From his spot at the net, junior goalie Sam Ruelas takes in all that high school soccer has become for No. 1-ranked Eastview High School.

Ruelas, one of the top players in the state, sees the "goon squad" -- a mass of students dressed in colorful morph suits -- is in place. He hears cheers from the excited crowd slicing through the Minnesota air.

But for Ruelas and three other highly talented Eastview teammates -- two juniors and a sophomore -- this probably will be their last run at a high school soccer state championship.

Those four also play for the Minnesota Thunder Academy soccer club which, starting in 2012, most likely will adopt a 10-month training program that is gaining steam in high-level clubs nationally. The switch, which would affect about 50 elite boys' players in the state but does not apply to girls' soccer, would prevent them from also participating for their high school teams.

"I'll miss it," Ruelas said. "In the academy we are more serious. ... It's fun, but it's a lot harder to have that same emotional atmosphere."

The push to more intensively train the state's best high school players is coming from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), which is sending the message that it is getting more serious about soccer.

The federation, which hopes to close the competitive gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world, threw its weight behind a growing transition to the 10-month season for the country's best players.

Emphasizing more training and fewer games almost surely will help produce better-prepared players for successful college, pro and national teams. Minnesota already has one U.S. development academy team for boys using the 10-month model at Shattuck-St. Mary's, a private boarding school in Faribault where top club soccer play and the high school experience go hand-in-hand.

But some say requiring players at schools such as Eastview to leave their teams while still remaining students could cheapen their high school experience and create "social trauma." It also could exacerbate the financial divide between talented players who can afford the pricier academy-style training from those who cannot.

"America has made massive strides," said Ian Barker, who ran the youth Olympic Development Program for 10 years, currently coaches at Macalester College and is a national instructor for the USSF. "But I do think there are some hidden costs which I think directly relate to the culture and socialization of a kid in a high school setting."

An eye-opener

Ruelas -- who was a reserve with the Thunder Academy last season -- saw his first academy game a year ago in a match at Shattuck.

"I was shocked," he said. "The intensity level was much higher, it was a lot more competitive. I just said 'Wow.' It was an incredible feeling."

The Thunder Academy is one of 78 clubs in the U.S. development academy league, which was formed four years ago and represents the nation's highest level of youth play. These elite clubs, which are continually evaluated for league membership, use international rules of competition and are expected to offer "superior" coaching and training environments.

The Thunder applied twice before getting accepted on the third try a year ago. U.S. soccer's youth scouting director, Tony LePore, said that while academies will not be forced to adopt the 10-month program, his belief is if they don't, they will eventually "fall behind."

"It's the best league in the country for players, for coaches, for everybody around,'' said Rob Zahl, the boys' elite academy director for the Thunder. "So if that's something we have to do -- a 10-month program -- we're going to do it."

Though saddened to leave high school soccer behind, the choice is simple for most.

"I do like high school, but the thought never entered my mind that I should choose high school over the academy system," said Sam Forsgren, a sophomore at St. Paul Academy High School, who will play in MTA for the first time this fall. "Everybody I know just dies to play in the academy."

Minneapolis South soccer star Elliot Cassutt said that he loves the social aspect of playing high school soccer. But as a player, he is somewhat relieved to stop worrying about negative effects of overly aggressive defending.

Academy play tends to be less physical and more precise. Players have a strict game-to-training ratio, which means about one game per week instead of the high school average of three. For Treston Kederer, who dreams of playing in the English Premier League, the program makes a lot of sense.

"It's more about maturing a player," said the Eastview sophomore, whose father grew up in Germany, where soccer is played in clubs rather than schools. "It's kind of just more commitment and showing that you want it."

U.S. players such as Landon Donovan, who attended a soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and MLS's Teal Bunbury, a Prior Lake native who attended Shattuck-St. Mary's and now plays for Sporting Kansas City, have prospered in the 10-month system. But those players have been too few and far between to boost the No. 31-ranked United States' world standing.

"We [in the U.S.] have to develop soccer players better," said Toby Kederer, Treston's father. "And I think this [10-month schedule] is one huge step in the right direction."

High school value

Eastview coach Scott Gustafson sees the biggest value of high school soccer when he walks the halls and hears students calling out to congratulate his players.

"There's something about playing for your high school that you don't get in a club setting," Gustafson said. "There's that passion, and you have a whole student body behind you. ... When you get 2,000 kids behind you at the state tournament, it's a pretty special thing."

Youssef Darbaki, coach of Class 1A, No. 1-ranked Prairie Seeds Academy, already has decided that his twin boys -- who would otherwise play for the Thunder Academy -- will not leave their high school team next year. Darbaki values the experience kids get playing for their schools. He's also convinced that the departure of top high schoolers will "water down the high school soccer level, for sure," he said.

While other high school players would benefit from more playing time, overall quality would go down in a field stripped of its best players.

"Some of the little intangible things will be missed just as much as their on-field performance -- being that role model," Gustafson said. "That's something we'll miss at Eastview. And that's besides the fact that our roster will be in shambles."

Haves and have-nots

Ruelas knows he was lucky. The Thunder Academy has an average annual cost of $3,000 for one child's membership. Travel can add up to $2,000 more. If the academy adopts the 10-month program, those numbers likely will go up. Without a scholarship, the academy would be unaffordable for Ruelas and others.

Prairie Seeds senior Eric Gaye went to the academy two years ago, but he sat out last season after being denied aid.

"We play soccer and we are very good at soccer," Gaye said, "but we cannot afford the things that other kids can afford."

Gaye said he he understands aid money is scarce, and he knew his high school team would be competitive. But next year, it could be a different story for kids who get shut out.

Barker said the pay-to-play system is a major problem for U.S. soccer. While some academies are fully financed by MLS affiliates, others get funded by private entities that take a share of any graduates' pro contracts. Others bear the names of European teams that have chipped in with funding help. But many are still requiring lofty payments from the kids.

Regardless of how funding concerns are addressed, many project several adjustment years that could be painful socially. Heritage Christian Academy coach Chris Laird finds it unhealthy for these academies to label kids "elite." Gustafson sees envy and frustration from lesser-skilled players who either wish they could go or who are seeing their high school championship dreams dashed.

"In high school sports, you've got the traditional Friday night lights thing and people want to see the best athlete in the school participate for the school," Barker said. "And their friends expect that as well. And now, I turn around to my friends who I've played with for three years and I say, 'You're not good enough for me anymore, I'm going to play over there, but I'm still going to sit next to you in class.'"

Ruelas wonders if teammates will want to come back to Eastview next year, with their future altered by top player departures. But he's thankful for opportunities he's had and will try not to look back.

"It's going to be like a job, and it's not going to be an easy one," he said. "You're fighting for your spot on the U.S. development academy team. You want to get better and you want to make it to the next level and they're all going to be there, fighting for the same thing."

Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115