Tension is rising among elite high school soccer players. Summer is approaching, which means it's the time of year when they have to make a tough decision: Play for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy or play for their high school team.
At least one top player, Jesse Fitzgerald of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, has told the academy, "No, thanks."
"I really did consider playing for it, but I really wanted to play high school and be loyal to my high school," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-1 junior who was the Mission League offensive player of the year this past season, committed to Washington last week. He's proof you don't have to play in the USSDA league to receive a college scholarship.
It took some fortitude to trust his instincts, because many told him the academy league is where scholarships are earned. But he received plenty of exposure playing for his club team.
"Club is just as good as academy," Fitzgerald said. "You can go to tournaments that coaches are at. You have to email colleges that show interest. You have to tell them your schedule. I've been emailing Washington since sophomore year. They saw me November of my sophomore year at Surf Cup."
Washington has become successful in recruiting non-academy players. The most notable was Cristian Roldan from El Rancho High in Pico Rivera, where he became the Gatorade national player of the year. He now plays for the Seattle Sounders.
Washington Coach Jamie Clark said he learned long ago from his father to "trust your eyes. Go watch players. If they're good, they're good."
Since the inception of the academy program in 2007, high school coaches have been losing top players. It's a 10-month program designed to develop America's top young prospects. They practice four days a week and play about 30 games a year. Most participants are not allowed to play for their high school team.
Practices, workouts and competitions take place in the middle of the high school season in Southern California, causing conflicts.
Club seasons start right after the high school season ends, making it a natural transition for players.
There's no easy answer for what's the right choice, academy or high school soccer, but the pressure can be immense on players and families.
Notre Dame has three students who have played in the academy league instead of high school. Soon they'll have to decide whether to return to the academy.
"My mom wants me to play high school soccer and my dad wants to me play academy," said Notre Dame sophomore Allen Moiseyev.
Stuck in the middle is Notre Dame Coach Patrick Thomsen, who wants to have a strong high school program but doesn't want to prevent students from exploring their options and opportunities.
"I'm starting to feel it's getting out of hand," he said. "They're taking too many players."
Thomsen is hopeful that Fitzgerald's success shows there's another path to climbing the soccer ladder besides the academy program.
"It's not the only way," Fitzgerald said.