By Rebecca Liebson and Gregory Zarb
One of the world’s premiere soccer organizations, FC Barcelona, has chosen King’s Park as the location for their newest youth development academy, set to open in 2019. As Barça begins construction on state-of-the-art-practice facilities for their academy, mere miles away in Central Islip, local elite club SUSA Academy has already broken ground on their own multi-million-dollar youth soccer complex.
“Long Island has been known as a hotbed for boys and girls lacrosse,” Timothy Mullins, the former Athletic Director of Section XI which oversees all public school athletes in Suffolk County said. “But perhaps with the addition of these tremendous programs coming in, those student athletes who want to hone their skills from a soccer perspective, they’ll certainly be able to do it without travelling out of state or to upstate New York.”
In the past, Lauren Gotta, who coaches the North Shore High School women’s varsity team, said the only real option for players looking to achieve a higher level of competition were the Long Island Junior Soccer League’s select teams. Now, elite players can choose from a plethora of options including Elite Club National League teams. National Premier League teams, and Olympic Development teams.
“I think that it shows that the kids here are moving forward and getting better so we need more options for them that are more competitive,” she said.
Professional teams in Europe have a long history of using a more centralized system of soccer academies to scout talented young players, moving them on a path toward playing in the big leagues.
“If the club sees a player he likes in Long Island, it may offer him the chance to move to Barcelona and to play with the team according to his age,” Frederic Vincent, a newscaster for Catalan-based media company Cadena Ser wrote in an email. “If [he] plays very well, he might get the chance to move up to the next team and maybe even get to the ‘first team.”
Implementing these European-style academies on Long Island could make it easier to cultivate gifted players who would normally go undetected until age 11 or 12 when they join their middle school soccer teams.
“I think with the way it is now, we don’t necessarily do the best job of identifying talented players early on, so things like what FC Barcelona is trying to do could probably help with that,” Michael Gallagher, coach for the Chaminade High School varsity soccer team said.
While the academy system has been successful in Spain and other European countries, Mark Lugris, founder of Northport based training camp Cantera Futbol USA, said that the “pay to play” business model that has surfaced in academies across United States is problematic.
Under the current system, academies usually draft several teams of varying skill levels within the same age group. Oftentimes, only the players on the top team will receive scholarships, while players on the other teams pay upwards of $4000 per season to participate.
“The kids underneath them are footing the bill,” he said. “I feel like we’re pricing out kids more and more.”
Despite their flaws, Gotta said these academies still give athletes who are interested in playing at the collegiate and professional levels an advantage over their counterparts who only play their high schools.
“As the high school coach you have to really push for college coaches to come and see them play,” she said. “When you’re shelling out a lot of money those college coaches are definitely coming to your tournaments. You’re paying for the exposure.
In past years, Joe Vasile Cozzo, girl’s soccer chair for section XI, said that high school teams had been hurt by academies, since many of these teams prevented players from joining high school teams.
“People think, ‘I’m on the third team of so-and-so elite club, I’m gonna get a scholarship,’ but it doesn’t work that way,” he said, adding that usually only the top one or two percent of players received scholarship money. “I think that’s the value of school sports. You’re playing for your school and your community and for each other where with an academy sometimes it ends up you’re just playing for yourself.”
Going forward Vasile Cozzo said he hopes that the expansion of SUSA academy and the creation of FC Barcelona’s new youth academy will lead to increased cooperation between club and varsity athletics.
“I’m hoping that it really works to benefit kids and give them additional opportunities to enhance their school programs and enhance their soccer base as an athlete.”