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Ohio academy and club players face hard choices in the next 30 days

Twenty current MLS players were born in Ohio and many went through the Buckeye state's soccer youth programs. Outdated scholastic rules force many youth player to choose between their club team and their school team.

As 8th grade Crew Junior, pre-academy and academy players prepare for a busy May, including the Ohio state cup and the Pacesetter Invitational, many are also forced to choose between playing on their high school team or continuing to play with their academy/club team. This is because Ohio continues to cling to the "5 player" rule.

The "5 player rule"

The simplest way to explain the "5 player rule" is to simply reprint it. From the Ohio High School Athletic Association, Soccer Rule 4.21:

4.21) The number of interscholastic soccer players from the same school on a noninterscholastic squad is limited to five on the roster of that non-interscholastic squad. A roster is defined as all the members of the entire squad on that noninterscholastic squad that would practice together OR participate together in any non-interscholastic event. "Rotating players" that would exceed this number (5) is not permitted and the use of any "guest player" would be counted as one of the 5 players permitted on the non-interscholastic roster.

Stated in a simpler form, if soccer players have participated as a player or substitute in a scholastic game, scrimmage or preview, they fall under this rule. This means they can no longer participate IN THE OFF SEASON on a team that has more than 5 players that played for that school.

Both of my children have played club soccer since they were 7 years old. My son, for instance, has played with largely the same group of players for the past 7 years. They are friends, the parents are friends, we've played 3.5 seasons of soccer together per year, each and every year. The coaches know the players, know their strengths and weaknesses. On my son’s club team alone, 8 will be attending the same high school. Another 4 will be attending from other clubs we have all known for that period of time.

Our neighbors, our friends, the player pool we have all been playing for and against for 7 years. Now all of these players are facing a choice between 1 season per year of high school, then being forbidden from playing with their friends and their professional coaches for the other 8 months out of the year, or giving up the prestige of playing for their high school to stick with club/academy.

This rule, originally developed as a safeguard against high school coaches trying to run 3.5 season programs, has been around for 20+ years. Many other states are abandoning the rule, and not coincidentally these are the same states with 4 season outdoor weather and the states that consistently dominate national competitions. (Southern California, Texas, Florida).

Over the next 30 days, many/most of these 14 year old players will have to choose between the chance at a high school varsity jacket or doing what, developmentally, makes the most sense, sticking to what they've been doing for 7 years with professional coaches, 3.5 season per year soccer and players they aren't going to have to get to know from scratch each winter/spring.

The Crew SC Youth System

The Crew SC organization chart is very much a pyramid. At the very top of the pyramid is the senior (MLS) team. A step below the senior team are the academy teams. A step below the academy teams are the pre-academy teams. A step below the pre-academy teams are the Crew SC Juniors community-based teams. Further mixed in to this structure, the Crew SC has affiliations with two Ohio programs (CUSA and Challenger) and two Michigan programs (Wolves and Grand Rapids).

A further complication is that only teams approved by U.S. Soccer are true "academy" teams. Within the Crew structure, the Crew Academy (Columbus) and the Crew Academy (Wolves) are U.S. Soccer academy teams. This is important to understand for a number of reasons, including funding and exemption from rules such as the "5 player rule". Further, any other organization’s team referring to themselves as an "academy" team is using that label in a manner different than U.S. Soccer. Given the highly selective nature created by the limited number of true academy roster spots, these players are drawn from vast geographic areas and will rarely, if ever, attend the same high school as an academy teammate. The vast majority of players are considered club players, are much more likely to be drawn from the same school district and subject to the same rules as a player outside the Crew SC youth program.

