Lost in a sea of fans, Eastview senior Matthew Gweh watched Monday's Class 2A boys' soccer semifinal with a unique perspective. Even as he jumped and clapped to each of the Lightning's three goals, his mind analyzed every touch of the ball.
A year ago, Gweh wore an Eastview uniform, igniting the crowd in cheers. Now, arguably the Twin Cities' best teenage soccer player, he watches high school matches from the stands.
Gweh is one of 45 of the state's elite high school-aged players who traded representing their school for a chance to polish their skills playing for a soccer academy.
The absence of such a whopping number of elite players across the metro landscape has players sensing a noticeable drop in the caliber of play and left coaches scrambling to find replacements for more than only graduated seniors.
"This is the culture shock year," said Rob Zahl, Minnesota Thunder boys' elite academy director.
Eden Prairie and Eastview took the biggest hit. The defending Class 2A champion Eagles lost six players. The state runner-up Lightning lost four.
"Any time you go into the season and you lose four starters, four really quality players on top of that, and a very talented senior class, you have a lot of holes that you need to look for people to fill," Eastview coach Scott Gustafson said. Fifteen members of his 18-player varsity roster are new this season.
Like Gustafson, Eden Prairie coach Vince Thomas had to dig deep into his depth chart. Individuals who would have likely spent another season on junior varsity, or not made the team, found their way onto varsity rosters.
But the exodus has benefited players such as Samir Hashi, Eden Prairie's second-leading scorer, and Eastview starters Kyle Lamott, Andrew Tuthill and Jack Teske.
"What we lost was depth," Thomas said. "We had to move kids around to deal with that. Now, an injury or two would be devastating.
"The concern is that somebody else leaves. I hate to think that someone that can play at a high level is gone. It's like a farm system."
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Longing to increase the state's soccer talent pool, the Minnesota Thunder club welcomed the designation as a U.S. Developmental Academy this past fall. But advancing the United States Soccer Federation's goal of developing the nation's best talent came at a price to Minnesota high school soccer.
The Thunder's new USSF affiliation does not allow outside participation by its players. That meant that the state's best players had to choose between high school or academy soccer.
Justin Oliver of North St. Paul considered making the jump to the academy. The Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year said it's sad because high school athletes no longer get the best competition.
Eden Prairie's 2011 all-tournament forward Natalio Blanche made the jump to academy soccer. He says he's noticed residual effects.
"The level has dropped a lot," said Blanche, who stayed with his school players as a team manager. "I've heard [from coaches, from old teammates] that high school is not the same as last year."
Watching Monday's semifinal game featuring his old team and Stillwater, Gweh felt the same way.
"We've all seen it," Gweh said about a drop in the level of play. "I personally don't like the idea to take away high school. I would play both."
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Two days before the Minneapolis South boys' soccer team's first practice, Elliot Cassutt lay awake into the wee hours of the morning considering the ramifications of not returning for his senior year.
The soccer standout had committed to the Thunder Academy. But as the high school season approached, he thought he would be turning his back on the school and giving up a chance to play with friends in his senior year.
"In the back of my mind was the thought, if I don't come back and play high school, I could end up regretting it," Cassutt said. "So it kind of nagged away ... until I was like ... in the long run I'd be much happier if I decided to go back to play with my high school."
He decided at 6 a.m. and sent a text message to South coach Tamba Johson. Johnson had already moved on preparing for the season without Cassutt, leading him to believe the text message was a prank.
He was thankful it wasn't. The two-time All-Metro player contributed 80 percent of the Tigers' scoring this season, including a 10-goal game that set a state record, in their run to state.
Cassutt had moments, though, when he second-guessed his choice. High school games didn't match the caliber of academy soccer. Practices lacked the high intensity he longed for and many opponents didn't challenge him.
"He had 10 game-winners," Johnson said. "With him we were a team that had a chance to win the state tournament. Without him I don't think we have a chance to win conference, let alone section and state."
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Eastview's appearance in Thursday's state championship final against Blaine is a success for the high schools and the academy, both sides agree.
Gustafson and his players defied the expectation that losing several standouts would ruin a team. The Thunder Academy has given those elite players a chance to play against the country's top talent.
"Initially [high school play] took a hit, but it's going to help the high school league, because kids are going to rise to the occasion," Zahl said. "It's a benefit to maybe the kids waiting in the wings."
Said Gustafson: "There is a lot more parity in the league. It's an equalizer that is taking place out there."