Andrew Carleton should have been studying for a chemistry exam or deciding who to ask to his junior prom.
Instead, Carleton, who was 16 when he joined the Charleston Battery in the fall of 2016, was playing professional soccer against grown men, some twice his age.
But that was all part of the plan. From a very early age, Carleton knew he wanted to be a professional soccer player. His laser focus, work ethic and nifty footwork made him one of the nation’s top young players.
Carleton was good enough to earn a spot on every U.S. national youth team from the age of 14. He attended Hillgrove High School in metro Atlanta, a traditional prep soccer power in Georgia, but the thought of playing for his high school team never entered his mind.
“The talent level in high school just isn’t very good,” Carleton said.
Even the idea of playing in college was never given serious consideration.
“My plan from the beginning was to play professionally,” he said.
So Carleton took a route unusual in the U.S., but the norm in other parts of the world. In Europe, Canada, and Central and South America, the notion of playing for your local high school or even a university is, well, foreign. The United States is one of the few countries in the world where athletes play for their respective schools with the hope of earning college scholarships or even professional contracts.
While American prep sports are as popular as they’ve ever been — high school sports participation has increased for 29 straight years — taking part in high school athletics might not be the best way to develop prospects for the professional ranks.
In the rest of the world, especially in the sport of soccer, the development of elite athletes begins at an early age and has almost always fallen to local and national professional clubs.
That’s the path that Carleton took. The summer before his junior year, he became the first “homegrown” player to sign with Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC.
Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, picked up Carleton at his Powder Springs, Ga., home in a Mercedes-Benz luxury van for the signing ceremony at The Varsity – Atlanta’s famed downtown greasy spoon.
Is it time for the U.S. to adopt a system similar to the European model where professional clubs identify and develop athletes, and keep the educational system separate?
“I tell people all the time that if the rest of the world played our homegrown sports like baseball, basketball and football like they play soccer, the United States wouldn’t be good at any of them,” said former Charleston Battery forward Paul Conway, who played soccer professionally in England. “If the rest of the world had the money and resources to put into football and train the way we do, they would force us to change our habits.”
The ‘beautiful game’
The U.S. likes to think it has the best athletes and the top professional leagues on the planet. Certainly, the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and even the NHL are the envy of the rest of the world.
Soccer, on the other hand, is dominated by Germany, France, Spain, England and Brazil. Those nations pour millions of dollars and resources into the sport, and it shows on the world stage. What all those countries have in common is a professional club system that identifies talent at an early age and then trains that talent and develops it into some of the world’s top players.
Charleston Battery midfielder Gordon Wild is a product of that system.
Wild grew up near Stuttgart, Germany, and as a 10-year-old started to show a prowess for scoring goals. Wild played for his local team in Leonberg until a scout from Mainz – a club in Germany’s top professional league, the Bundesliga – lured him away.
At the age of 15, he moved 90 miles from his family and friends and joined the Mainz youth academy. He lived in a big house with his teammates where his days were regimented between training and schoolwork.
“We’d get up early in the morning to train for a couple of hours, then we went to school,” Wild said. “In the afternoon, we’d be back on the training field or in the gym to work out. Then dinner, studies and go to bed.”
Some of the top players were paid by the club to play for the academy, but most players like Wild received free room and board and access to a local school for their education.
“It was such a professional environment,” Wild said. “You are basically a professional athlete when you are 14, 15 years old. That’s the way they treat you and that’s what they expect from you.”
When Jürgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. national soccer team, he tried to implement a similar academy system to help jump start the American youth program. Nicco Rittmeyer, a former College of Charleston player, spent one season with his high school team before joining the Battery’s club team and the U.S. Soccer Academy.
“The academy system just makes more sense because high school soccer is so bad and the academy emphasizes training year-round,” said Rittmeyer, who is in his second season with the Battery.
For a player like Conway, whose father Jimmy Conway played professionally in Europe and for the Irish national team, the decision to play high school and then collegiately instead of going to an academy overseas wasn’t easy.
