Change in club schedule, philosophy affects school sports teams

ADDISON COUNTY — About this fact, there is no dispute: Five local soccer players who started for their Middlebury and Mount Abraham union high school teams in 2013 will not wear those jerseys in 2014, even though they remain eligible.
Instead, the five — MUHS seniors Calder Birdsey, Oliver Clark and Evan Ryan and two Mount Abe players, senior Theo Weaver and junior Jackie Gorton — will practice and play solely for the Synergy Football Club.
Synergy parent and coach Tal Birdsey of Ripton, Calder’s father, said the club is switching to a 10-month season, with August and January off, one that mirrors not only the recommendations of the United States Soccer Federation, but also best practices internationally.
Birdsey said that approach will allow the 115 Synergy players — most of whom pay $2,400 in tuition, plus travel expenses, but many of whom receive scholarships — to reach their goals of becoming the best they can be, and hopefully, like many former club members, Division I soccer players.
“Is it possible for players from Vermont to make it to the highest levels? We believe this absolutely, and everything at SFC (Synergy) is designed to promote, develop and inspire players to the level they want to play at,” Birdsey said in an email. “We want our players to have goals and then put in the work, over a long period of time, to achieve them.”
Tony Clark, father of Oliver, said he and his son talked about the decision, but ultimately it proved to be not that difficult to choose what they believed to be more intense and productive coaching.
“He wanted to make that commitment to play 10 months of the year,” Clark said. “Once he made that commitment it was pretty smooth sailing.”
But others believe in the model practiced by Vermont’s other biggest soccer clubs, Nordic and Far Post, which schedule their seasons to begin as the high school campaign ends.
MUHS coach Bret Weekes and Mount Abe coach Mike Corey said they back their former players’ and parents’ choices.
“It’s a family decision, and as long as they’re happy in what they’re doing I am supportive of that,” Weekes said. “I hope they get everything they want out of that and it plays out they way they would like.”
But both also said something is lost when athletes choose clubs over their hometown school teams.
“I was privileged to play in high school,” said Weekes. “I think that is something that is meaningful. When you look back 20 years and say, ‘I had that opportunity,’ I think there is some meaning to that. I would want my players to be able to look back with fondness on that.”
Both also pointed to many athletes from local programs who are now playing in college: Four 2012 MUHS graduates, including one of Weekes’ sons, played in college, and 2014 Mount Abe graduate Cale Thygesen is one of eight Vermonters playing D-I soccer at the University of Vermont. Six played for the Nordic club, and one each for Synergy and Far Post.
Corey said that soccer players with college ambitions need club exposure, but that the Nordic and Far Post model works.
“College coaches don’t call me. They call club coaches,” Corey said. “What I don’t agree with is creating a program requiring them to give up their high school program if they want to participate. I feel that participating in a high school program and doing a club program the other nine months a year will do the trick. Case in point: Cale Thygesen.”
Certainly, Synergy, founded by Hugh Brown in 2005, has made an impact statewide. Its teams have fared well competitively in and out of Vermont, and the MUHS and Mount Abe situations are not unique: Birdsey said of Synergy’s 115 players only a handful have chosen to remain on high school teams.
And Synergy families’ request last fall for permission from the Vermont Principals’ Association to allow its athletes to go to an out-of-state Columbus Day tournament led to a new VPA rule: Schools may now on a limited basis allow team-sport athletes to participate in the same sport on club teams (see related story).
VPA Associate Executive Director Bob Johnson said other clubs “have been very supportive of our policies and purposely scheduled their competitions so they would not interfere with our competition. Unfortunately, yes, Synergy was the one who pushed the envelope.”
But Birdsey said Synergy’s intent is not to undermine high school soccer, but to align Synergy’s practices with U.S. federation and “Development Academy” training standards. Development Academies, jointly created in 2007 by the federation and elite club teams, offer almost year-round soccer training and play in academy leagues. He said about 90 clubs now participate.
“The goal was to create continuity and the highest standards for developing players. The teams in these leagues train and play according to the USMNT (men’s national team) standards, including a training/game ratio of three-four trainings per week, with one game on the weekend,” Birdsey said. “Synergy is … following the same standards as the Development Academy teams.”
Synergy will play non-league matches with academy teams, Birdsey said, as well as Canadian teams, plus attend the Puma Cup in New York City, which Birdsey described as “a chance for many college coaches to see players play in an intensely competitive environment.”
