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Athletes, parents and coaches must face soccer realities

High school soccer teams are losing their best players, who in turn are missing once-in-a-lifetime experiences due to delusions of rare college scholarships and elusive lucrative professional careers. Soccer has changed recently. The soccer community must educate itself, get real and work with professional soccer organizations to make critical changes.

After 25 years’ experience coaching elite soccer teams at the Shore — the last six as a volunteer assistant with memorable championship Holmdel High School teams — I am well known to the soccer community. A freshman walk-on and three-year starter at Villanova University, I was awarded a scholarship my senior year. I have coached my three children and am still an active player in men’s leagues.

My love of the game compels me to address the increasingly detrimental situation caused by the rise of soccer “academies.” According to U.S. Soccer, to maintain a training focus, academy teams do not play in other leagues. That includes high school, where taking top players away can have a dramatic negative effect on the team as well as the individual. In many instances, top-tier players are no longer in the high school game, being sold false hope that the money their parents are spending on high-priced trainers, coaches and fees is giving them a perceived edge.

There is very little money in soccer, limited scholarships are in high demand and few professional careers actually exist. Salaries for Major League Soccer professionals start at about $55,000 per year. By contrast, the starting salary in the National Basketball Association is over $1 million. Currently, only 150 Americans are playing overseas — a figure that includes foreign-born players. It’s fine to dream, but players and their families should examine the facts and what they are sacrificing before discounting the high school experience. Parents especially are being terribly misled.

The many college coaches I’m in contact with look at high school and club teams as well as academy players. High school soccer programs could be improved. The U.S. Soccer Federation should work with high school soccer to amend the system, make rules more uniform and work together as a cohesive family. Soccer is now the world’s biggest non-volunteer sport; we’ve lost some sense of volunteerism. By serving as the assistant coach for the Holmdel boys’ soccer team, I had a rare opportunity to revisit and share the emotions of youth coming together as a unit to share in a common goal. On the edge of innocence, leaders evolve. Winning and losing can bring young men to tears, forming unbreakable lifelong bonds.

In Holmdel and throughout the United States, thousands are being robbed of this because of the philosophical belief professed by the U.S. Soccer Federation — in order to better prepare for the national program, our best players in academies would be better off if they skipped high school and played with their club 10-11 months a year with professional, paid coaches to enhance their skills. What are we training for? What is the goal? Is the theory that academies are the road to scholarships and professional careers being used as a marketing tool?

Please consider the following facts:

  • If you are great at soccer, colleges will find you. If you are truly a Division 1 prospect in today’s world, you will not be kept a secret.
  • Parents of academy players often cite superior training. While I believe that you can make a good player better and inspire confidence, a coach or trainer does not make you better — you do! Eat right, run, lift, exercise, juggle, shoot and play the game — the best teacher.
  • There are about 200 Division 1 soccer programs in the United States. Many full scholarships are given to international players. Calculations show that nationally, there are over 1,600 kids vying for less than 500 scholarships nationwide.
  • Academies’ “huge roster” game plan results in 20-26 kids suited up with generally only 16 playing. Top high school players are choosing to watch? Are we training players or fans? Are parents buying this?
  • We are hurting the quality of the high school experience for the kids that do play. If you remove the best kids from any high school program the quality dramatically falls and it hurts the game. This does not help a sport desperate to build a fan base.
  • Despite World Cup excitement generated every four years, soccer is still striving to be a mainstream U.S. sport. Many positive movements in youth soccer are making sense for the future — having the same rules, field size and concept of play. The academy concept purports that well-trained kids would help America in international play, but the academy infrastructure is flawed to compete at an international level. Although the academy system has a free component, it is still designed to cater mostly to the well-to-do suburban player. To beat the world’s best, you need the hungriest, the grittiest and the best-trained — you cannot win without all three.

America should pave its own way in building a soccer powerhouse through innovation. Ask professional athletes about playing for their high school and college. Many will cite the greatest wins and celebrations of their lives. If U.S. Soccer believes the best 100 players, at age 15, should go to school, fund four regional schools for those players. Owning a kid’s life by having him commit 30 hours a week or more, only to tell him he can’t represent his community and school, in my opinion, is tantamount to child abuse.

The growing academy trend will have parents, players and high school coaches facing challenges in the coming years. I have had many conversations with young men who regretted not playing high school soccer. Why are we asking so many players to sacrifice their high school years? What are we gaining as a soccer nation? We are creating friction between friends and students. We are robbing too many kids of being stars and heroes in their high school.

The vast majority of soccer players who will not grace the international stage should not miss the camaraderie, social experiences, playing time and lasting lifetime memories of high school sports.

Eric J. Hinds

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