“It’s hard to tell a parent or a kid not to pursue an opportunity to get a free education,” said Conway, who was born in Portland, Oregon. “I was lucky in that I was able to see both sides. I knew I was going to play professionally one day, but it’s a calculated risk.”
Even after signing with Hartwick College (Oneonta, N.Y.), Conway had opportunities to train in England with professional teams. When he went to Europe, he realized how far behind he was in his development compared to his English teammates.
“I’d been an All-American in college and I thought I was pretty good,” Conway said. “When I trained with those guys, I realized they were miles ahead of me because of how they’d been training as opposed to what I’d been doing the last four years.”
If the ultimate goal is to develop top professional players, then the European model is second to none.
“It’s the best system,” said Wild, who attended Central Florida University. “You get the best out of the talent that you have in the country. There’s no question the German system works better than what they do in America, because you can focus much more on your development as a player.”
That was the path Christian Pulisic took. The American prodigy left Hershey, Pennsylvania, when he was still a teenager to play for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and is now considered the top American player competing worldwide.
But can a European model work in the U.S.? There are plenty of skeptics.
“Maybe in soccer, but I don’t know if it would work in other sports because the culture isn’t there like it is in soccer,” Rittmeyer said. “The main reason a lot of parents have their kids playing for the club and travel teams is because they want to get a college scholarship out of it. That’s the end game. There would be no college scholarships if our system was like it is in Europe.”
Soccer isn’t the only sport in which club teams dominate the sport at the youth level. Hockey, especially at the Canadian major junior level, has a similar system to the European model.
The top youth players in Canada don’t play for their high schools. Instead, they dream of playing for one of the three Canadian Hockey Leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“The high schools are more like intramural programs,” said former South Carolina Stingrays captain and head coach Cail MacLean, who grew up in Middleton, Nova Scotia.
When MacLean was 15, he was good enough to sign with the Ottawa Junior Senators with his sights set on playing for an American college in three years. By playing with the Senators, in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, he was still eligible to play collegiately in the U.S.
Athletes who play in any of three CHL leagues are not eligible to play U.S. college hockey because they are considered professionals. Players in the the OHL, WHL or the QMJHL are not paid a salary, but do receive a stipend for living expenses ranging between $450 to $900 a month.
While playing for the Senators, MacLean was drafted by the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. He went to training camp still thinking he’d eventually end up at an American college. As the preseason camp came to an end, MacLean realized he could play with the best Canadian players his age.
“To be able to play in the OHL was a huge deal,” MacLean said. “It’s like playing football for South Carolina or Clemson if you grew up in the state, so it was hard to pass up. It was a big stage, and you knew this is where the NHL was grabbing a lot of players.”
Forty-eight percent of the players taken in the last five NHL drafts played major junior hockey in Canada, and Canadians make up 45 percent of the league. Sweden, with a population of just 9 million, produces the third-highest percentage of NHL players at 10 percent. The Swedish club hockey system is identical to the rest of Europe’s soccer programs.
“I remember going to a coaches’ convention and we had a Swedish coach/manager come talk to us about their system and a lot of us were shocked at how they operated,” said former Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery. “They get these 12-year-old kids that start in their academies and start developing them.
"They get an education through the club that’s affiliated with a local school. But they are there to play hockey. They grow up in their club system and by the time they are 16, 17, they are playing for the top club teams in Sweden or coming over to play major juniors in Canada. The training is intense. It’s year-round, and you can’t argue with the results. They have some of the best players in the world.”
Carbery spent one season as the head coach of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. He said Canadians and Americans have different attitudes regarding education.
“There’s not the same emphasis about going to college in Canada as it is in the United States,” Carbery said. “The vast majority of parents in the U.S. want their kids to go to college, while in Canada, it’s important but not like it is in the U.S.
"Most of the travel teams or club teams are geared toward the idea of getting a college scholarship. It’s like if you grow up in Michigan, you want to go to the University of Michigan and be a Wolverine. There’s nothing like that in Canada.”
