ERIC SONDHEIMER

Demands of some club soccer coaches test high school ethics

Athletes are stuck choosing between club or high school, but a loophole in City rules allows prep coaches to use a club player during high school playoffs.

If Mario Ledezma had his way, he would have become invisible at the conclusion of a tension-filled City Section semifinal soccer playoff game on the last day of February.

Ledezma, a standout junior forward at Woodland Hills El Camino Real, didn't want his name mentioned in any newspaper story because he had defied his club coach's order not to play high school soccer.

After El Camino Real prevailed over Woodland Hills Taft, with Ledezma scoring one of his team's four goals during the penalty-kick period, school officials pleaded to keep Ledezma's name absent from any game report.

Looking scared and fearing the consequences of being exposed, Ledezma ran from a reporter seeking comment.

It was one of many ethical quandaries that developed during the strangest of soccer seasons, when dozens of top Southland players were forced to choose between playing for their high schools or for their club teams in a developmental program known as the academy league, created by U.S. Soccer Federation to groom promising young talent for international competition.

Coach David Hussey, who has won three City titles in 15 years at El Camino Real, faced his own ethical question: Should he put players who didn't practice or play for his team during the regular season on the field for the playoffs?

Hussey did just that. He used three players who did not compete in a single regular-season game. Some coaches don't agree with his decision.

"I'd rather lose," said Sylmar boys' basketball Coach Bort Escoto when asked a similar question. "It's not fair to the other kids."

Added Taft boys' soccer Coach Matt Kodama: "The whole thing is very disturbing. I think it's crossing an ethical line when you bring them in just for the playoffs."

Under CIF rules, players are not allowed to compete simultaneously for their club and high school teams. As soon as they play in their first high school match, their eligibility clock starts, and they become ineligible when they play in their next club match.

Hussey decided last winter that there would be a window of opportunity to use Ledezma and juniors Edgar Ramirez and Orr Barouch in the playoffs when they had a brief break from their club commitments.

But what would be the reaction of the El Camino Real players who showed up to practice every day, helped the team reach the playoffs, then suddenly lost playing time?

"Some people got mad," freshman Emanuel Munguia said.

Hussey countered: "It doesn't make sense for a lot of people, but the issue is that these kids had played with the team for two years.

"In ninth and 10th grade, they had been at every practice and every game. This year, they were given the opportunity to play in a developmental league, which supposedly exposes them to college and national team coaches. They had to make a decision. My decision was to allow them to make a decision."

The playoffs came, and in the second round, Ledezma was put on the field but not as a starter. By the semifinals, Ramirez and Barouch had joined him but not as starters.

When El Camino Real made it to the City championship game on March 1, Ledezma faced another issue: He had a club game the same day. He decided he had better keep his club commitment.

Ramirez and Barouch, however, chose to play for the Conquistadores, accepting the consequences as their club coach had also told them not to play for their high school.

El Camino Real lost to Wilmington Banning, 2-1, in the final.

Subsequently, Ramirez and Barouch were removed from their club team for violating team rules. They decided to join another club team that was not part of the restrictive academy program.

Ledezma apparently avoided any punishment -- other than missing his chance to play in the City Championship game. His club coach said this week he was unaware Ledezma had played high school soccer this season.

All these problems resulted from the U.S. Soccer Federation running its developmental program in the middle of California's high school soccer season, and affiliated club coaches deciding as a group to bar their players from joining their high school soccer teams, despite U.S. Soccer supposedly encouraging participants to play high school soccer.

"My only criticism is in California, they took away high school soccer," Hussey said. "This first year was a learning experience. If the second year they still think the development league is more important than high school, there's a problem.

"I won't declare war because you don't want to make any enemies and we don't know how long the academies are going to last. We're losing the battle right now, but these kids and their families are making the decisions, and if the rules say if you play in the academy, you can't play high school, I don't have a problem telling my kids, 'These are the rules.' "

As a result of Hussey's actions, the City soccer rules advisory committee might need to require players to participate in a minimum number of league games if they want to participate in the playoffs, similar to section rules for tennis, swimming and golf.

What's clear is that this soccer season was sabotaged by the demands of some club coaches, resulting in recrimination, anger and second-guessing.

That's no way to develop the next generation of top soccer players.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com
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