On the eve of WPIAL boys and girls soccer finals that will be played this coming weekend at Highmark Stadium, it was rather ironic that I came across a commentary written in Soccer America by its Executive Editor Mike Woitalla — U.S. Soccer blundered badly on high school soccer.
It was a fascinating take, and really piqued my interest.
I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the high school game in the past 20 years, first as a college coach recruiting high school players, then as a youth and high school coach (and also a parent) — and the past five or six years I’ve spent more time covering the sport as a soccer reporter and analyst.
For all of its flaws, high school soccer should not be discounted as a part of the landscape of the world’s most popular sport in our country. This isn’t the first time I’ve said this, and won’t be the last.
Clubs and developmental academies are popping up all around in unprecedented numbers as players starting training as early as age six. Our Mark Goodman has begun a new Youth Spotlight series where he will be focusing on providing more information about each club, and I look forward to seeing those.
Many of these clubs provide aspiring young soccer players with year-round training and competition opportunities that can only help a player’s development.
When the high school season rolls around, in our region, most every local club with players in High School usually limit or cede training and competition. The local clubs, such as Riverhounds Developmental Academy, Beadling, Century United, Arsenal, and many others have many coaches who cross-over between clubs and high school teams. Thus, many are involved in the high school game in our region.
There have been numerous young players in recent years from this area who have by-passed High School careers to become part of Developmental Academies, where in the case of kids that are from Western Pennsylvania — that means they’re relocating to Eastern PA (Philadelphia Union), DC area (DC United) or Columbus (Crew).
This still represents a very small number of players that forgo the high school experience.
On the other side of the state, the Philadelphia Union works in partnership with most of its local clubs in development of players beginning around seven or eight years of age.
Today, the Union have been operating a high school of its own, YSC Academy. They’ve spent millions of dollars on the facility in an effort to develop the next generation of U.S. national team stars. Launched in 2013, the school has 73 students from grades 8 through 12, and not just from the Philadelphia region. Many students come from other cities, and a few even come from other countries. They train twice a day and go to class for the rest of the time, and the out-of-towners live in residency. A few came from Pittsburgh-area.
The Riverhounds Developmental Academy still is in it’s infancy stages, and local players, such as West Allegheny’s Nathan Dragisich have been provided opportunities to be a part of the Pathway to the Pros program established this year, where certain players will have training opportunities along side pro players.
Still, almost every soccer player in our region, ages 14 to 18 are part of their respective high school teams.
As Woitalla points out in his essay, the U.S. Soccer Federation doesn’t seem to be too enthralled with the high school game despite the likes of Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard having played high school soccer.
There are three female players that immediately come to mind who are from our region that have made it to the highest level of professional soccer: Veronia Latsko, Frannie Crouse and Meghan Klingenberg. One (Klingenberg) has excelled as a part of the United States National team, and all three played for WPIAL schools also while playing for their respective club teams.
The Federation had decided that high school soccer was no good for today’s players — even though for whatever faults the high school game has, it has certainly improved over the years.
During this time of watching the high school sport through the eyes of a journalist, I’ve tackled some of the most significant flaws: the two and three referee whistle system and struggles with the officiating system overall, the rules of the game being played differently than FIFA rules, the struggle many school districts and communities have in building more soccer-specific facilities and fields, Western PA’s challenges in youth player development and numerous other issues.
Maybe if U.S. Soccer was more involved with the high school game, some of these challenges wouldn’t exist. They should be addressing the officiating situation head on, and putting pressure on the State governing bodies to move to a one-whistle, two linesman system. They should provide more funding for soccer-specific fields and venues (I know that might be a bit of a pipe dream!) — and work to see that the rules of the games are played closely aligned to FIFA rules.
The excitement, authenticity of emotions and sense of community that embodies the high school games is something that can’t be captured in other levels of the game, even when the level of play may be significantly better.
High school soccer provides a lot of things we can’t reproduce at the club or developmental academy:
- Authentic rivalries.
