Minnesota United FC’s move toward a youth soccer academy system is generating both excitement and criticism from local high school coaches.
Some are enthused about having a development system, expected to come online next year, directly tied to Minnesota’s first Major League Soccer team. Providing more youth players better coaching and resources makes for a better player pool, they said, and not all players wind up on the academy’s elite teams. Some likely will head back to their high school teams.
“It’s important to get as many people behind it as possible, to make people excited to have an opportunity to play in that academy vs. having people say, ‘They stole our best players,’ ” Prior Lake coach Mike Shebuski said.
Others remain philosophically opposed to academy soccer in any form, particularly after seeing a player exodus the past five seasons for the Minnesota Thunder Academy. Not all of those who left got to play and develop. Many never earned the college scholarship they believed would be more likely attainable.
United, which begins MLS play next season, is required by the league to establish a youth program that will give talented players with professional aspirations the best opportunity to pursue their dreams, stay close to home and continue their education.
Blaine coach Berry Arrowsmith knows two families, one from Blaine and one from St. Francis, that recently moved to the Kansas City area to put their 12-year-old sons in Sporting Kansas City’s academy system.
All but one MLS club funds its youth academy, including travel and uniforms, 100 percent. Individual clubs, not the MLS, provide funding. The league’s 20 clubs collectively spend about $40 million annually on youth academies and player development. And few have recouped 100 percent of their investments.
Minnesota United FC announced the hiring of Tim Carter last week as academy system director but gave few details on what happens next. Manny Lagos, the club’s sporting director, said this week: “All we’ve done is hire an academy director. For us to be successful, we need to engage the community, which includes high school coaches. I look at the high school landscape in a fond way.”
Lagos excelled on the high school pitch playing at St. Paul Academy in the late 1980s. These days, top prep players face more options and tough decisions. Two entities, Minnesota Thunder Academy and Shattuck-St. Mary’s, possess development academy accreditation with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Minnesota United seeks to be the third. Development academy players are prohibited from outside participation.
So while girls’ soccer players in the Elite Clubs National League were able to play high school soccer before the academy season, boys’ players must choose. The situation is similar in hockey, where playing a full U.S. Hockey League season prohibits players from skating for their high school as well.
This fall marked the fifth season where 50 to 60 boys on the Minnesota Thunder Academy roster had chosen more games against tougher competition over playing high school soccer.
Eden Prairie’s Vince Thomas considers youth academies “ludicrous” for luring players from their high school environment by dangling a college scholarship or professional opportunity that cannot be guaranteed.
“It’s egos run amok, the thought that, ‘This is the only way we can do this,’ ” Thomas said.
Since the inception of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2007, 19 academy alumni have earned Men’s National Team Call-Ups and 1,250 Academy players earned Youth National Team call-ups. More than 160 academy alumni have played in Major League Soccer, with approximately another 50 at professional environments overseas, according to information on the U.S. Soccer Development Academy website.
“I do hope they are honest and up front with players that the academy route offers no guarantees,” St. Paul Como Park coach Jonah Fields wrote in an e-mail.
Other high school coaches expressed optimism about United’s academy system joining the landscape. Rogers coach Aaron Lindquist wrote in an e-mail he considers another development academy as: “Good for the state. Good for soccer. Good for our kids. The more educated coaches we have around our players at younger ages the better all of our players will become.”
Wayzata coach Dominic Duenas believes those players who ultimately choose academy leave more opportunities for others to gain a varsity spot.
“Academy soccer has plenty to offer players,” Duenas wrote in an e-mail. “However, high school soccer has plenty to offer players as well. The sense of pride that high school players have playing for their school, with their friends, under the lights in stadiums ... is pretty special.”