When high school soccer players make it back for a preseason ritual of sprints, drills and scrimmages later this month, some of the best ones won't be there.
They've quit their school teams to play for a Development Academy squad. The academy is run by the U.S. Soccer Federation, and for some elite players is a farm system to the men's national team.
They didn't have much of a choice.
The federation this year has ordered players to choose between their school and the academy, not allowing them to play for both. The academy season will start two months earlier this year -- in September -- pressing into the high school calendar. The longer season, academy officials say, will strengthen the U.S. program, which is considered weak internationally.
This is the first time a sport is asking its athletes to say no to school sports, said Mark Koski, director of sports and events for the National Federation of State High School Associations, which governs high school athletics. Girls soccer players, however, are not asked to make this choice.
"This is one of a kind," he said. "We're hopeful this is only a soccer situation."
For the athletes, including many on Long Island, the ultimatum has created a summer of torment.
"The whole school is questioning me, 'Brett, are you going to play next year?' " said Half Hollow Hills West senior Brett Nason, who is leaving to play for Albertson Soccer Club, an academy team. "As of now, it's a no, but obviously I want to."
Some players felt bound by a loyalty to serve their school -- along with a desire to enjoy the rewards associated with bringing it glory. For others, the allure of the academies, which offer the promise of more competitive play and looks from college and pro scouts, was too tempting to pass up.
Missing the HS experience
"The whole [school] experience -- going to the barbecues, hanging out as a team, giving jerseys out to girls -- I'm going to miss that a lot," said Arthur Bosua, a Hills West junior who will play exclusively for Albertson. "But I know that school soccer is not going to get me into a good college, and with Albertson, I'm going to have a pretty good chance."
Doug Gannon, coach of the Half Hollow Hills West team, has lost four of his best players to the Albertson club. In addition to Nason and Bosua, Dylan Greenberg -- a competitor on one of the youth national teams and considered one of the country's best recruits -- and teammate Jonathan Proctor -- are leaving.
"The competition is not as good as the academy," said Gannon, acknowledging the challenges his players confronted this summer. "Colleges are starting to recruit solely out of there, so I can understand for a kid who's looking to get a scholarship that this is his only way."
If top talent flees, coaches and longtime soccer observers say they fear that high school programs will deteriorate.
"You're talking about going from a county contender to just hoping to make the playoffs," said Gannon, who has led the Hills West team to six consecutive league championships, including one this past year.
Federation officials say the shift will offer players a bit of relief -- especially from overplay, a concern trainers say takes its toll on the soccer athlete.
"The best place for elite players to develop is the academy, not the high school," said Tony Lepore, director of scouting for the development academies, who is based in Madbury, N.H. At the high schools, he said, the level of play isn't challenging enough. "Our top players have an easy time, and they're not held accountable for poor execution or mistakes."
No way around rules
Staying away from school ball -- and perhaps avoiding players who are less serious about the game -- may reduce the risk of injury to some athletes, Albertson trainer Alex Teran said at a recent practice. "Why run the risk of getting hurt if you're going to Duke?"
Ron Eden, coach of the Brentwood varsity boys team, one of the top high school programs on Long Island, said he doesn't expect his players to leave. But he wonders whether some players will try to join the academy teams late, once the school season ends.
"They're trying to hedge their bets right now," Eden said. "Nobody knows what's going on at this point."
Adrian Gaitan, technical director of the Albertson academy, said that he will hold some spots on the team for players who attend private schools, where scholarships may depend on participation, but not for any other players.
"If you decide to play high school soccer we will not open the door for you at the academy, you're going to have to play somewhere else," he said. "It sets a bad precedent for the kids who decided to play all year round."
Eden said he found the academy's rules frustrating. "I'd like to see them both coexist somehow," he said. "We have two months, they have their 10 months, so let us do our thing."
Some of the Half Hollow Hills West players who chose academy play said they experienced pressure, even disappointment, from classmates -- especially their graduating teammates.
"They said, 'You're going to ruin the tradition, all of you Albertson guys are going to hurt the team a lot,' " Bosua said. "Nobody in the school is going to like you."
The East Coast, particularly Long Island, is considered to have a competitive soccer scene. It is home to 227 varsity and junior varsity teams, and a number of competitive travel and premier soccer clubs. In addition to Albertson, four other development academy programs in New York and New Jersey draw players from Long Island.
Soccer is one of the sports in which top athletes seek competitive play outside of their school but there are rarely scheduling conflicts, Koski said.
In a letter to the soccer federation in April, the National Federation of State High School Associations expressed its disapproval with the change, even questioning whether it had violated the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. There have been complaints from parents, players and their attorneys.
Koski said his organization "will keep a close eye" on the situation and wait a year until the season unfolds before deciding if it will challenge the academy.
A tough decision
For the best players, the starters on the academy team, it was easy to choose Albertson. They can visualize the benefits: the showcase tournaments -- where they'll be exposed to hundreds of college recruiters -- and then a spot on the national team or a Division I school.
"The carrot that the academy holds over their head is college," said Nick Gallagher, head coach of St. John The Baptist in West Islip.
But for the players who don't play as much, the decision is harder. "Some of these kids will be lost in the shuffle," Gallagher said.
"What I think the academy player should be is the elite player, but in the tri-state area, that doesn't match up. You're not telling me that there are 250 elite players in the tri-state area."
Since the development academies were created in 2007, about 12,000 soccer players have passed through their ranks, and four of them have made the U.S. men's national team.
Some 800 have been called up to the program's "youth national team." There are about 4,000 athletes playing for 80 clubs nationwide.
Tyler Kirschner, a senior at Half Hollow Hills East, said he didn't play much when he was on Albertson's roster last spring. So come fall, he's decided to play for his high school. "The academy's good if you're one of the top players here, but if not it's a rough experience."
After leaving the Albertson team, Kirschner joined a Northport Cow Harbor United Soccer Club team, part of a traveling league deemed one rung below the academy level. He invited a recruiter from the University of Buffalo to watch him play, and soon after, he was offered a spot on the team.
Nason, who was made captain last year as a junior, said he realized midway through the season that a senior year title run was not in the cards.
"I felt so weird," he said. "A lot of the other juniors were thinking, 'We'll get it next year,' but I was treating last year like it was my last."