Longtime soccer coach George Scarpelli doesn’t hold back. Not when praising his boys team at Somerville High School. Not when talking about US Soccer’s academy system. Ever since the academy program switched to a 10-month schedule in the fall of 2012 and prohibited players from high school competition, Scarpelli has harbored concerns about the direction of youth development in Massachusetts and across the country.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Scarpelli. “It’s a joke. What you’re doing, ultimately, is looking to put together your 25 best players in the country and affecting millions of high school players.
“It’s an absolute travesty for the game itself. They’re trying to make it an elitist sport where the focus is on the best.
“You’re taking away from what high school student-athletes use as a big part of their total high school experience. As a former teacher and coach for 30 years, it’s disgusting.”
While other high school soccer coaches offer more restrained criticism, there is no question the youth development landscape looks much different than it did 15, 10, or even a few years ago. Today, as players across Massachusetts prepare for the fall soccer season, the landscape is crowded with town, club, high school, and academy teams eager to nurture talent. That leaves players and their parents with tough choices, sorting through sometimes overwhelming options at ever-younger ages.
“It really is a confusing matrix right now,” said Michael Singleton, who was executive director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association until July. “With the numerous groups that there are, it’s the players who are being put into the middle of the different poles and the different pressures.
“Realistic goal expectation and orientation is so key. That’s unfortunately what we need to talk with kids about from 11 and 12 years old. What do you want to do? In that six- or seven-year period before college age, you’re at three or four different forks in the road.”
At the top of the development pyramid, US Soccer-sanctioned academy programs focus on making the best young players even better. In the Boston area, there are two such academies: the fully-funded New England Revolution Academy based at Gillette Stadium and the FC Bolts Celtic, which calls Mount Ida College in Newton home.
Then there is the Real Boston Rams program, a Premier Development League affiliate of the Revolution that represents the top level of men’s amateur competition in the country.
Add more than 100 Massachusetts club teams — selective programs a rung or two below academies that allow high school participation — and it’s a lot to consider.
Going the academy route is an easy decision for the top 100 players in the country in each age group because, as Singleton pointed out, “High school soccer is not going to help them, and they need to be challenged more, play against better players, and make sure they’re in the environment that’s going to help them reach the national team.”
But when it comes to the player ranked 1,500th, he noted, “It’s really gray.”
A well-run club team or title-contending high school program may offer a better fit.
“The academy is not for everybody,” said Bryan Scales, director of youth development for the Revolution Academy. “It was a bold move by US Soccer knowing that there would be plenty of static to have this 10-month season prohibit kids from playing for their high school.
‘At the end of the day, [the academy system] gives kids more options.’
“We wrestled with it for a while as to how we felt about it. We understand that in this country high school is a really big thing for kids socially and in the communities.
“But as you look at it developmentally, to catch up with the rest of the world in the sport, it requires a different view and a change in the paradigm of how things are done here in this country.”
Today, high school coaches expect that some of their most promising athletes will leave scholastic soccer behind. Scarpelli believes those players will miss the special opportunities presented by high school competition — the camaraderie, hometown pride, and coaches who may focus on more than soccer.
The Somerville coach sees the clubs and academies as “a gamble” for players because they don’t guarantee college scholarships or professional opportunities. He also sees them as “a big-money business” for those in charge, though the Revolution Academy players have all expenses covered and the Bolts offer substantial financial aid for costs that can range $7,000-$10,000 per season with travel.
Others in the soccer community see the proliferation of academies and clubs and the 10-month academy season as part of a natural evolution for US player development. It’s an evolution that youth development leaders hope will create a better, more inclusive system, not an elitist one. Scales noted US Soccer’s desire that all academies move toward that fully-funded Major League Soccer model.
“For kids with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, that’s less of an impediment now than it used to be 10, 15 years ago,” said Scales. “Of course, it can always get better, but that is slowly being addressed at all levels of US Soccer.”
Still, for all involved, it’s a tough new landscape to navigate, especially if playing for a Division 1 college and beyond is your goal.
The cost-benefit ratio
Ultraselective academy programs draw the most scouts and create the richest pool of prospects.
“If you go to any academy event, you’ll see that every college coach in Division 1 will probably be sitting around the sidelines at those games,” said Brian Ainscough, head men’s coach at Northeastern and executive director of coaching for the FC Bolts Celtic academy.
The scouting calculus is hard to fault: Traveling to academy showcases makes more sense than watching one high school star take on lesser, often younger, players.
