With the first regular season games of the high school boys’ soccer season less than a week away, Oliver Ames is one of the many programs navigating the impact of MLS NEXT, a development program created by Major League Soccer now starting its fourth season.
The Division 2 state champions had three prominent players, including All-American Casey Milliken, leave the high school team to join an MLS NEXT club.
OA coach John Barata has seen experienced players leave. But never at this rate.
“This year more than ever, high school programs are taking a hit because of MLS NEXT,” said Barata. “My concern is, is this going to be a trend? And if so, what does the future of high school soccer look like?”
Options for players more than doubled this spring when four area clubs were granted MLS NEXT status. Massachusetts now has five teams; there are also clubs in Portsmouth, N.H., and Providence.
The landscape is changing. What will the impact be on MIAA (and prep) programs?
“I think it will affect the top tier players the most,” Newton North coach Roy Dow said. “It’s tough to say how much of the talent will be watered down. I think it depends on town to town, community to community, and school to school.”
Milliken was one of the top players who left MIAA. The shifty midfielder paced the state in scoring last fall, recording 25 goals and 22 assists en route to Globe Athlete of the Year honors.
After weighing his options, Milliken felt MLS NEXT gave him a better path toward his goal of playing professional soccer. He was intrigued by the year-round development and the opportunity to train in a professional atmosphere.
At Taunton-based NEFC, Milliken will play a 16-game regular season schedule in the fall, along with preseason games, showcase tournaments, and five practices per week. Milliken was one of two returning Globe All-Scholastic players who left high school soccer for MLS NEXT, which touts “the best player development experience in North America.”
“The two years at OA, I loved every second of it,” said Milliken, a rising junior. “I really enjoyed high school soccer and it helped me. But for me it was about a new challenge. It was the right time for me to try something new.”
Milliken scored the winning goal with one minute left in last year’s state final win over Hopkinton, saying after “that was the craziest five minutes of my life.”
He knows he’ll miss those moments.
“It’s going to be hard to move on from that,” said Milliken. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong choice. High school soccer is fun. I’m going to miss playing with my friends. But I’m going to keep those memories forever.”
In a perfect world, players would play for their high school teams in the fall and transition to MLS NEXT the following spring. A number of players at private schools are granted a waiver to do so. That’s not the case for MIAA players.
Concord-Carlisle coach Ray Pavlik believes it’s a major flaw in the system. A five-time state champion, Pavlik had one player opt for MLS NEXT because “he felt like he had to” out of fear of losing his club.
“What they’ve created now is a shame,” said Pavlik. “To me it’s the lack of choice that’s problematic. These clubs have taken away from them the choice to have what a lot of kids look back at as the best athletic experience of their lives.”
At NEFC, Christian Battaglia serves as the boys’ director. Battaglia acknowledges the club landscape in the United States has changed drastically since he started coaching 30 years ago. The addition of more MLS NEXT teams follows the model created in Europe and South America, cultivating players who want to compete at the next level.
“MLS NEXT is really competitive and that’s enticing to kids to be in that environment,” said Battaglia. “I think players have that ambition to grow and development and the MLS NEXT pathway gives them that opportunity.”
About 100 more Massachusetts high schoolers are playing MLS NEXT this year compared to last fall.
At Masconomet, which lost one player to MLS NEXT, coach Jared Scarpaci said he is always supportive of a player’s choice. But Scarpaci’s 12 returning seniors have kept the team focused on the task at hand: winning a fourth straight Northeastern Conference title.
“The kids in front of me are the kids I’m going to coach,” said Scarpaci. “At the end of the day, programs that are strong programs are going to survive. Kids still want to be a part of programs that are competitive year in and year out.”
Defending Division 1 state champion St. John’s Prep is in a similar situation. Despite the departure of three underclassmen to MLS NEXT, the Eagles enter the season atop the Globe’s preseason poll after retaining seniors Jake Vana and Graham Kremer.
“We’re fine this season,” said Eagles coach Crowell. “Even though it may be a problem in the future.”
At Oliver Ames, the Tigers were welcomed with encouraging news Monday when Joey Carney returned from MLS NEXT. Carney initially opted for club because of the level of competition and college scouting.
After committing to Bentley in early August, Carney decided the high school soccer experience outweighed what MLS NEXT provided.
“When I chose MLS NEXT, I didn’t realize what I would be missing at my high school,” said Carney. “I feel like high school soccer, especially our team, has more to offer than club. I have a lot of belief in our team.”
MLS NEXT will not be going away anytime soon. In fact, Barata fears clubs may add multiple teams, expanding the number of players who could leave high school soccer. To prevent more from departing, Barata has ideas.
“I think we need to make soccer a preferred sport,” said Barata. “We need the state and the MIAA to promote these kids. We should have our state championship games in big-time stadiums like other sports. If not and MLS NEXT expands, this could be an ever bigger problem.”