Rise of soccer academies, elite club teams means a shift in prep soccer's significance

·7 min read

Jul. 3—Tommy Smith sees the relationship among elite soccer clubs, high school coaches and players is at a turning point, and he said he is torn about it.

For the better part of the past 15 years, the triumvirate had a relatively peaceful co-existence, in which players competed for club teams in the spring and summer, then their respective high schools in the fall. And everybody was happy.

"We have developed a pretty good relationship," said Smith, the soccer coach at Albuquerque Sandia Prep. "I've coached club and high school, and there are a lot of us who do that. We've created relationships over the years where we were sharing players, working together with players and doing what was best for them.

"We always found a way to work together."

But over the past five years, the landscape has changed. The emergence of the USL championship franchise New Mexico United and its club system, as well as other elite soccer clubs locally, regionally and nationally, is starting to make an impact that filters down to the prep level.

Those programs, which champion elite-level training and development, also are sometimes requiring their players to make a difficult decision — play for us or them but not both. A prime example came this week as Santa Fe High boys soccer star Alex Waggoner said he committed to play solely for the United Academy club team.

The club has yet to announce his addition, but Waggoner said he was excited at the opportunity to help hone the skills that allowed him to score a state-best 73 goals and led the Demons to their first state title last November.

However, he also admitted feeling a hint of guilt at not playing for his high school. But he plans on supporting his now former teammates as much as he can next fall.

"I will always support them and give them everything I can offer," Waggoner said. "I mean, I still talk to [head coach Chris Eadie], and I'm still going to school there."

Eadie, for his part, has supported Waggoner in his decision. But he said Waggoner's departure, combined with the expected departure of rising junior defender Ivan "Chongo" Lozano to the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona, essentially leaves the Demons rebuilding instead of reloading.

"I had mixed feelings," Eadie said. "I would love for [Waggoner] to be back with us. But he is going to be an asset for any team that he plays for."

But there is a growing uneasiness among prep coaches regarding the top talent in the state. Albuquerque St. Pius X head boys soccer coach A.J. Herrera, who coached at Santa Fe High from 2008-15, said there has to be a way to share the top players without potentially creating acrimony among coaches.

"Of course we want them to pursue whatever they like, to get the exposure they want and to play at the highest level possible," said Herrera, who was a star with the Sartans and played at the University of Maryland. "And I'm not saying the New Mexico United Academy doesn't have a good product. I just feel like we can't be presenting things to the players to where that is their only option."

Smith understands where Herrera is coming from because two potential starters at Sandia Prep have played for the New Mexico United Academy for the past 1 1/2 years. Previously, the academy allowed its players to also compete for their respective high schools, but that policy shifted in the off-season.

Smith said he has no problem with players trying to do what's best for their soccer careers but he also feels the players miss out on playing for their school, alongside friends they have grown up with over the years. However, he conceded that more of the state's best players will eschew the high school experience.

"That's probably going to be the trend," Smith said. "I think at some point at the high school level, we might only have the kids who are not necessarily the college-level-type players, but the kids who enjoy playing and who want to compete."

Hersch Wilson, the former head coach of Santa Fe Prep who also coaches club teams in Santa Fe, said coaches might have to adapt to losing players to academies or clubs. He faced that dilemma seven years ago when Sam Brill surrendered his senior year to play for the Colorado Rapids Development Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Wilson cautioned his players, though, to not base their decision strictly on soccer.

"I tell them they're putting all of their eggs in one basket," Wilson said. "I always tell them to have a Plan B because even if you get into a hypercompetitive club, only two or three will go to the big dance [playing college]. But the number of kids who make a career in any sport is pretty limited."

In fact, Santa Fe Prep has lost four boys and girls players to academies or clubs over the past decade. Former Santa Fe Prep head girls coach Steph Coppola, who is the technical director of the Albuquerque United Football Club, said the Blue Griffins had a chance to compete for the Class 1A/3A state title in 2019 — until leading goal scorer Anna Swanson elected to play in California.

Coppola said her initial reaction was that a state title was slipping through the program's hands but she had to adjust her thinking quickly.

"My initial reaction was disappointment, but then I felt like, 'This player needs my support,' and asked what I could do for her." Coppola said. "Whether I thought she could play high school and accomplish her dreams at the same time, that wasn't my decision to make. All I could do was support her and give her positive feedback because she was going to base her decision on what she needed."

Coppola said she understands why many high school and other club coaches think like that, but she added one player's departure simply is an opportunity for another player to step into the limelight.

"When New Mexico United was going to make an academy, the bigger clubs were going to freak out because they were saying, 'They're going to take our best players,' " Coppola said. "But once that initial reaction played out, I think people saw the opportunities for other players. And like anything else, water rises and falls, and everybody adjusts to it."

Former Taos head boys coach Michael Hensley, who is the director of instruction for the Taos Youth Soccer League, said the most important thing communities can do is develop youth programs that broaden the appeal of the sport. He said elite athletes will ultimately follow their dreams, whether it's to play professionally or in college.

However, if youth leagues get kids hooked into the sport, regardless of their skill level, it can help mute the impact of losing top talent, Hensley said.

"You want to instill a love for the sports into the kids," Hensley said. "That is one of the things I've focused on — to teach and learn the game and help them develop a soccer IQ. The most important thing is to get them to enjoy the experience and to keep playing every day."

Hensley knows from experience, having lost several players to academies or international play during his decade run at Taos. However, the program also produced roughly 80 boys and girls players who ended up earning athletic scholarship, Hensley added.

Smith said the best players, regardless of the state, will ultimately get noticed. He and Wilson extolled the value of playing high school sports, from the camaraderie of playing with classmates, the life lessons that work in association with the ideals of each school and, for elite players, learning how to play with less-talented teammates.

Smith added another element the top players might miss is the crowd factor. He pointed out the Class 5A championship match between Santa Fe High and Albuquerque Sandia Prep had about 2,000 spectators, creating an atmosphere that clubs and academies can't replicate.

"I think the high school experience is a great opportunity for kids to play," Smith said. "I think it will still be a way to possibly pursue playing in college or get to the next level."

For now, Smith and fellow high school coaches are learning how to adjust to a new relationship where not everybody ends up with a happy face.