Corey, a Nordic coach about a decade ago and a former UVM player, said that club players have helped his team become consistently competitive.
“My team has benefitted from the performances they have received from the Synergy, Far Post and Nordic players,” Corey said. “I just think kids could be allowed 10 weeks to participate in their high school program.”
He believes the Synergy program demands more than is necessary for the vast majority of its players, and wonders if Synergy is over-promising what it can deliver.
“Unless you are a true candidate for a Division I program, which very few Vermont players are, maybe three or four a year, what’s the point?” Corey said.
He objects to what he calls Synergy’s “disregard for the well-being” of high school soccer and for what those programs can offer athletes.
“My experience as a Nordic coach is we are a development program, but high school sports are a big part of that,” he said. “Really talented players can have a chance to develop personal attributes in their high school programs above and beyond just becoming a soccer player.”
Corey and Weekes both cited the opportunity to create community bonds, develop lifelong leadership skills (most of the five players named above had been elected captains), and teach other players.
“Those players who are not doing their high school program are often those players who are relied upon and have the chance to be the leaders of their high school teams,” Corey said. “They have a chance to learn skills maybe they couldn’t in an academy team.”
Birdsey disagrees. First, he said the decision of most Synergy players to focus on the club created more than 100 openings on high school rosters.
“Stepping away from school soccer opens up more opportunities for other students,” he said. “Meanwhile, my son will continue to be afforded the chance to play at a high level. My son will not be the captain this season, but some other player will, and that is great.”
And much of the camaraderie that is lost in one place is gained in another, Birdsey said, citing his son.
“He has the fraternity of team sports within his club, which has been developed over the last eight or nine years through travel and continuity of experience,” he said.
The issue of coaching continuity also comes up.
“Our experience in our club was that by the time the players finished the high school season, players were burned out, not in great physical condition, and had picked up many negative playing habits,” said Birdsey.
But Corey and Weekes said players can learn from different approaches, and the extra experience is beneficial. 
“There is a lot of value with young players working with different coaching schemes. I think that the diversity of that requires the kids to raise their intellect of the game in a different kind of way,” Weekes said. “When kids are playing they are going to continue to improve skills and technical performance as long as the ball is on their feet.”
Birdsey didn’t dispute the theory “that having different coaches is a potentially beneficial situation,” but wondered about the practice.
“I agree, possibly, so long as the coach is highly skilled and professionally trained/licensed. This is often not the case with high school soccer,” he said. “Additionally, high school coaches do not have the time or resources to develop players who have high ambitions. Given the compressed schedule and short season, high school coaches, generally speaking, are receiving players and quickly trying to meld them in to a team. This is where players who have high aspirations are potentially short-changed.”
Experts and parents of athletes interested in college sports agree the model of just participating in high school and then showing up to play at the next level is long past.
“The expectations have changed over the past 15, 20 years of what parents want their kids to do,” Johnson said. “Now you have the proliferation of all these non-school teams, whether it’s groups like Synergy, Nordic Soccer, fall baseball. You have all these things popping up now that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”
The U.S. is almost alone in the world in tying sports so closely to schools, specifically to public schools. Johnson said he believes that should remain the case.
“We’ve developed a system that’s designed for all students. Regardless of your abilities you have the opportunity to come out and participate,” Johnson said. “We open our whole system, just like our educational system, to everybody. And in many of the other foreign countries, that doesn’t happen. In order for you to participate in certain club teams, or city teams, or whatever, it’s a very selective process that excludes the majority of people that would be eligible to play.”
Still, even colleges have begun to look at how they approach the sport of soccer, seeking to align it more with the Development Academy and international models.
Now, the D-I college season runs essentially in parallel with the high school season, but longer, into early December, lasting two dozen games. NCAA D-I teams are considering a fall/spring season with fewer games and more practices in each half.
Birdsey said the rationale for it is “the same reason so many clubs want to go to the 10-month season, no compressed trainings and schedules, time to do it properly.”
He sees the NCAA proposal as a sign of progress of which Synergy is part.
“My feeling is that what we are seeing is a new path opening up for elite players,” he said. “If they opt for that path, as most Synergy players have, by default they open up spots for other less experienced players to play high school soccer. This is a fantastic development for soccer in this country, more kids playing, more opportunities for players of all levels.”
Still, Birdsey acknowledges something will be left behind.
“Of course, our guys who are not playing high school soccer will miss that experience,” he said. “On the other hand, they are very supportive of their peers who are playing high school and have been going to the school games to support their schoolmates.”

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