The Gilded Sport: A Look at Elite American High-School Soccer
Note: for privacy reasons I won’t my high school’s name or any players on my team, but we finished the season ranked in the Top 15 in the country, according to ESPNrise.com
In light of recent posts I’ve read on here discussing player development at elite youth academics in American soccer, I thought I’d offer my somewhat cynical take on the subject from a different, and more personal perspective: high school soccer.
I played (or to be more accurate, watched) for four years on what I would consider an “elite” high school soccer team. During my four years with the program, my team lost only three times, won our county championship four times, our conference three times, and the state championship twice. Not bad for a school with sixty males in each grade.
Maybe I should step back and speak about myself for a moment: I had always considered myself to be a decent soccer player, the kind that could read the game pretty well and would score goals from the left flank every once in a while. Beginning as a freshman, I played on a U-19 club team; in our county league, when we could get eleven players to show up on a given Sunday, we would win, but usually, faced with diminished numbers on our side (often nine or ten players without subs), we would hold down the fort for a good sixty minutes before unceremoniously caving in. (As for practice, it was a success if five players showed up).
This was the world of American soccer I grew up in: an unprofessional, imperfect place where we played not necessarily because we wanted to win, although that was an added bonus, but because we loved to play the game.
Enter the realm of my elite high school soccer program and its die-hard, win-at-all-costs attitude. Suddenly, I was playing with recruited players (three freshmen accepted each year regardless of their academics), players who played intense club soccer (practices four times a week after school before flying off to national tournaments on the weekends), and players in the national team pool.
Every summer, my high school team would jet off to Europe for a week (sophomore year- Czech Republic, junior year- Italy, senior year- Germany) to train and play against top tier European teams. Although billed as optional, anyone who wanted to become somebody on the team attended. I felt out of place and rightly so, both in my mindset and skills. While my teammates were playing with their clubs teams every night during the off-season, I was kicking the ball against my garage door since my club only played from March to June.
I can say with certainty that my coach and the program destroyed my love for the game for the sake of making the team into an impersonal robotic winning machine. I was always under the impression that the purpose of high school soccer — and all sports as a whole — is to go out with your friends and have a good time.
Being forced to pay three hundred dollars for a set of two uniforms that we were required to wear at practice every day regardless of the weather conditions was not “fun,” and being forced to sprint three full-field suicides simply because we gave up a goal in a 9-1 victory is not my idea of a good time. I would’ve traded my socks to be on the losing end of that game because at least at the end, the other team walked off with smiles on their faces and snickered as we ran our suicides.
And isn’t the purpose of all high school sports to promote team unity? Every time I was on the field during the trash time when we were winning by six or seven goals, my teammates, those for whom I was to forced to cheer every second when they were on the field, were off running suicides and not even watching the game. And when they came back from running, they were talking with one another and playing with tape from the medical kit. Talk about a double standard. Not only does this show arrogance, but also a lack of respect for our opponents. And our coach would always eschew the virtues of remaining “classy” regardless of a win or loss during his obligatory and repetitive pre-game speeches.
This season, I played my last game three weeks before the state championship. We were winning by six or seven goals, it was getting dark and threatening rain, all the fans had left and the first team was off running somewhere. When the other team was retrieving the ball to take a goal kick, I stopped and suddenly realized this was what soccer was all about for me. It wasn’t about the big-shot championship games when everyone was watching and cheering; instead, it was about playing for the sake of playing, continuing to play earnestly and trying your hardest, especially when the stands are empty and no one is watching.
Fast forward three weeks to the state championship game. We are winning 3-0 with seven minutes to play. Normally, any coach would dump the bench and give the seniors the chance to say they’ve played in a championship game. Even the other coach threw in his subs. But not my coach. As the time ticked down, and I saw that the subs, especially the seniors who, for four years, had sacrificed and given everything to the program in return for nothing, would again receive nothing, my last ounce of confidence in organized American soccer disappeared. When the final whistle sounded, I felt nothing but disgust for my team and my coach. The pride that my coach had spoken of before the game, the pride of wearing my team’s jersey and carrying home the trophy — all this was nothing but platitudes and baseless words.
While my situation certainly does not apply to every high school program, after observing many top soccer schools over my high school years, I have seen that many of the same problems that exist on my team are prevalent elsewhere. In other words, there is a general malaise. So, in parting, all I ask you is this: Is it really worth sacrificing character, honor, and morals for the sake of player development and victory? Think about it; American youth soccer may be more perverted than we think.