A rising senior at Wando High School, Christian Jablonski is one of the best soccer players in the state. He’s verbally committed to College of Charleston and plays for the elite S.C. United Battery Development Academy team.
Wando is one of the top high school programs in the state, with a Class AAAA state title in 2011 and a runner-up finish this year. The Development Academy squad is one of 78 in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s system, an attempt to produce world-class American players.
For the past three years, Jablonski has been able to play for both teams. He represented Wando during the three-month high school season while honing his skills for much of the rest of the year with the Development Academy squad.
But starting this summer, Jablonski and other top players in the Lowcountry and across the nation will have to make a choice. A new policy handed down by U.S. Soccer will make the Development Academy a nearly year-round commitment, rendering it impossible for its athletes to also play for their high schools.
Jablonski has already decided to give up his senior season at Wando in order to commit to the Development Academy’s 10-month schedule of training and matches. It’s a decision he did not reach easily.
“What hurts the most is knowing that I won’t be able to have a senior season at Wando,” Jablonski said. “It’s hard to give that up. It’s a tough decision for anybody to have to make, but especially for high school kids, to stick with a high-level academy team or represent your school.”
It’s a decision that many in the youth soccer community feel high school players should not have to make. The move by U.S. Soccer — believed to be the first time a major team sport’s national organization has attempted to prevent some of its members from playing for high school teams — has sparked debate among parents and coaches, and on Internet message boards.
It would be akin to AAU basketball programs telling players not to play for their high school teams, said Kevin Heise, veteran coach at Brookland-Cayce High School and associate chairman of the S.C. High School Soccer Coaches Association.
“Right now, our leaders in youth soccer believe this is the way to go,” said Heise. “And they’ve strong-armed a lot of our states into buying into it. As a result, we might have a generation of guys who won’t have the chance to play high school soccer.”
To put the issue in perspective, there are about 400,000 boys playing high school soccer in the U.S. The 78 Development Academy teams in the U.S. Soccer system include about 4,000 players. That means the new policy impacts only one percent of boys high school soccer players.
But it’s the top one percent, and Heise said the loss of even one Development Academy player can have a huge impact on a high school team.
Some schools, such as Wando, stand to lose much more. The Warriors have at least 13 players on S.C. United’s 2012-13 roster. Other schools represented on S.C. United’s roster include James Island Charter and Bishop England, as well as Columbia-area schools Cardinal Newman, Dreher, Blythewood and Dutch Fork.
“It’s unfortunate that kids are having to make a choice between playing high school and for the academy,” said Wando coach Shilo Tisdale, who maintains that U.S. Soccer is forcing thousands of players to give up high school soccer to produce a few world-class players at the other end of the system.
Heise and Tisdale point out that while Development Academy clubs affiliated with some Major League Soccer teams are fully funded, players — or more precisely, their parents — must pay to play for others, such as S.C. United.
“If it is completely free, like in MLS cities, and they are truly taking the best players in the state, I have no problem with it,” said Heise, who also coaches club soccer. “But some kids pay up to $4,000 a year to play academy soccer and are giving up four years of high school soccer.
“You have politics at work, and issues with kids who cannot pay to play. Are we truly identifying the best 18 players?”
Parents, such as Christian Jablonski’s father Richard, have seen their sons benefit from both Development Academy training, and the social and leadership skills and recognition gained in high school soccer.
“In my perfect world, the kids would be able to make one of three choices,” Richard Jablonski said. “Play for their high school or the academy, or be allowed to do both, as has been the case in previous years.
“I truly wish the adults could arrive at an accommodation that would allow the kids to do both, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Kids face divided loyalties between programs and coaches they love and respect. It’s an unfair burden to place on kids, the vast majority of whom will never play a minute for the U.S. national team.”
U.S. Soccer officials argue that expanding the Development Academy system, which began in 2007, will move America closer to the youth soccer models in the rest of the world. Even under the new system, Development Academy teams will train from 200 to 260 hours per season, compared with close to 600 hours in some European countries.
“They are trying to improve the level for the elite player, that’s the goal,” said Clark Brisson, executive director of S.C. United Battery Academy. “Whether we agree on how they are going about it or not, it doesn’t really matter at this point. Culturally, I understand playing high school soccer. I enjoyed high school soccer in my career and grew up with it. It’s just something that we’ll have to see whether it works out or not.”
Brisson emphasized that S.C. United Battery Academy had “zero input” in the U.S. Soccer decision, and that the Battery Academy asked for a waiver so that its players could play for their high schools next spring. The waiver was denied, he said.
“I support all soccer,” he said. “I don’t see why the two can’t co-exist. But that’s for higher-ups to make that decision.”
The level of training at the Development Academy is difficult to replicate in high school, Heise and Tisdale admit. Christian Jablonski said that’s why he chose the academy over Wando.
“With our academy, I get a chance to be in a very professional and elite environment every day, and that’s what I love,” he said.
“I want to be in that environment all the time. I think Wando is an exception in that we have a good core of Academy guys. But some high schools don’t have that.”
Forcing a European model on scholastic sports in the U.S. is awkward at best, Heise said.
“Most of our kids aspire to go to college and succeed in the real world,” Heise said.
“The idea that all 4,000 kids are going to be pro soccer players is a farce. And some people have construed it that way, and that can be misleading to impressionable teenagers.”
Both Heise and Tisdale said the quality of high school soccer could suffer, and the balance of power in the state could shift. The Greenville area’s top club program, Carolina Elite Soccer Academy, allows its athletes to play for high school teams.
“It will impact teams for the next couple of years,” Tisdale said.
“But then like everything else that’s pretty new, the newness will wear off and people will adjust.”
Some say high school soccer will become more like high school tennis and gymnastics, where top athletes already often skip scholastic competition.
Even in sports like basketball and baseball, college recruiters pay more attention to AAU teams and travel squads than to high school games.
Meanwhile, players such as Christian Jablonski will face a new reality when the high school season rolls around next spring.
“I’ll be out supporting the team, just like the seniors who graduated did last year for us,” he said.
“The greatest thing about Wando soccer is that we are a family, and when we move on we still come out and support the guys.
“I might not be a part of the team, but we’ll all still be part of the family together.”