How the 5 Player Rule Hurts Ohio's Youth Soccer

It does not take a soccer coaching savant to understand how Ohio, or other states still clinging to the rule, are developmentally hurt. For the past 6 or so years, these U14s have been within a club system with professional coaches, one developmental philosophy, largely playing with the same group of players – stated simply, the player’s development has a large measure of professional consistency. Just think of a practice run by coaches who have known the players for 3+ years, where the player has come from, that player’s strength, weaknesses, how they have improved, where they need help etc. Compare that to a practice run by coaches asking players "what is your name again" while the players are simultaneously trying learn their teammate’s names, their tendencies etc.

Instead, Ohio, and similar states, dumps most youth players into a scholastic system that is mostly run by part-time coaches (hey Janitor, you played 1 year of Division III soccer, here is a supplemental contract to coach) from August 1st until whenever the season ends. After that, good luck, hope you find a good off-season team, hope your new coach knows you are a striker and not a keeper, hope you don’t spend too much time in that off-season simply trying to learn teammates’ names and how to work together on the pitch. Because, you know, if you try to play with more than 4 other players from your school team in the off-season, or the same coaches, that would be wrong.

If these players are good/lucky enough, they will now move on to a similarly dysfunctional college system.

How European and British Programs Differ From the U.S.

At least on paper, the model from overseas is similar to the U.S. model. The professional teams have academy programs, the Academy teams generally are limited to youths living within a 90 minute drive of the training grounds, the teams have "feeder" (think "affiliate") programs and training grounds to allow the professional teams to be exposed to larger numbers of players at the "bottom" of the pyramid in the hopes they will move up the pyramid. Off paper, the differences start to become apparent.

Players as young as 8 years old sign 1 year contracts with clubs, and each year the club decides whether to retain or release that player. Fees for playing are largely non-existent, compared to the U.S., where everyone below the Academy team level is going to pay fees for uniform, travel etc that easily top $2,500 per year even for a "C" level club team. Many, if not most, clubs overseas employ a network of scouts to identify young players at local recreational league games.

The stark difference really seems to be at the U-13/U-14 level. 2 year contracts are common and the contract includes a prohibition on playing for school teams. The geographical restriction on travel time is removed, meaning players from other countries can now come into the team’s program. Players are frequently paid a "stipend" at this point, which many player use to move into rooming houses closer to the main training grounds. There is an entire cottage industry of landladies who are former teachers who will take care of groups of players as far as food, tutoring and similar needs.

By U-15/U-16, many programs have residential facilities and require their players to live onsite. The team becomes responsible for the academic education of the players as well as the feeding, medical care, transportation and other minutiae. By U-16 the players are often paid actual wages rather than just a stipend.

One thing I did find interesting in researching this article was finding that many British programs lament the lack of coaching stability brought about by the senior team’s need to produce immediate results and managers being sacked regularly. This shake up in coaching often flows "downhill" into the youth system, despite the detriment the lack of continuity of coaching and philosophy has on developing young soccer players.

Why We Should Care

Soccer fans in the U.S. constantly complaint about our inability to develop World-quality players. The speculation on the reasons behind this has led to fairly regular "reinvention" of our youth soccer program, along with people opining that our problem is that our "best athletes" play basketball or football rather than soccer. (Imagine LeBron James lacing up the boots and going box to box for 90 minutes to illustrate the absurdity of that argument.)

I grew up playing soccer, played Varsity in college, coached 2 different high schools and was a Grade 8 licensed referee for the better part of 25 years. Something I have constantly marveled at is how the U.S. seems to purposefully handicap our youth development. Ohio is one of 5 states (N.Y., PA, TX and CA) to have enough soccer participation to justify more than one state U.S. Youth Soccer Association. Despite this, Ohio (along with other states) continues to cling to this absurd "5 player rule."

Ohio has a fantastic youth system, and this system does a great job developing youth players, right up until that player steps foot onto a scholastic field. At that point, commonsense and any rational theory on coaching continuity and development is thrown out the window.

If the U.S. wants to develop World-quality players that didn't happen to be born on a foreign Army or Air Force base, we need to recognize that scholastic age players need 3-4 season continuity and professional coaching and change the rules accordingly.