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Soccer coaches continue to debate U.S. Development Academy system

McDonogh boys coach Steve Nichols made a difficult decision this offseason to break away from the U.S. Development Academy and create his own club soccer team.

The Academy rules prohibit players from competing for their respective high schools without a waiver and require uniformity with daily training. Nichols was confident he could build an environment where players could get optimal training and still compete for their respective schools.

With this in mind, Nichols left the Baltimore Bays Chelsea and formed Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club. Not only does he plan to compete in some of the most prestigious tournaments in the United States, but Nichols said the new strategy will help maintain the integrity of the high school game.

“In Academy, you play 25 games and we played only five good games the whole year,” said Nichols, who is entering his 20th season at McDonogh. “It just didn't make sense. You give up high school soccer for this?”

Nichols also recruited some of the top coaches to help with Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club.

McDonogh assistant coach Brandon Quaranta (Archbishop Curley) is handling the 13-16 age group, while Baltimore Blast defender Mike Lookingland (Loyola) is in charge of the 8-12 year olds. UMBC assistant coach Anthony Adams (Calvert Hall), Blast head coach Danny Kelly and Maryland assistant coach Brian Rowland are also helping to oversee the program.

Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club has also partnered with Under Armour, which has boosted its presence with soccer over the past few years. Nichols hopes the changes will be reflected in this upcoming high school season. Some of the area's top players did not compete with their high schools last season because they were affiliated with Academy teams.

“I think the [Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association] and the public schools will be better this year,” Nichols said. “I know the MIAA will be better, competition-wise, than ever. Broadneck is going to be really good, so is River Hill.”

The Baltimore Bays Chelsea, under Blast general manager Kevin Healey, will continue to compete in the Academy program. Healey brought on former Towson University coach Frank Olszewski as the team’s new director of coaching.

Olszewski said the Academy system simply provides the top players with another option to develop their skills. He said the model, which consists of four training sessions and one game per week, is geared toward bridging the gap between the U.S. and some of the world's traditional soccer powers.

“In youth soccer, it's the highest level,” Olszewski said about the Academy system. “I have all the respect in the world for high school soccer. Players have choices. The Development Academy is set up for those with the ambitions to play at the highest level.”

Furthermore, Olszewski said players who choose to play Academy over high schools can open an opportunity for other students to compete for their school.

South Carroll coach Tim Novotny had one of the best players in his area on the sideline last season because of a commitment to an Academy program. The player agonized over the decision, but in the end, he chose Academy over high school because he felt it was best for his future.

“There are still too many Academy teams out there,” Novotny said. “Cut them back and then invest more money for those teams. I get that it would be hard for D.C. United Academy team to travel to the West Coast every other weekend, so have about 15 teams in each — East, Central, West — area.

“You can still create other highly competitive leagues, which other high-profile clubs can play in, but at least now you will get the truly best of each area competing for 10 months. The bottom line is U.S. soccer will take the best kids out there, regardless of what team they play for.”

Broadneck coach Sean Tettemer agreed that the high number of teams has diminished some of the competitiveness of the Academy system. However, he said some players have reaped the benefits of playing within the current structure.

“I think that some realized that they could gain valuable experience playing traditional club tournaments and leagues, not to mention their high school experience,” Tettemer said. “I think the results were not necessarily worth the inconvenience that it caused. However, I do feel with some adjustments the academy system could work.”

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