This was the first year when some high school soccer players were forced to make a tough decision.
When Lonestar SC joined U.S. Soccer’s Girls' Development Academy, which is in its inaugural season, some players on were forced to choose between suiting up for their high school teams or continuing on with the Development Academy, or DA.
“Being a part of playing for your high school is an opportunity to support your community and have them support you,” Vandegrift head coach Jen Hardy said. “Including your friends and your family and get recognition and have an experience you don’t get from playing club.
“In my opinion, they were put in a position where it didn’t feel like there was much of a choice even though it is a choice. It wasn’t worded in such a way to let them feel like they have a choice.”
Vandegrift had eight DA-eligible players from last year’s team that advanced to the state tournament and only one chose to stay with the Lady Vipers this season. They won the district title for the fifth straight year and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Leander ISD made it a policy district-wide that if the student wasn’t in any athletic class at the beginning of the year, they couldn’t show up for tryouts in November.
Cedar Ridge was affected too. On top of the 10 graduating players, the Lady Raiders have five players switch to the DA. They finished second in its district last season with a 10-2 record but missed the playoffs this year.
“Had we had those five players, I think we definitely would have made playoffs,” Cedar Ridge head coach Kelsy Quinn said. “Lonestar is trying to do its best and going with it. No hard feelings with them, it just stinks for us to figure out how to deal with it.”
Lonestar SC Girls’ National League Program Director Wes Schevers remembers when he was growing up, high school was something he did for social reasons. Like most guys he played with, he wanted to play professionally.
He said there was nothing like the DA then, but the boys have made huge strides due in part to the DA system and the girls can follow suit.
“You have the group that went to the Women’s World Cup in 1999 that are very opinionated about the DA,” Schevers said. “They felt playing high school soccer was something that they felt helped them as players and they felt nobody should tell them what to be doing. And no one is telling them what to do.”
He said there are a set of requirements to be in the DA and it’s up to the player to either accept it or not, including making the decision about playing on the high school team. And there is value in the social aspect of representing the high school teams, but it comes down to individual aspirations on the soccer field specifically.
In the 2016 U-17 Women's World Cup in Jordan, the girls’ national team failed to get out of the group stage, finishing behind Japan and Ghana.
“(Those players) were all based on the model we had prior to the DA,” Schevers said. “The level they’re in and the pathways as players all went through the previous cycle of player development. Eventually, they’re going to graduate into the senior team.”
Lonestar SC announced in late April it was joining the Frontier Development League for the first season in 2018-19. While still made up of clubs affiliated with the DA, the league is a little more flexible when it comes to substitution rules and playing high school soccer.
Schevers sees it as a segue into the DA.
“The DA isn’t for everyone,” he said. “It takes the right kid to be willing to make the sacrifices it requires and some kids don’t want to that and that’s ok. We want to create an environment that is conducive to those like-minded players to bridge the gap between the two.”
Balancing the social and aspirational games of soccer can be difficult, but players have found ways to do both. One player on Cedar Ridge stayed on as the manager of the high school team while competing in the DA as well.
“I’m hopeful that it’s a great experience that it’s a great experience, but you can get that on different levels,” Quinn said. “High school soccer is about making memories and supporting your school. Club soccer is a little more individualistic. They’re just different.”