The high school experience for dozens of the state’s best girls’ soccer players will be without the sport they love most.
Fifty-four players left their high school teams this season to play full-time with the Minnesota Thunder Academy, which competes nationally against top talent in the expanding Elite Clubs National League season. Next year, the number is expected to increase to 72.
The change results from the elite league’s season, which now spans 11 months, overlapping the fall high school season and putting it at odds with the Minnesota State High School League.
The league prohibits athletes in most sports from competing with non-school teams during the season.
That led to the mass exodus of top high school-aged players to the Thunder Academy, seeking a higher level of play and potential college exposure.
Athletes, coaches and parents believe there should be room to play for both high school and club-level teams. But the departures this season have left high school coaches with big holes to fill on their rosters and Thunder Academy-committed players unable to represent their schools this fall.
Armstrong junior Holly Enderle required a list of pros and cons to help choose between high school or ECNL soccer. While she wanted to play high-level soccer for a respected club, traveling with that club would keep her apart from family and friends every other weekend.
One item outweighed everything on the 16-year-old’s list, prompting her to remain at Armstrong.
“I don’t think I was ready to give up the majority of things I enjoy in high school,” Enderle said. “I was definitely honored to have a chance to be a part of the ECNL team. But high school sports have been such a big part of my high school experience.”
ECNL models its approach to the boys’ U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Unlike the boys’ program, which ruled its athletes cannot also play high school soccer, ECNL allows girls to participate on prep teams.
Minnesota Thunder Academy’s ECNL director Danny Storlien said he lost friends over the change implemented this fall. Families and coaches were angry with Storlien, believing it was Storlien’s rule that led to the mass departure of high school standouts.
The Thunder Academy’s website, however, says there are no club or ECNL rules barring players from high school soccer and reminds visitors it’s a MSHSL rule.
Other states around the country are facing similar high school participation problems, but Minnesota’s fall high school season is an exception in the Midwest. Most surrounding states compete in the spring and allow girls to co-participate with club teams.
Exceptions and exemptions
Five Thunder Academy ECNL teams — one for each age 14 to 18 — will play against what are touted as the best 73 youth clubs in the nation. Elite development and increased exposure to college coaches are promised.
But because the extended competition comes into conflict with the state high school league bylaw that prohibits athletes from competing on a non-school team in the same sport during the high school season, many players, parents and coaches said there were numerous heartbroken and tear-filled moments as players decided between high school or the ECNL.
Baseball, softball and skiing are exempt from the bylaw, according to the high school league’s handbook. A sport such as girls’ soccer could seek an exemption for next season, but member schools would need to apply by the yearly deadline of Oct. 15.
If approved, ECNL players could be back on the field by next fall, said Jody Redman, MSHSL associate director who oversees soccer.
MSHSL executive director Dave Stead said he knew there was an elite soccer league, but he and his staff’s concerns are focused on high school soccer.
East Ridge soccer parent JoJo Goulding said she has been in regular contact with the MSHSL regarding the ECNL. Goulding’s daughter Payton gave up her spot on East Ridge’s roster to play for the ECNL U-17 team. But she didn’t realize the choice meant she couldn’t have any contact with the high school soccer program.
Goulding and ECNL teammate Taylor Turner wanted to stay close to East Ridge as managers but were told it was against high school league rules. JoJo Goulding wanted her daughter to be a part of spaghetti dinners and other team activities. The mother fought the high school league through phone calls and e-mails and eventually the girls were allowed to manage, she said.
East Ridge coach Mark Abboud is happy to have Goulding and Turner with the team, saying it helps maintain chemistry while allowing the girls to stay a part of the team.
Abboud, whose team is arguably the most affected by the change, lost five athletes to the ECNL. It would have been seven had the Thunder Academy included a U-18 team in ECNL’s first full season. Storlien and ECNL seniors determined it would be best for that age group to finish their high school careers. A U-18 team will be fielded next year.
Room for compromise?
The new era of ECNL soccer is bittersweet for Abboud. He helped create the Thunder Academy in 2008 and is proud to see it become one of the top developmental academies in the Midwest. As a high school coach, however, he’s 7-4 this season and without several of the state’s top performers.
Abboud said without many top players, the level of play in the Suburban East Conference is not what it’s been over the past several years.
“I sat on both sides of that equation,” Abboud said. “I feel bad the kids have been put in this situation. But life is about choices, and I’m glad there is a choice and opportunity for the players that have that desire.”
East Ridge senior captains Kari Solheim and Jaden Vogelgesang were among the benefactors of the academy’s decision to forgo a U-18 team this season. Solheim said playing high school soccer is a routine, and she’s glad she didn’t have to choose.
Orono sophomore Jessica Woessner was part of ECNL teams for two years but didn’t make the final cut this season. She now calls it a blessing in disguise. Woessner said high school soccer has provided friendships and opportunities she likely wouldn’t have experienced through the ECNL.
However, the appeal of what the elite league can do for Woessner’s skills has her eager for next year’s tryout.
“I think everything [about high school soccer] makes me want to come back. There I nothing I don’t like about it. But,” Woessner said, pausing for a moment, “more people get to see you play. It’s the best players in the nation and the best players in the state.”
Storlien, who is also the Bloomington Jefferson boys’ soccer coach, said only three of the 54 girls who previously committed to the Thunder Academy’s ECNL teams picked high school soccer over the club.
Orono coach Erin Murray lost two players, including arguably the state’s top player in Sophie Babo. Murray said the topic is often discussed at coaches association meetings and that coaches are mad. The Spartans are 12-1-1 entering the final week of the regular season.
“This isn’t an easy decision for anybody. And it’s something the girls shouldn’t have to make,” Murray said. “Everyone wishes there would be a compromise and they could do both.”