Academy youth teams, which have recently found a foothold in Seattle, are trying to place players at the top levels of soccer with a development approach that runs concurrent to high-school programs.
Anna Smith thought about it, then cried about it. She did a lot of soul-searching.
One of the nation’s top high-school goalkeepers kept putting off telling Don Braman, her Skyline High School girls soccer coach, because of the pain it would cause. Smith, who has committed to play at USC, didn’t want have to tell Braman she wouldn’t be able to play with the Spartans this fall for her senior year.
“She put that conversation off for as long as she possibly could, because she just didn’t want to have to look them in the face and have to say that,” said Diana Rison, Smith’s mother. “In her gut, it was just hard for her to do. And, she hates watching somebody else in her net. That’s the competitive side of her.”
Smith, ranked No. 3 nationally among goalkeepers for the Class of 2018 by TopDrawerSoccer.com, was dealing with the reality of the high-school girls soccer landscape in the first season that the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system has dictated that its players only play for their local Reign Academy teams.
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Smith’s agonizing decision came last spring when it became apparent that her only option to stay sharp and to stay in U.S. Soccer’s plans was to join a Reign Academy team. The individual training would be important down the road when she would join national-power USC.
There’s always been the lure of club soccer, as parents and players believe it increases skills and exposure to college programs. But most outlets in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which was the highest local level before Reign Academy took off this year, didn’t play games during the fall high-school season.
“It was tough, but my coaches were supportive of my decision,” said Smith, who broke Skyline season records in 2016 for saves (76), goals-against average (0.25) and shutouts (15). “They wanted what’s best for me and what was going to get me ready for college and keep me developing throughout the year. They wanted me to continue to be part of the family we had created and keep the relationships that I had.
“It was so heartbreaking for me not to do that. They told me to do what’s right for me, and they are some of my biggest supporters in the world.”
Some of the 50-plus top-end girls soccer players in the Puget Sound region faced a similar decision: Forgo their high-school season to focus on their individual development, more intense training and bigger dreams.
It’s the following verbiage from U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy rules and regulations that has caused a ripple across the girls-soccer landscape: “Academy Players currently registered with an Academy Club have committed to forgo participating in both the Academy and high school soccer. Players who participate in high school soccer are ineligible to participate in Academy practice and competition during that same season.”
The goal of Reign Academy is to place players at the highest levels of soccer. Reign Academy is one of 69 clubs in the U.S. Girls Development Academy. The hope is to develop elite-level players to their fullest potential, and prepare them for Division I colleges and professional careers nationally and internationally.
On the boys side, with most high-school teams playing in the spring, the stipulations for academy soccer have been in place since 2011.
Players good enough for the high-school age teams of Sounders FC and Crossfire Premier academies have to make a choice between academy and high school. Sounders and Crossfire are part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA).
The recent change that prohibits the area’s top-level girls players from playing for their local high schools is one that has ruffled feathers in the high-school community.
But it’s a bigger-picture mentality that is driving the change.
“I think it’s more than just providing players exposure, and I think there’s a lot more than that,” said Kim Calkins, technical director of the Reign Academy. “U.S. Soccer has made a large push and has made it a goal to be a lot more involved in the youth game, and not just at the national-team level. This is that part coming to fruition.
“It’s a development philosophy that they are launching.”
Calkins, who won a Class 4A state title with Mead of Spokane in 1993 as Kim Stiles, said Reign Academy is subscribing to U.S. Soccer’s program of building from a younger age.
“For us, we believe it’s going to provide a solid and long-lasting development philosophy for our players,” Calkins said.
Calkins thinks academy soccer and high school are two distinctly different offerings.
“I don’t really think of what we’re offering as in competition with what high school offers,” she said. “Those kinds of decisions when a kid’s weighing what they are going to do, as far as a choice of where they play soccer, is certainly an individual and family choice. I think it’s a smaller percentage of players who have had to make the choice. It’s not a large number.
“Some players were already not playing high-school soccer anyway. In the older age groups, it was certainly a difficult decision for some players, without a doubt. We’re not out to take kids out of playing high-school soccer. There’s a place for every kid to play.”
Some local school officials have taken the inception of academy soccer personally.
One local high school refused to accommodate a practice for one of the Reign Academy teams, responding with, “We won’t rent a field to a team that takes our best players away.”
Class 1A University Prep, a four-time state champion program, might be considered small-school soccer, but it was hit big time by the Academy inception, losing two seniors, a junior and a freshman who would’ve started for the Pumas.
“It’s a problem that’s kind of nationwide for high-school soccer,” University Prep coach Alec Duxbury said. “I remember reading about it in The New York Times about four or five years ago. This is just the first time that it’s come home to roost in Seattle.”
It is hard for coaches, especially Duxbury, to accept this change that doesn’t allow girls soccer players to participate in both high school and Academy soccer during the fall.
“I’ve had a lot of players who have gone on to play in college over the years and played at a high level, and what disappoints me the most about (the change) is that they all say that their best soccer memories are high-school soccer memories,” he said. “And, it’s because they got to play for their community in a way they never have before. They played in front of their friends, and it mattered.”
Braman wished top-caliber players competing in club/academy and high school could simultaneously continue to exist in harmony. In the past, ECNL teams — which comprised the top level of girls soccer in Washington state — scheduled around the high-school season.
“Basically the reason (academy players) can’t play (high school) is (academy players) are playing during our season,” he said. “So they’ve just decided that their thing takes precedent, so they are going to play all year. The rule is smart, because you don’t want players playing on two teams (at the same time).
“The bigger issue, on an administrative level, is, ‘Why do we need to put the academies (season) when high school is playing?’ ”