Castle Park High senior Felipe Liborio Jr. (left) fakes Montgomery junior David Mendoza during a match last week. Castle Park beat Montgomery 1-0.
A controversy continues to rage among high school soccer coaches over outstanding players who opt to play for an academy team. In doing so, they are ineligible to participate for their high school.
Felipe Liborio Jr. wouldn’t trade his two years playing for Strikers FC out of Orange County, an academy team of Southern California all-stars, but when his senior year at Castle Park High School rolled around, he opted to return to play for the Trojans.
Liborio started as a freshman and was one of the captains of a strong Castle Park team, but as he said, after going to the Nike Cup in Oregon, the academy team “just kept calling and calling.” He would play up to 30 games a year between September and June and practice once a week.
“Everyone’s reactions are faster at the academy level, so I learned I had to become faster,” said Liborio, a 5-foot-8, 158-pound forward. “But when I really learned was when I went to the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland.”
The Milk Cup is a tournament of 32 teams of 19-year-olds and younger from around the world. All-Star teams from numerous countries compete as do club teams from storied programs like Manchester United and Tottenham.
“My first year, we reached the semifinals by beating Manchester United before losing to Senegal,” Liborio said. “The second year, we were in Manchester United’s pool and we lost to them 2-0 with the stadium packed. We beat a German team and I had a hat trick (3 goals).
Liborio’s team then played an Irish team and needed to win or tie to advance in the tournament. His team fell behind and was down 3-0 at the half.
“I talked to the team and said if they could score three goals, we could score four or five,” he said. “We scored right away after the half and after they scored, I got a header and we finally tied them on a penalty kick to advance to play (eventual champion) Cruz Azul from Mexico. We lost 2-0.”
What Liborio learned from that, and what he carries into every game for his high school team, is that no matter how far behind you are, if you keep pushing, good things can happen.
“I learned how to compete,” he said. “Whether you’re playing the best or the worst, you have to keep competing the full 90 minutes.”
He also learned how to handle double- and even triple-team defenses. He said a coach from Cherry Orchard, an Irish team, pulled him aside one day and helped him learn how to tire out the opponents.
But why play high school when he could play another year with his academy team?
Coach Jose Cobian might have had something to do with that.
“I told him that ‘As a freshman, you’re always able to play club, but there is nothing like looking up at a championship banner in your high school gym,’” Cobian said. “His response was ‘I know, but I don’t want just one banner.’”
Castle Park could hang banners for a league, section and even Southern California championship.
With Liborio running the attack, having scored 18 goals with 5 assists, the Trojans were 11-2-1 entering this week’s play, with the only two losses coming by a single goal to Torrey Pines — both times squandering early leads.
“I love soccer,” said Liborio, who will sign a national letter of intent Wednesday at the San Diego Hall of Champions to play at UCLA. “My goal is to play professionally.”
He’s at peace with his choice.
“This is something I do for my school,” said Liborio, repeating what high school coaches say their players miss if they play academy ball. “I watched them the last two years and they struggled. I didn’t miss not playing, but now I want to help the team go to the playoffs like we did when I was a freshman.
“I don’t care about the attention I get sometimes,” he said. “I want to do this for the team, for the school. If I didn’t score another goal and we won every game the rest of the season, that would be great.”