Nicholas Le and Alec Greene are elite soccer players in the area, trying to get the most out of their abilities.
But to do that, the pair have to give up a part of the sport they both love — playing with their friends and teammates in high school.
Le, a senior midfielder out of DeWitt, and Greene, a junior midfielder out of Holt, play in the United States Soccer Federation’s Development Academy, which seeks to find and develop the nation’s best young players for future U.S. World Cup teams. Both play for the Michigan Wolves program — Le for the U-18 team and Greene for the U-16 squad.
But players have to make a choice. New rules recently put in place by the USSF do not allow players to participate on their high school teams at the same time.
“It was a really tough decision,” Greene said. “I like high school a lot, and it’s cool that the parents come and watch and whatnot. It was definitely hard, but we decided that, for the future, the academy was the best choice.”
The Development Academy was formed in 2007 as an attempt to emulate the sort of intensive, professional training and experience at a young age for Americans that soccer players in other countries routinely receive. The hope is that academies can help close the gap at the international level between the U.S. and more successful soccer nations.
Players in most other countries, where scholastic and college sports rarely serve as training grounds for elite players, generally turn pro at age 16. Professional clubs field youth teams for players as young as 8, for the purpose of developing talent for their future pro rosters.
Several area players have participated, including Holt’s Josh Barens, who now plays at Michigan State, and who won the academy’s national championship with the Wolves in 2009.
Barens also was a standout player for the Rams and was named the Lansing State Journal Player of the Year as a senior. But starting this season, such double duty is not possible. The academy went to a year-round schedule, and its players no longer are allowed to play on any other teams, including their high-school squads.
But the vision of the future for Greene and Le, and many other players on academy teams, differs from that of the USSF.
While the federation hopes to produce world-class players for the men’s national team, the road for most ends where it always has ended for players with elite clubs: college soccer.
The Wolves club, for which both Le and Greene play, is an affiliate of Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, which also fields an academy team in Columbus. Players from both teams have an inside track to a career in MLS through the league’s Homegrown Player program. Players that are developed by MLS youth programs can be signed directly by their pro clubs without having to go through the annual MLS SuperDraft, which is similar to drafts in other American sports.
But Le said that pro soccer, let alone international soccer, had nothing to do with his decision to play in the academy.
“I would love to (play pro soccer), but it seems so far away,” Le said. “It’s not like I have to do that. I haven’t chosen it as my single career path, for sure.”
Proponents of say that, from a developmental standpoint, the competition can’t be duplicated in high school soccer.
“There is a huge benefit from a developmental standpoint,” said Gary Parsons, Le’s coach with the Wolves. “The other factors, socially and all the other stuff, they are certainly sacrificing if they don’t get to play for their high school team. But these kids are playing every week, and every game is a hard, difficult game against hard, difficult players.
“They’d get better even if they didn’t train, if they didn’t even have a coach and just kicked a ball around between games against that level of competition.”
Greene said the training has paid off.
“The intensity is higher, and it really pushes me to go to my limits because I have to play with the great talent around me and on the opposing teams,” he said. “It brings the best out of me, and I can feel myself getting better.”
In Le’s case, the decision was more about playing at close to the level of college soccer. He has committed to play at Colgate.
Critics of the USSF’s rules point to the social aspects of high school sports that are being missed.
High school coaches, of course, lament the loss of their best players. But Grand Ledge coach Scott Dane said that he would advise a player of his to play in the academy if he had the chance.
“If the kid and the family make this decision, and they think it’s best for their son, then I think that the high school coaches should fully support it,” Dane said. “Most of them don’t.”
One of those who doesn’t like the academy’s restrictions is Le’s former coach at DeWitt, Jamal Mubarakeh.
“I am a firm supporter of high school sports,” Mubarakeh said. “As a coach who has been coaching high school for 20 years, I think that high school sports offer more in the way of team play, skill building, academic support and competition.
“I am not in favor of the development academy concept, but I understand what Nick is trying to do and I support him 100 percent. Maybe this is the right thing for Nick.”
Le said that it was difficult to watch his former Panther teammates, especially his fellow seniors, end their season without him when they lost in the first round of districts. But neither Le nor Greene regrets his decision.
“Yeah, it’s hard work and it takes up a lot of my time,” Greene said. “But I love it.”