- Exposes players to the pressure and exhilaration of playing in front of crowds
- Representing community and a school
- Puts players from ages 14 to 18 — from freshmen to seniors — on the same field
Players: Enjoy your HS playing days. There’s nothing like playing in front of a crowd of your community members, friends & family & playing alongside classmates. The sense of community & school pride is unbeatable. Relish it; rejoice in it; respect it. It’s over before you know.
— Jon Beck (@CoachJonBeck) October 23, 2018
A few years ago, prior to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds playoff game against the NY Red Bulls II at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, when we arrived many hours ahead for the game, there were loud roars emanating from inside Red Bull Arena as a high school game was being played in the facility.
The stands were absolutely packed and there was a buzz in the air for this match.
What we discovered was a local rivalry game between Harrison and Kearny high school boys teams. This is one of the most storied rivalries in all of high school sports played in the U.S. It’s a rivalry that goes back more than 100 years when immigrants from both New Jersey towns would play each other in soccer.
In the present, they play their annual match at Red Bull Arena before crowds of more than 5,000 fans.
And now, here in Pittsburgh since Highmark Stadium opened in 2013, the WPIAL (Pennsylvania’s District 7) finals have brought strong crowds to Station Square on the first weekend of every November.
With eight games played in a three-day period each year, games played at Pittsburgh’s soccer mecca serve as a culmination of the soccer season. These games provide plenty of excitement and for those who play in these games — win or lose — plenty of memories.
These games also generate plenty of interest. This website hits peak viewership when high school season and especially the playoffs and championship games roll around.
While this may be a region known for many other sporting traditions, to those in soccer circles around here, the WPIAL finals are a big deal.
Montour boys head coach, Alex Hobbs, may have summed it up best last year.
After heading up his Spartans program for more than a decade, he finally had a chance to experience his dream of coaching his team in a WPIAL championship game in 2017.
When he told me what the WPIAL finals meant to him struck a chord — and may have best captured the spirit of the competition we see every year in our district’s high school finals.
“It’s a battle in the WPIAL. A lot of people outside of Pittsburgh don’t understand a lot about WPIAL soccer, WPIAL sports in general, in these communities. You saw a great crowd today, it’s so special.,” Hobbs said. “Maybe I’m small minded, but winning the WPIAL is the greatest dream of mine as a coach.”
And last year, when Penn-Trafford girls team dethroned its neighboring rivals Norwin, keeping them from winning an unprecedented third consecutive title, emotions were very high.
Also, what a wonderful backstory as rival coaches from those teams were once teammates on youth teams and remain friends.
In that case, it was Jackie Bartko, who played for PT’s last WPIAL winner in 2003, who bested her buddy Lauren Karcher‘s juggernaut Norwin squad.
“It’s so exciting — it’s crazy, the girls deserve it,” Bartko said. “It’s makes the win little bit sweeter — because it’s a hometown rivalry, It’s pretty surreal.”
In that match between Penn-Trafford and Norwin included many players who have played year-round for club teams, train and compete with Development Academy programs. Some play with each other on the same club teams, and compete against each other at the high school level.
If you ask most of them, many will cite experiences playing before the large crowds and for their schools as the most memorable and enjoyable.
This Thursday through Saturday at Highmark Stadium — we’ll see that yet again.
Of course, Pittsburgh Soccer Now will provide coverage of each game this coming weekend. Look for previews, game day files and check out our social media platforms leading up to the games in the coming days for more.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 1
1A BOYS: Avonworth vs. Greensburg Central Catholic, 6 p.m.
3A BOYS: Franklin Regional vs. West Allegheny, 8 p.m.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2
3A GIRLS: Mars vs. Oakland Catholic, 6 p.m.
2A GIRLS: South Park vs. Hopewell, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 3
1A GIRLS: Freedom vs. Bentworth, 11 a.m.
2A BOYS: Quaker Valley vs. Shady Side Academy, 1:15 p.m.
4A GIRLS: Seneca Valley vs Peters Township, 3:30 p.m.
4A BOYS: Seneca Valley vs. Norwin, 5:45 p.m.