Tommy Smith sees the relationship between elite soccer clubs, high school coaches and players at a crossroads, and he said he’s torn about it.
For most of the past 15 years, the triumvirate has had a relatively peaceful coexistence, in which players competed for club teams in the spring and summer, and then their respective high schools in the fall. And everyone was happy.
“We’ve developed a pretty good relationship,” said Albuquerque Sandia Prep football coach Smith. “I coached clubs and schools, and many of us did. We created relationships over the years where we shared players, worked with players and did 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 New Mexico United championship franchise and its club system, along with other elite football clubs at the local, regional and national levels, is beginning to have an impact that ripples down to the of the preparation.
These programs, which champion elite-level training and development, also sometimes force their players to make a tough decision: play for us or for them, but not both. A prime example came this week as Santa Fe High boys’ soccer star Alex Wagoner said he was committed to playing only for the club’s United Academy team.
The club has yet to announce his addition, but Wagoner said he was delighted with the opportunity to help hone the skills that saw him score a state-best 73 goals and lead the Demons to their first state title last November.
However, he also admitted to feeling a hint of guilt for not playing for his high school. But he plans to support his former teammates as much as he can next fall.
“I will always support them and give them everything I can offer,” Wagoner said. “I mean, I’m still talking to [head coach Chris Eadie]and I still go to school there.”
Eadie, for his part, supported Wagoner in his decision. But he said Waggoner’s departure, combined with the expected departure of rising junior defender Ivan “Chongo” Lozano to Barca Residency Academy in Arizona, essentially leaves the Demons to rebuild instead of reload.
“I had mixed feelings,” Eadie said. “I would like for [Waggoner] be back with us. But he’s going to be an asset to any team he plays for.
But there is growing unease among prep coaches over the state‘s top talent. Albuquerque St. Pius X Boys’ head coach AJ Herrera, who coached Santa Fe High from 2008 to 2015, said there had to be a way to share top players without potentially creating acrimony between coaches.
“Of course we want them to pursue what they want, get the exposure they want and 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 New Mexico United Academy doesn’t have a good product. I just feel like we can’t present things to players where it’s their only option.”
Smith understands where Herrera is coming from because two potential starters at Sandia Prep have played for New Mexico United Academy in the past 1½ years. Previously, the academy allowed its players to compete for their respective high schools as well, but this policy changed during the offseason.
Smith said he had no problem with players trying to do what was best for their football career, but he also felt players missed playing for their school, alongside friends they had grown up with over the years. However, he conceded that more of the state’s top players will avoid 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 just have kids who aren’t necessarily college-level players, but kids who like to play and want to compete.”
Hersch Wilson, the former Santa Fe Prep head coach who also coaches club teams in Santa Fe, said coaches may have to adjust to losing players to academies or clubs. He faced that dilemma seven years ago when Sam Brill dropped out of his senior year to play for Colorado Rapids Development Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Wilson, however, warned his players not to base their decision strictly on football.
“I tell them they’re putting all their eggs in one basket,” Wilson said. “I always tell them to have a plan B because even if you go to a hyper competitive club, only two or three will go to the big ball [playing college]. But the number of kids who make a career out of any sport is quite limited.”
In fact, Santa Fe Prep has lost four boy and girl players to academies or clubs over the past decade. Former Santa Fe Prep girls head coach Steph Coppola, who is the technical director of the Albuquerque United Football Club, said the Blue Griffins have a chance to compete for the Class 1A state title/ 3A in 2019 – until top scorer Anna Swanson chose to play in California.
Coppola said her first reaction was that a state title was slipping through the hands of the program, but she needed to adjust her thinking quickly.
“My first reaction was disappointment, but then I thought, ‘This player needs my support’ and asked what I could do for her.” said Coppola. “That I think she could perform in high school and achieve her dreams at the same time was not my decision to make. All I could do was support her and give her positive feedback because she was going to found her decision on what she needed.”
Coppola said she understands why many high school and other club coaches think this way, but added that a player’s departure is simply an opportunity for another player to get noticed.
“When New Mexico United was going to create an academy, the bigger clubs were going to freak out because they said, ‘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, the water goes up and down, and everyone adapts to it.”
Former Taos boys head 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 pursue their dreams, whether playing professionally or in college.
However, if youth leagues get kids into the sport, regardless of skill level, it can help mitigate the impact of losing top talent, Hensley said.
“You want to instill a love of sports in kids,” Hensley said. “That’s one of the things I’ve focused on – teaching and learning the game and helping them develop a football IQ. The most important thing is to get them to enjoy the experience and keep playing all days.”
Hensley knows this from experience, having lost several players in academies or international matches during his decade at Taos. However, the program also produced around 80 male and female players who ended up winning athletic scholarships, Hensley added.
Smith said the best players, regardless of condition, will eventually get noticed. He and Wilson touted the value of playing sports in high school, the camaraderie of playing with classmates, life lessons that work in association with each school’s ideals and, for elite players, learn to play with less talented teammates.
Smith added another element that top players might miss is the crowd factor. He pointed out that the Class 5A championship game between Santa Fe High and Albuquerque Sandia Prep drew around 2,000 spectators, creating an atmosphere that clubs and academies cannot replicate.
“I think the high school experience is a great opportunity for kids to play,” Smith said. “I think it will always be a way to keep playing in college or to get to the next level.”
For now, Smith and her fellow high school coaches are learning to adjust to a new relationship where not everyone ends up with a happy face.