Cypress Bay, which won the Class 5A boys’ state title and was ranked atop the national polls last season, returned nine starters to school this fall.
Plantation American Heritage, the defending Class 3A state champions, has six former starters still on campus.
However, none of those kids will be playing soccer for the Lightning or the Patriots this season.
That’s because the U.S. Men’s Soccer Federation — in an attempt to raise its level of play and keep up with what is done by soccer powers in Europe and South America — is now requiring its 80 development academies across the country to operate on a 10-month, uninterrupted training season, which begins in September and stretches into July.
With two local academies here (one in Weston and one in Kendall) that means about 80 of the top boys’ soccer players in South Florida — who used to juggle playing for their club, academy and high school teams — are no longer competing for their respective high schools.
“The kids are expected to play a certain style,” said Matias Asorey, the director of coaches at Kendall Soccer Club. “U.S. Soccer is taking a stance. They want soccer to be as competitive in this country as it is in others.”
Most Miami-Dade and Broward high school coaches don’t have a problem with that. But what they do take issue with is a loophole in the rules: elite private-school players who are getting financial aid can get a waiver to play for their high school teams as long as it is acceptable at their respective academy.
In Broward, there are no exceptions to the rule, according to Victor Pastora, the director of player development for boys’ soccer at Weston FC “because it would be a double standard [between public and private schools].”
But in Dade, where Asorey also coaches at Gulliver Prep, “five or six” private-school players have used waivers to play both high school and academy soccer this season. Both Asorey and Gulliver athletic director Mark Schusterman said they were not allowed to say how many, if any, of those players are from Gulliver.
“The big misconception is that I have something to do with this,” said Asorey, who added that the academy has a board of directors that makes decisions. “I don’t think it’s fair to anyone. If it were up to me, I would have left it like it was [in prior years].”
Asorey said he doesn’t have the heart to deny a kid a chance to play high school as long as it’s within the rules. He also seemed pained to be caught in the middle of a controversy. He said he has even received threats from people upset at what they perceive is a conflict of interest and an inequitable system.
“The rule was passed by the U.S. Soccer Federation,” Asorey said. “They didn’t ask us. The rule was passed, and now we’re dealing with it. All I can do is enforce the rules or they will take away the academy from Kendall.”
Ransom Everglades, a private school in Coconut Grove, had one player who wanted to play at both the academy and for his high school team. But Raiders coach Dave Villano said the player told him he could not practice or attend meetings at Ransom until after the academy’s early December tournament.
Ransom declined the offer, and the player will not compete for his high school. Belen, another top local private-school program, did the same with another player in a similar situation.
“We felt that type of arrangement would not be consistent with the values of our sports program,” said Villano, who added that he felt there was “hypocrisy” in the way the U.S. Soccer Federation is allowing the loophole.
In Florida, the only other academies are in Clearwater, Bradenton and Orlando.
Waivers aside, the overall level of play in South Florida — as well as in Orlando and the Tampa area — figures to diminish without the elite kids who will now only compete for their respective academies.
Cities such as Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Naples and others might take advantage. Players from those areas can still compete at academies, but, logistically, it would be difficult.
South Florida schools, which have won six of 10 state titles the past two years, might have their dominance challenged.
“Maybe things will get a little even,” Pastora said. “But the reason they have two academies down here is because there’s a lot of talent. Maybe South Florida won’t have such a huge edge over Tallahassee, but we’ll still have an advantage.”
Pastora said the kids in his program at Weston will train five to six days a week and play 40 to 50 matches a year, including one international tournament.
There are also three or four academy showcases per year.
“We’ll get 150 college scouts coming out to those showcases,” Pastora said.
Pastora said the U.S. Under-17 team should start to see benefits of the new training system within the next two or three years and the U.S. National Team will see improvements within the next eight to 10 years.
Rhys Williams, who has committed to Columbia University, and Ismael Longo, an FIU recruit, are now playing exclusively for Weston.
Had U.S. soccer not instituted the new academy schedule, Williams and Longo would have returned to try to lead Cypress Bay to its third straight state title.
“I’m bummed that I can’t play high school anymore,” Longo said. “High school soccer is fun in many aspects, but you have to do what you have to do.”
Williams said he is disappointed he can no longer play high school, but he’s not sad. Rather, he’s grateful he’s among the elite players invited to compete at the academy.
“I would not have chosen to play high school over academy,” Williams said.
Both players expressed confidence that Cypress Bay can still win state, even without them and seven other starters who have joined the academy full-time.
“Winning state and being ranked No. 1 [in the nation] took a lot of work,” Longo said. “But I know the new team [at Cypress Bay] is pretty good. Hopefully they can defend the title well for us.”