The country’s youth soccer landscape underwent a seismic shift last week when U.S. Soccer shuttered its Development Academy, a month after the coronavirus forced the organization to temporarily suspend its 2020 season.
The decision figures to have a profound impact on youth soccer at the high school level, especially in Forsyth County, which is a short drive from many of the Development Academy’s clubs.
The academy, which opened for boys in 2007 and girls in 2017, featured more than 200 clubs and ran from U13 to U19. It was designed to prepare the country’s top youth players for a chance with United States’ national teams by offering top-quality training and competition, but its most unpopular mandate involved forbidding players in the program to participate in high school soccer.
That spelled disappointment for many Forsyth County coaches who saw the talented players walking the hallways at school, but knew they could never represent that school on the field.
Denmark boys soccer coach Brett Godwin graduated from Lambert in 2010 and played for the Development Academy, back when the organization allowed its players to participate in high school soccer.
“For me, I was able to experience both,” Godwin said. “I really think that it was huge for me personally in my development as a player, and I think it’s something where a lot of times we kind of have turned a blind eye on high school. We very much try to create a system here that mirrors what they do over in Europe and in other continents. To be honest, we’re not Europe, and we’re not other continents. We have just a different culture and society over here. And I think if we use high school soccer, it can help in the development in a lot of players.”
Godwin, who played four years for Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, draws on that experience now as a coach.
While the Development Academy checked the boxes of training and exposure, he believes it lacks the euphoria that comes with playing high school soccer.
“I loved every second of every league I played in, but the memories that I have that are the most fond and the most clear for me are high school soccer,” Godwin said. “There is just nothing like being able to play with the kids you’ve grown up with your whole life. You play together when you’re young, then you kind of separate and you go to your different clubs and different directions.
“When you get to high school, there’s just nothing like being able to play Friday nights under the lights with the kids that you’ve grown up with your whole life, and playing against even your friends then, too. Just the rivalries and the passion that come out of it — there’s just nothing like it.”
Oftentimes, Development Academy players returned to high school for their senior year, many after locking up a scholarship to play at the next level.
Such was the case with Caelan Whitehead, a Development Academy player who signed to play in college at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, then chose to play for Denmark this year as a senior.
“You see kids who quit their DA teams in their senior year to come back and play one more season,” Godwin said. “And every time I see a kid do that, they have a great experience with it. There’s just this fun and enjoyment that comes with it.”
But the disappearance of the Development Academy has put some youth soccer clubs in a bind.
Georgia has eight clubs that were affiliated with the Development Academy, all somewhat concentrated around Atlanta. Two clubs — United Futbol Academy (UFA) and Concorde Fire — joined Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), a high-profile youth soccer league that allows players to participate in high school soccer.
Then, a day after the Development Academy folded, Major League Soccer (MLS) launched its own youth soccer league, inviting clubs that were previously affiliated with the Development Academy.
For Pinecrest girls soccer coach Domenic Martelli, solving the youth soccer problem includes making it simpler.
First on Martelli’s list: create one league with a focus on regional matchups.
“When you look at the DA, there are clubs scattered all over the region where those teams are from,” said Martelli, who has coached soccer for nearly three decades, including stints at Army, Georgia State and Georgia Gwinnett College. “And they’re driving right by ECNL clubs to go play somewhere else that might not be as good as the ECNL club that they’re passing.”
In turn, Martelli believes those regional matchups will ignite rivalries between the clubs and create competition, similar to the high school formula.
“I know for a fact that in our semifinal game last year against Athens Academy where we won 4-0, I’ll bet you three of those goals were because of the crowd, the facepainting, the band and the music. It was amazing,” Martelli said. “And that now will allow however many kids were playing under the DA umbrella to now play high school and continue to help build character.”
Building his players’ character is a key part of Martelli’s coaching philosophy.
“We can sit and talk for years about what’s better: youth soccer, club soccer, high school soccer, whatever it is,” Martelli said. “I can tell you, as a former college coach, as a friend of a million college coaches and a profession that I’m very close to, they want that ability to play for something and someone.”
The change marks an unquestioned improvement in quality at the high school level, with previously ineligible players able to compete.
And with high school teams able to utilize all available resources, there will likely be fewer hypotheticals when crowning a state champion.
“Now we can play in high school. Now we can play with our friends. Now we can have our friends come and watch us. Now we can have something to play for that’s bigger than ourselves, and even our club, which is our school,” Martelli said. “So, we create loyalty and we create a sense of competition. We have competition amongst our regional areas or our counties where there will be a region champion, and then ultimately a state champion. And everybody can participate now.”
“We won’t hear, ‘Oh, we have five DA kids who aren’t playing, but we would have beaten you if they were playing.’ Do you know how old that gets?”
For Denmark, Godwin estimates there are at least two students at the school who could have played for the Danes had they not been part of the Development Academy.
And for a team that already took a significant step forward this season, Godwin can’t help but already be excited for next year.
“I believe with us being so close to UFA, we’ll have definitely more kids coming in next year,” Godwin said. “I know there’s a couple more who are supposed to be freshmen who play DA. We might have five or six kids in the school next year who might be able to play high school now and wouldn’t have otherwise had that opportunity. It’s exciting for them individually and for our program as a whole.”