Minutes after walking off the field following a 5-1 triumph over arch-rival Gonzaga College Prep, DeMatha Catholic High School’s gaffer Dafydd Evans relished the dominating victory.
Despite having one of the best teams in the country over the past few years (including at one point winning 67 straight regular season matches), Evans’ DeMatha Stags had watched Gonzaga hoist the trophy the past four years.
Last Autumn, however, the Stags would not be denied: they rolled through the play-offs outscoring their opponents 20-1 and completed their season with 24 wins, no losses, and no draws. They allowed only 10 goals all season in a strong league and placed three players on the All-Met first team, impressive for a Washington area region that has schools in DC, Southern Maryland, and Northern Virginia. ESPN ranked them fourth in the country in the Autumn soccer rankings.
DeMatha is a school known for basketball and football dominance (former head hoops coach Morgan Wootten is a basketball hall of famer and football alums include Brian Westbrook and Cameron Wake), but the soccer team has churned out its share of impressive players. Up-and-coming DC United keeper Bill Hamid is a graduate, as well as current MLS player Jordan Graye. MLS all-star Kyle Beckerman attended the Hyattsville, MD high school for a year before leaving, and a number of other former MLS and lower-level American soccer pros have all come through the school.
The school is also conveniently located less than 20 miles away from RFK and the local professional team DC United. Hamid and Graye (as well as Graye’s teammate and former DC keeper Andrew Quinn) all went through the DC United youth academy at some point in their career before going off to college. The most dominant Stag players are following the same path: Cody Albrecht (Maryland prep record 31 assists) is going to St. Johns NY but has been in the DC youth academy for some time.
As MLS grows, this method of grooming players has become more successful and more common. The “next big thing” in American soccer (Juan Agudelo) came up through the Red Bulls academy and high school ranks. Andy Najar for DC United attended Episcopal high school while preparing for life as a DC United starter and rookie of the year. As the MLS salary cap remains tight and teams scramble to take advantage of their local talent, high schools have become storage places for youth academy products to get an education while preparing for a professional soccer career.
This was supposed to be the roll of the heralded Bradenton Academy, one of the centerpieces of the 2010 Project. For those of us too young to remember the pomp and circumstance of the ill-fated project, the idea behind what is officially known as the IMG Academy, was that if the United States had a soccer academy where elite prospects could receive an education while being fully immersed in soccer training, the U.S. could build towards legitimately competing for the World Cup by 2010.
The results of this idea to build a soccer culture in a sports-saturated society in a relatively short period of time are stark: the national team has fallen behind regional rival Mexico competitively, the U-20 team was upset by Guatemala in the youth World Cup qualifying, and the U-17 team quietly exited the World Cup last month. Looking ahead to the 2014 World Cup, the class of youth players who should be ready to replace older players like Carlos Bocanegra may not be there. This has left United States soccer stagnant: a good but not great soccer nation.
Where can the country turn? Collegiate players for years have been the most polished and internationally ready players for years for the U.S., but NCAA rules and style of play do not make for international class players. For the Yanks to make that next leap they need to mould young players at the stage when they begin to show who they are and what they are best at doing: the teenage years.
Successful countries have shown the way to develop young talent: the club youth system. Spain’s success at the international level has been built upon players who came up through the club youth ranks and who play a similar style. Same for Italy. And this is the system of player development that is emerging in the United States as well.
Last weekend, DC United started with two products from its youth system, two local players who have been with the team since they were young teenagers. A third, Ethan White, was on the bench and a fourth will be watching from the stands but is considered a future starter.
The reserve team has local youth products all over. And all of these players are on the national team radar save Najar, who has pledged to play for Honduras. High schools like DeMatha, Episcopal, and Bethesda Chevy-Chase are the new Bradenton Academies, but the difference is every club has them.
As the U.S. Soccer Federation looks for the next contributors to the 2014 World Cup squads and beyond, it will no longer be at the collegiate level or their own soccer factory. Instead, it will be the school down the street where the next Clint Dempsey will be readying himself for stardom and a chance to hoist that elusive U.S. World Cup trophy. While the 2010 Project was a failure, the high school-youth academy partnership is preparing America for a golden age of soccer talent.
By Robert Hay
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona