Written by Corbett Smith
New academy soccer rule snatches Dallas-area HS teams' top players
When Greg Oglesby’s Southlake Carroll team won the Class 5A boys soccer state title last season, expectations were high that Carroll — despite losing its top scorer to graduation — would contend again this season.
Goalkeeper Oshick Shams, the final’s MVP, would be back, as would a core group of talented seniors. Carroll started this season ranked No. 2 in the nation in the Powerade Fab50, unbeaten in its last 31 games.
The streak, though, didn’t make it through the first weekend of play. Richardson Berkner — a team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season — handed Carroll an early loss.
Like many powerhouse programs around the state, Carroll has been hit hard by a rule change by Texas’ developmental academies.
The nine academy teams in the state, including four in the D/FW area, no longer allow players to participate on the high school level.
As many as 150 of the most talented boys players in the area — including Shams — won’t represent their high schools, something nearly all of them did a year ago.
“The impact is obvious,” Oglesby said. “Losing that many quality players, it’s going to be difficult for it not to affect the quality of play in North Texas.”
While FC Dallas’ academy had established a similar prohibition in 2009, it’s a stark change for the area’s three other elite soccer programs — Solar Chelsea SC, Andromeda FC and the Dallas Texans.
In fact, those programs had set themselves apart from FC Dallas’ elite programs, a major draw being that they did not impose their own high school soccer ban.
Instead, players would have an occasional practice with the academy during the high school season, spending most of their energies training with classmates.
“When we got them, it was like slugging a dead donkey,” Solar Chelsea SC coach Kevin Smith said. “They’d played so much, there wasn’t much left in the tank.”
The directors of academies in the Texas Division, as well as teams in Washington and most of California, made the switch from a five- to 10-month schedule over the summer. The change was made in advance of a United States Soccer Federation edict, which states that by September 2012, all full-time players on the nation’s 78 developmental academy teams will no longer participate in high school athletics.
Smith said that U.S. Soccer was making the switch for a simple reason — to aid in the development of young players in order for the U.S. to be more competitive internationally in men’s soccer.
A unified system, under the auspices of a national governing body, would give elite players more practice time with academy staff, more instruction based on U.S. Soccer criteria, and fewer but more competitive games.
“I think they are making strides in the right direction,” Smith said.
A tough choice
The all-or-nothing choice, though, is a difficult one to make.
“The unfortunate thing is that players who are 14, 15, 16, are having to make career choices,” Flower Mound Marcus coach John Gall said.
A leverage point for the academy system is visibility.
Players dream of getting a major college scholarship, playing professionally or being named to the national team. Those opportunities are rare for players whose exposure is limited to the high school level.
While high school “meant so much” — playing for his friends and his community — Shams said his choice to play for Solar was made for the future.
Collegiate visibility was extremely important, he said.
“I decided that it was the best thing for me. …” Shams said. “At the Disney Showcase, you can have 50 coaches at a game. It’s definitely a whole different level.”
There are 203 Division I soccer programs in the nation, but only two — SMU and Houston Baptist — in Texas. Money for men’s soccer is extremely tight; per NCAA rules, only 9.9 scholarships are available for a 20-plus-player roster.
While the new rule could benefit international soccer in the U.S. in the long run, it’s been tough for the area’s elite prep programs.
Carroll lost four players, including Shams and 7-5A newcomer of the year Alec Petit.
Flower Mound Marcus — which won state titles in 2007 and 2008 — lost five players, as did 2010 5A champ Jesuit.
Keller, one of the top-ranked teams in the area last season, lost 12 players to academies, including four first-team all-region players.
With more academy teams than any other area of the state, the rule could end North Texas’ dominance in the UIL ranks. Since 2007, teams from the Dallas/Fort Worth area have won six of the last 10 boys titles (Classes 5A and 4A).
“In theory, it should bring the upper end of the spectrum and the lower end of the spectrum together a little bit,” Frisco Wakeland coach Rusty Oglesby said.
Understandably, most coaches are disappointed by the change. Yet, several said that after a few years, they expect players to opt out of the academy system with regularity — deciding that the high school experience is too much to pass up.
Ryan Ward, one of Wakeland’s captains who is committed to Air Force for soccer, opted out of the academy scene for his senior season.
“This is a part of American culture. High school sports are very important to kids,” Jesuit coach Charles DeLong said. “And I don’t think that’s going to change for the foreseeable future.”