Kostas Kotselas (14) is playing for the Real Salt Lake academy team in lieu of playing his senior season at St. Augustine, where he helped the Saints win a SoCal Regional title.
Imagine being one of the best soccer players at your high school and being told you can’t play, but that this decision, as harsh as it was, is in your best interests.
That’s exactly what’s happened to a number of top players in San Diego.
And it’s happening to players all over the country.
Boys who join U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams to gain additional exposure to college coaches as well as coaching from the U.S. Soccer program have been banned for the first time from competing with any outside teams.
That includes their high school squads.
The ban is not popular among high school coaches, who are making due without their star players.
“I’ve got two players who can’t play this year with us and they’re heartbroken,” Poway coach Gene Morris said. “The kids just want to play in college and they think this is the best way, but we had five players playing in college this year as true freshmen and none of them played on an academy team.”
The losses struck a few San Diego Section programs harder than others.
Poway, with only two, is one of the luckier teams.
Torrey Pines lost five players to academy competition this season.
St. Augustine, which won the Southern California Regional Division II title last year, lost six players.
“I don’t question that the kids will see a good brand of soccer,” St. Augustine coach Brendan Johnston said. “They will. I just wish kids and parents weren’t being put in a position of having to choose one over the other.”
Cathedral Catholic’s playoff hopes took a big hit. The Dons are playing the season without 11 of their players.
“I’ve heard this is in the players’ best interests, which I don’t believe,” Cathedral Catholic coach Bryan Wood said. “It stinks for the kids. They should have at least allowed seniors to still play high school.”
In San Diego, playing for an academy team means you’re with either the Surf or the Nomads, two of the founding programs in 2007 when the academies first surfaced.
Both offer 16-under as well as 18-under teams. Next year the Surf plans to add a 14-under team as efforts continue to find the next generation of international players at an earlier age.
Rosters contain 20-24 players each.
There are numerous scholarships and fundraising efforts available to players to pay the initial cost. For the Surf, that cost is about $1,800.
The 10-month academy season runs from September through June. Teams will play an average of 20 games in addition to three or four Showcase events around the country.
The instruction-rich practices are held three times a week.
“The training-to-game ratio is very different because it emphasizes more training than games,” said Brenda Sampiere, vice president of operations for the Surf. “It was hard this year because U.S. Soccer pushed hard to have the players be academy players only.
“Before this, players would come back to us from high school soccer and they’d be slow or injured or out of shape for our level of competition. It was like they took three months off from playing.
“Two years from now, no one will even notice they’re not playing high school.”
Players who opted to drop out of the academy and play with their high school teams this year will not be allowed back, at least by the Surf, according to Sampiere.
Kostas Kotselas, a former Surf player who helped lead St. Augustine last year, cannot play for the Saints because he decided to cast his lot with the academy.
Kotselas now attends Mission Heights Prep School in Casa Grande, Ariz., for his senior year and plays for the Real Salt Lake academy team.
Kotselas, faced with the prospect of watching his former Saints teammates playing without him, moved on to a different state to continue his playing career.
“If you want to get seen, the academy is where the most people will see you,” Kotselas said. “I’m playing with big-time players who are committed to big-time colleges and that has helped pick up my game. More people are seeing me play.
“That being said, I miss playing with my friends at Saints. When you win a championship for your high school, you’re playing for your own little village.
“Winning the state title last year was quite a journey. Even the bus ride home was crazy.”
Pausing for a second, he added: “This is worth the sacrifice for my career opportunity, but I’d rather be home playing at Saints.”
There are no immediate plans to include girls in the soccer academy program.