MacLean (Stockton) and Carbery (Hershey) are both head coaches in the American Hockey League, which is the minor league for the NHL. Most players in the AHL are draft picks of their parent clubs. It’s the job of MacLean and Carbery to develop the players for the NHL.
While both agree that a European model would probably be the most cost-effective way to develop professional athletes, neither is sure it would work in the U.S.
“I think if your goal is to develop players for the NHL, then the academy system, the club system is the way to go,” Carbery said. “You identify talent early and then develop it. So, if you’re an NHL general manager, that kind of system makes the most sense. But in North America, in the United States, I don’t think it’ll work because the athlete has all the power here. They dictate when and where they will play. In most of the rest of the world, the clubs have all the power and the kids and parents just trust that the system is going to work.”
Baseball and buscones
Major League Baseball has had a minor league system in place for almost a century. Branch Rickey (St. Louis Cardinals) became the first general manager to start a farm system in 1921. Just about every player that makes it to the big leagues nowadays spends at least a limited amount of time in the minors.
As clubs began to see the benefits of the farm system, they expanded the model outside of the U.S., especially in Central and South America. In 1980, just 1 percent of players in the big leagues came from outside the U.S. When the current season opened this past April, 30 percent of the league was made up of foreign-born players, the most coming from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
As a result, all 30 major league teams now have an “academy” in the Dominican Republic. The academies include dormitories for players and feature playing fields, weight rooms, training facilities, clubhouses and classrooms for participating players. The clubs have poured millions of dollars to attract the area’s top players.
Street agents, or buscones, as they are referred to in the Dominican Republic, begin to recruit kids as young as 12 to “sell” them to the academies. While the clubs offer an education as part of the program, the idea of having high schools operating as developmental athletic institutions is nonexistent. The buscones will train, feed and house the young players in return for a share of their signing bonus if they are picked up by a major league team.
“If they sign, the buscone gets a percentage, something like 40 pecent of the signing bonus,” said former Charleston RiverDogs manager Greg Colbrunn, who served as a hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox.
Most of the kids come from poor backgrounds and receive signing bonuses of between $5,000 and $10,000 to attend the academies. From a business standpoint, the system is a cost-effective way to develop talent.
“The international kids can sign when they are 16,” said Torre Tyson, a former Charleston RiverDogs manager who worked in the New York Yankees organization for nearly a decade. “They live, eat and breathe baseball. I think it gives the kids in those countries the most exposure and the best chance of developing and playing professionally.”
Tyson isn’t sure an academy system would work in the U.S.
“I don’t think that Major League Baseball has enough money to have an academy system because it would just be too expensive here,” Tyson said. “Kids are not going to give everything up for $5,000 or $10,000. It’s just not enough money. The academies in the Dominican Republic are casting a huge net, hoping that one out of a thousand will turn out to be Mariano Rivera or a guy that eventually plays in the big leagues.”
IMG Academy, based in Bradenton, Florida, and other schools around the country that specialize in athletic-specific educations are becoming more popular. But even those institutions have their drawbacks.
“The problem is that the kids that go to these academies are who they are when they get drafted,” Tyson said. “As a scout, you look at the kids that have been at these academies and wonder how much better are they going to get? They are already a finished product when they’re 18 years old. It’s almost a negative.”
Tyson played collegiately at Missouri before signing as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox and spending four seasons in the minor leagues. Colbrunn, who had a scholarship offer from Stanford, played more than a decade in the big leagues, winning a World Series title in Arizona after signing with the Montreal Expos out of high school.
“The emotional investment I had playing for my high school and college teams was so much more than I had playing in the Yankees organization,” Tyson said. “That sounds terrible, but it’s a team and school pride that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Tyson’s son, Tagger, is 13 and plays for Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant. Tyson struggles with the options of playing travel baseball as opposed to playing for the local middle school.
“Tagger loves to play for Moultrie, loves wearing the jersey to school. And for me, I think these kids that play travel ball are missing out,” Tyson said. “I think kids that go to these academies are missing out on a big part of their childhood.”
But are the kids who don't attend academies reducing their chances of becoming professional athletes?
The debate goes on.