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Picking sides | New USSF ruling forces players to choose between academy and prep squads
David Smith is a longtime club coach and administrator with Crossfire Premier and has been the Bellevue High School head soccer coach for the past four seasons. With one foot in each, Smith is well-versed in the intertwined existences of the two drastically different worlds of youth soccer.
So when U.S. Soccer re-enacted the rule stating development academy players would have to choose between clubs and their local prep teams, he was conflicted.
"I'm a full-time coach so I see it from both sides of the fence," Smith said. "I don't think there is any way of pleasing both parties."
Participation with prep squads along with Development Academy teams was briefly allowed by U.S. Soccer but in 2012, top players around the area were again forced to choose. Smith lost his three most experienced returning varsity players to the rule in Garret Jackson, Cole Mora and Ryan Harber. Sammamish's Austin Allison is also absent from the prep side this season after helping the Totems to the 3A state quarterfinals in 2011.
Crossfire Premier and Sounders FC Academy are the two U.S. Soccer Developmental squads in the Puget Sound region and each runs a U-18 and U-16 squad along with the pre-academy team, which includes players as young as 14.
Bernie James is the coaching director at Crossfire Premier and coaches the U-18 and pre-academy teams and has been involved in the organization since its original incarnation as Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association. He and Smith have worked together throughout the years and dealt firsthand with the ebb and flow of U.S. Soccer and its desire to create a more comprehensive feeder system for the national team.
"Bernie has always released players to myself and other high school programs in the years when it was allowed," Smith said.
While the academy's schedule and policies are controlled by U.S. Soccer and not individual clubs, James was adamant that the mission of raising the competitive profile in international competition is best achieved through the developmental system.
"Our club had six players in the MLS Draft this year," he said. "If we have 18 players on a U-18 team, on average, 14 of them will play college soccer. It's a good program, but it is for kids who are really serious."
One player with Eastside ties who has been serious in the game since his youth is Kelyn Rowe.
Despite growing up in Federal Way, Rowe played at Redmond-based Crossfire for four years before taking the pitch for UCLA and being drafted by the New England Revolution with the third overall selection the last MLS Draft.
"At first it was a long drive, but we got used to it," Rowe said. "What I got out of the program made it worth it."
What he got out of the program was exactly what James spoke of – an opportunity to play with and against the best competition the country had to offer in his age group. Rowe played for James during his time with Crossfire and said the coach continued to push he and his teammates to improve to a level that would carry them to national team consideration and a professional roster.
"I had a great team and a great coach who pushed me every day," Rowe said. "I wasn't gaining anything playing high school soccer. It was just for fun."
Smith agreed with Rowe's sentiment that those who are serious about a professional career in the game will ultimately serve themselves better on a development academy team. He also took issue with the notion that it is the clubs that are the driving force behind implementing the rule, citing WIAA Handbook rule 18.22.4, which reads:
"Schools may not give students special treatment or privileges on a regular basis to enable them to participate in non-school athletic activities, such as reduced practice times, special workouts, late arrivals, or early dismissals."
Smith believes that rule could be interpreted by the WIAA to remove all academy players, who would be required to meet their clubs standards for practice and game participation, which may still overlap with portions of the prep season.
"I think the academies have been made out to be the evil-doers," Smith said. "I think it has been a mutual thing."