They went around the room, representatives of New Jersey’s high school sports conferences, and each gave “the number.” The question posed: How many of your boys soccer players quit this year at the behest of their club team?
Answers ranged from 12 to 18, with the statewide total believed to be close to 200. It does not sound like a lot in the grand scheme, but a year ago there were hardly any. So what happened here?
Jurgen Klinsmann happened. The U.S. national team coach expanded the season for academies, which is what elite clubs are euphemistically called, to 10 months. In other words there is no longer a season; it’s a full-time job for these players, many of whom are now barred from representing their school on the pitch.
“This is the beginning of the demise of high school athletics,” one athletics director said at Thursday’s NJSIAA leagues and conferences meeting, which was dominated by the topic.
That might be a bit of a stretch, but the trend is troubling. Clubs and elite circuits have infringed on high school swimming, gymnastics and tennis for years. However, this kind of widespread edict is a first. And when you factor in the team nature of soccer, how defections of top players can negatively impact those left behind, it becomes a mess.
NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko said the National Federation of State High School Associations engaged U.S. soccer on the matter, to no avail.
“They’ve all been futile attempts,” Timko said. “If this were going in the other direction — schools saying you can’t play for that club team — we’d be in court, no question.”
Klinsmann did not start this fire. For years most of the folks who run the academies have viewed high school season as a nuisance, and some have discouraged both boys and girls from taking part. Now the national team’s coach gives them cover to blackball the boys’ scene entirely.
The initiative is misguided because American success in basketball and women’s soccer shows that high schools and elite clubs can co-exist. Men’s soccer suffers from a cultural deficit; too many of our best male athletes pursue the riches and exposure provided by football, basketball and baseball for the U.S. to match the first-tier athletes from other countries.
That’s going to continue unless Major League Soccer gets a mega TV deal. No amount of practice time is going to change it.
In the meantime, the academies continue to multiply. Demand is high as parents chase elusive college scholarships and, even more elusive, delusions of Olympic and professional grandeur. Never mind that their son has better odds of being struck by lightning than landing a full ride in Division I.
Most academies charge four-figure fees — a notable exception is one run by the Red Bulls, which is free — and are thus glad to help in the pursuit.
It needs to be said that for the cream of the crop, the club scene offers a level of competition they can’t get elsewhere. Certainly academies have a key role to play in bettering the sport. Just not at the expense of high school teams and the unmatched level of camaraderie and local pride they provide.
“These kids are losing the high school experience,” one AD said at the meeting “and you only get to do it once in your life.”
Matt Kassel and Bryan Meredith understood that, which is why they put on the high school uniforms at Bridgewater-Raritan and Scotch Plains-Fanwood, respectively, on their way to MLS careers.
Tim Howard understood it, too. Long before he was the national team’s goalkeeper, Howard found time to play for North Brunswick High School — in both soccer and basketball. Although he was already a national prospect at keeper, Howard roamed the midfield for the Raiders because that’s where they needed him. Plus, it was fun.
Sports for fun — imagine that.