For players desiring to attend a Division 1 college, make the national team, or play professionally, academy-level soccer is often the first choice. The Revolution Academy and FC Bolts Celtic recruit top local players, prioritize practice time over games, and emphasize technical skills under the careful watch of US Soccer. While competing for the Revolution Academy, players can be called up for practices with the pro team.
For goalkeeper Austin Aviza, 17, it was “a very easy decision” to join the Revolution Academy, even though he played freshman year for Medway High School before the 10-month model went into effect. The Syracuse-bound Aviza wants to play after his college career and believes the academy’s coaches and facilities “will help prepare me the best.”
Already, he has trained with the Revolution and attended national team camps. But Aviza is more the exception than the rule.
Said Scales, “The cost-benefit ratio has to make sense for families and players.” And the ratio goes beyond time and money invested toward the long odds of an elite-level soccer career, especially in a state as well stocked with young players as Massachusetts.
Of the 164,901 Massachusetts players between the ages of 5 and 19 who are currently registered with various US Youth Soccer Association programs (second only to the 171,267 in northern California), only a tiny percentage will play for Division 1 college teams, never mind make national team pools or play professionally.
Consider these numbers: The Revolution Academy and the FC Bolts Celtics work with a total of about 125 players on their top-tier teams. For any given cycle, the number of players invited to each youth national team camp ranges from 18-24, with as many as 70 in the overall pool. In six years, the Revolution Academy has promoted two players to MLS.
“Not all academy players are going pro, and they need to understand that,” said Singleton, who now coaches the men’s soccer team at Division 3 Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “Not all club teams are better than town teams. Some high school teams have quality coaches and quality players and some do not. It comes down to the situation for the individual child and their individual goals.”
Effect on high schools
With typically 20 matches sandwiched into a two-month season, high school soccer programs cannot teach the game in the same methodical way as academies. But Scarpelli said he’s “seen a lot of great come out of high school soccer for the whole person.”
High schools remain fertile ground for the soccer education of future Division 2 and 3 college players. And sometimes the loss of one player to an academy team translates to an unexpected opportunity for another player at the high school level.
Lucas Rezende-Verge, starting goalkeeper for Weymouth High School the past two seasons, got his big break when teammate Scott Greenwood joined the Bolts.
Greenwood unsuccessfully applied for a waiver to play his senior season for Weymouth. With Greenwood gone, Rezende-Verge found himself starting in goal a year earlier than expected.
“You are going to lose those top players, which does affect overall play at the high school level,” said Weymouth coach Bill McEachern, who also coaches for Real Boston. “But because players that are still available can play in the offseason, and because clubs play a role in helping them play at higher levels, the high school game is getting better.
“The biggest problem I have with [the academy system] is when they don’t apply the waiver process evenly. I hope they improve that.”
But with Rezende-Verge, the Weymouth coach didn’t need to worry about waivers.
Wanting to stay with his club team and high school teammates, Rezende-Verge made it known he wasn’t interested in playing for the two Boston-area US Soccer-approved academies, though McEachern believes he could have.
Said Rezende-Verge, who’s headed to Division 2 Merrimack College, “I don’t think not going to an academy team affected my college choices. For me, staying on my club team actually helped out more. It was all about being comfortable.”
He also enjoyed playing in front of his friends and, partly for that reason, would choose the same club/high school combination again.
As a parent, Division 1 men’s soccer coach, and Bolts coaching director, Ainscough knows the academy-vs.-high school debate from multiple sides. His sons, Alex and Nicholas, withdrew from a local private high school in order to pursue their soccer-playing futures through the Bolts. This fall, Alex will play for Stanford.
The decision to leave a private high school and commit to the academy route was a tough one for the Ainscough family, even with its connections to the Bolts. But Brian said it was not unlike the difficult choices many young elite athletes face in different sports. He believes the youth development landscape will continue changing as US Soccer figures out which approaches work best for its national-team-focused goals.
“Most pros get developed between 6 and 16,” said Ainscough. “At the end of the day, [the academy system] gives kids more options. It’s not to fight anybody. It’s not to fight high school or other clubs that are not in there.
“They want to field the best national team. That’s US Soccer’s mandate.
“You won’t see the fruits in two years. You’ll see the fruits in 10 years. That’s how it works.”
But it’s likely the one constant through the years will be players and their parents making tough decisions about far-off soccer futures.Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.