer had an eye on this calendar move when it started its academy program in 2007, said Tony Lepore, the USSF’s national director of youth scouting.
“We’ve been clear about this. The academy isn’t for everyone. It’s for those who want to reach their full potential, whether it be college, professional or the national team,” said Lepore, a former school counselor and coach in New Hampshire. “This idea wasn’t to take these players away from high schools; it was to put them in a better environment to develop.”
Even high school coaches who aren’t happy with the USSF’s new rules admit players can benefit from the higher level of competition.
“You’re competing against the top kids around. You get better every single day in practice,” said Brockport’s Tyler Brew, 17, a goalkeeper the past three years for Aquinas Institute who chose Empire over the Little Irish this fall. “It’s just a great opportunity. You work hard for the spot, you can’t give it up.”
While the Monroe County league is considered one of the best statewide, exposing players to mostly solid competition, it still can’t compare to playing with and against what are essentially regional all-star academy teams. Of the approximately 12,000 boys who’ve been in the development academies the past five years, four have made the U.S. senior national team and about 800 have been called up to youth national teams. There are about 3,200 boys in the 80 academy clubs nationwide.
Empire technical director Chris Apple, who is in his 10th year as the University of Rochester’s coach, said the $4,500 his academy players spend annually covers all training fees, uniforms and gear and travel expenses such as hotel and meals. He also said USSF doesn’t think this will be a “quick fix” in trying to catch up to world soccer powers such as Brazil and Spain.
“They’re in it not for months and years but for decades,” he said.
And Apple said Empire coaches sympathize with how difficult the decision was for older players who their high school teams would be counting on as team leaders.
“It’s hard socially. It’s hard academically,” said Apple, who noted that Empire’s coaching staff often has designated studying time during road trips. “These kids have to be dedicated to want this. For the kid who wants to play three sports … for that kid who doesn’t think it’s right for him, we understand.”
Empire’s head coaches, Ben Cross (U-18) and Paul Valenti (U-16), know the stature of Section V soccer. They played at Mendon and Sutherland, respectively, and teach at Irondequoit and Webster Schroeder. Each also had to give up assistant coaching jobs at local schools due to the USSF’s new level of commitment.
As for the players and the “emotional and social aspect, I don’t envy having to make their decision,” Valenti said.
“You are giving up a lot,” said Irondequoit senior midfielder Liam McKee, who is one of Cosentino’s best friends. “It’s your school. Everyone comes out and sees you play … you’re with all the guys you’ve been with your whole life.”
Cosentino said his former teammates might tease him at times, but he thinks they understand playing academy soccer can only help him in college. Cosentino already has given a verbal commitment to Canisius.
Some players want to be on academy teams because it gives them better exposure to college recruiters. But former MLS star Taylor Twellman disagrees. He told Sports Illustrated: “My dad (who played professionally) always said, ‘If you’re good, they’ll find you.’ “
Irondequoit also lost forward Matthew Tucker, who chose Empire. The Eagles have played in the sectional title game each of the past three years, winning once. “We’re going to miss them. Best of luck to them,” junior defender Frankie Martella said. “But we’re going to do the best with what we have.”
Some area high school coaches had two concerns. First, they wished the USSF could have transitioned this more smoothly, meaning taking freshmen and sophomores and not upperclassmen who’d already been entrenched on their high school teams.
“We’re going to be fine without Ben (Swanger), the player. We’re going to miss Ben, the person,” said John Butterworth, longtime coach at perennial power Penfield. “He grew up with us.”
Another concern: Choosing the academy means players could miss out on making high school memories, not only on the field but at team functions such as team dinners and pep rallies.
“You can’t get those moments back,” said Victor coach Steve Fish, whose squad lost senior midfielder Tristian Lockwood to Empire.
Irondequoit coach Steve Brickler said when he gets together with old classmates, they still talk about playing for Greece Athena in the early 1980s. The Trojans took eventual state champion Greece Arcadia to overtime in one sectional match.
“It sticks with you forever. They’ll look back and know they missed out on something special,” Brickler said.
Churchville-Chili’s Luke Pavone decided not even to try out for Empire this summer because he didn’t want to miss his senior season. An All-Monroe County midfielder last fall, Cross said Pavone likely would have made his U-18 squad.
“Honestly, I hadn’t won a sectional title at all between soccer and lacrosse, so I figured this would give me the best chance,” said Pavone, 17 and a Saints captain who had been with Empire since the U-10 age group. “Plus, it’s more of a family-type thing with school soccer, a closer group of guys.”
Cosentino and Swanger each said they also make memories with their academy team, but it’s different. They were each on sectional championship squads in the past, and they factored that in, too, that they’d already lived that high school experience. Swanger talked to his older brother, Alex, the 2010 AGR Player of the Year, after leading Penfield to the crown. Alex was an Empire player but didn’t have to make this decision.
“I had a great time with all my friends and winning sectionals was pretty cool,” said Alex, now a sophomore forward at UR. “But for me, academy was just a much higher level and it’s hard for people to understand. I really think it helped me the most.”
Ben, a Penfield captain last year, said he is considering UR and Cornell University. He admitted it’s “going to stink” not playing for the perennially good Patriots.
“We respected his decision,” said defender Eddie Doyle, one of Penfield’s captains. “Coming out last year in that sectional final game, I’ll never forget that night seeing all my friends in the stands cheering us on.”
This fall, Ben Swanger will have to be in the bleachers instead of midfield.
“I’m so used to being out there,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll regret it.”