Spring is difficult for players who play for club, high school teams as the two intersect
As high school and club soccer start to cross paths more, players who choose to play for both teams are often caught in the middle of a fight for their skills and time on the field.
Players like Hazen’s Drey Hicks often have to choose between club commitments or high school commitments because for club teams, the two seasons intersect. This is especially a problem for successful club teams that play more tournaments, stretching farther into the spring. Hicks missed the first portion of the Highlanders’ season this year because of club commitments.
“It sucks, but my area of concern is premier soccer,” Hicks said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself and what’s going to get you where you want to be.”
Hicks plays for the Highline Premier Football Club and was a big part of Hazen’s state-championship run in 2007, but his situation is one of the exceptions, not the rule.
Things on both sides of the issue can get ugly when coaches become overly territorial of players. It’s not uncommon to hear reports of club coaches forbidding players to play on high school teams, and high school coaches forbidding players to play on club teams.
The players’ preference for club or high school depends on what he or she wants out of soccer. For recreational players who simply want to have fun and socialize, high school soccer is the best bet.
For players who are serious about playing Division I collegiate soccer, club soccer seems to be the way to go.
“This is clearly the ticket,” said Brian Klein, president of Crossfire Premier Soccer Club. “It’s a buyer’s market for the colleges. The colleges don’t need to search every nook and cranny like they do for basketball and football.”
Crossfire’s elite teams are part of the United States Soccer Development Academy, which means the players can’t play for their high school teams at all because of the league schedule. Klein and Crossfire are frustrated because they entered the new league to give players a better chance to be successful, but they’re hearing a lot of feedback about players missing high school seasons.
“It’s terribly frustrating. We’d love for them to be able to play both,” Klein said. “This is the premier league in the country… But no one’s holding a gun to these kid’s heads. Everyone had an option to leave the program and join their high school teams.”
Scouts are far less likely to attend high school games where one or two players might pique their interest when they can simply attend club games where the majority of players are on the level that they are looking for.
Klein said Crossfire has 13 seniors who will play Division I soccer next year, including three or four who wouldn’t have made it if they didn’t get the exposure from playing on a club team. He said that for a potential Division I player, it is going to get increasingly more difficult to get noticed if he or she plays exclusively high school soccer.
“No colleges recruit players at the high school level. It is all done at the club level. They can view a much larger base of quality players at one time, and for soccer it is really a self-advertising adventure,” said Duane Schaefer. Duane’s son Brandon plays soccer for Renton High School and club soccer for the Highline Heat. “A lot of club trainers and coaches don’t feel like high school soccer is important anymore,” Schaefer sid.
However, not every club player is able to play collegiate soccer. Klein said that if players are on one of Crossfire’s club teams and they don’t have a legitimate chance to make an impact, coaches will steer the player back to high school.
“This league would not be appropriate for players who don’t want to play in college,” Klein said. “We’ve gone to players that weren’t going to play very much and told them it would be best to go back to their high school team.”
Highline Premier Football Club coach David Hoggan said he is simply looking out for the best interests of the players. “If 100 colleges were coming out to scout high school, we’d say ‘pack in select, go play high school ball.’ The kids just have to think about what is going to get them where they want to be.”
Hoggan, who coaches both Hicks and Brandon Schaefer, said the conflict lies in the interests of the players. The club coaches want what is best for the players and believe playing exclusively club soccer is what is best.
“I don’t want my kids playing in high school, not a one,” Hoggan said. “But it’s not what I want, it’s what the kids want.”
Hoggan said of the 15 players on his roster, 10 or 11 already have scholarships lined up. If players get injured while playing high school soccer and the team doesn’t perform well, that hurts the four or five players who are still searching for scholarships.
The effects can also stretch past the players’ own team. For example, if a Highline Premier Footbal Club U18 team performs poorly, scouts might be less inclined to come out and watch other teams from that club. So, injuries can have a ripple effect on clubs, hurting younger teams’ chances of moving on to college soccer.
Hazen coach Ritch Gouk said there are two main reasons for the conflict between high school and club soccer. The first is the month-long period at the beginning of the spring season for high school teams. While coaches are trying to build chemistry and see what sort of a team they have, they’re often missing their best players because during that period club teams are playing tournaments.
The second is the style of play in high school can lead to more injuries.
“One is a lot more physical and athletes are not necessarily as good,” Gouk said. “The players are also generally more knowledgeable in the club game. I think guys get hurt more in high school ball than they do in club.”
Kennedy soccer coach Brian Mullen said in an e-mail, “Club is much more competitive, technical and skilled than high school soccer.”
Hoggan said the reasons for more injuries in the high school game are bigger age groups, more physical play and a less skilled player pool. If you have a 15-year-old freshman that weighs 130 pounds who runs into an 18-year-old senior who weighs 180 pounds, there is a high risk for injury.
Injuries can be especially devastating to club teams because the rosters for tournaments are set in advance and fairly small (Hoggan’s roster is 15 players).
“We’ve got the kids 11 and a half months per year, we’ve seen them grow up,” Hoggan said. “You put in all this time and effort when you might get a call saying the kid has a broken leg or a pulled hamstring. You don’t know what you’re getting on Sunday, then it’s one game, 90 minutes, done.”
So, if the level of play is superior in club, the risk of injury is lower in club and the scouts are almost exclusively watching club, what does high school offer?
“It’s more of a pride thing,” Gouk said. “They’re around their schoolmates more than anyone. They get recognized by their peers for their play.”
Mullen said that another big advantage to high school soccer is more versatility. “The players also get to learn how to play with inferior talent,” Mullen said. “They spend so much time in a comfort zone, playing a specific role with their club teams. High school can lead to them becoming more complete players because they have to change the way they play and may be asked to play another position.”
Many teams need their best players to play on defense, then move up to midfield when possible. So, if a club player is used to playing strictly forward for the club team, the player might have to play in different spots for the high school team.
For Hicks, there was even more motivation to come back to Hazen, the Highlanders won the 3A state title last season.
“Being state champs, you gotta come back,” Hicks said. “I had a team, I can’t just stop playing.”
Klein feels club soccer doesn’t take the high school experience away from club players. He said that around half of the seniors in Crossfire’s program were on the homecoming courts for their schools.
“It’s not like the kids have not been involved in their high schools. They just haven’t been able to be involved in the high school soccer teams,” Klein said. “If they want to play in this league, that’s just the choice they have to make… It doesn’t replace the social part of high school, but from the pure soccer standpoint, this is the program.”
One problem at the base of the issue appears to be communication between high school and club coaches. Coaches on both sides seem to often find fault with the other side’s inability to communicate.
“They just don’t know us or don’t want to know us,” Gouk said.
Mullen said he rarely hears from club coaches and when there is a conflict, the player tells him about it.
Not all hope is lost, however. Even though they share Hicks’s time at goalie, Gouk and Hoggan seem to have crossed the barrier and built a working relationship.
“I’ve always made an effort not to push them hard, if they have a game coming up,” Gouk said.
Hoggan said he respects Gouk and that “he’s a good guy.”
Adam McFadden can be reached at email@example.com or 425-255-3484, ext. 5054.