The story focused on two players from my town, Montclair, N.J. -- Oliver Murphy, a senior, and Joseph Rodriguez, a junior. Both had been stars on the Montclair High School team the previous season. Anticipating that he would playing college soccer on the Division III level, Murphy dropped off the top Match Fit Academy club team and remained with the high school squad. Rodriguez, harboring a dream of playing for an age-appropriate national team, stayed with Match Fit, commuting 50 miles each way to West Windsor, N.J. for weeknight practices and home games. Weekend road games against other academy teams could be as far south as Virginia.
Not surprisingly, Rodriguez found it difficult to stay away from the high school games. They were a few blocks from campus and these were the boys he had grown up playing with, his best friends. In the crowd, he watched Murphy and company struggle throughout most of the season, including two deflating 1-0 defeats to Montclair Kimberley, the local private school, in front of large, exuberant crowds.
But Montclair, behind Murphy, caught fire in the state playoffs and wound up winning a sectional title by beating neighboring West Orange, before losing in overtime in the group state semifinals. Rodriguez was pained not being part of it. As his father, Paul, said at the time: "It's killing him." So when he accepted a scholarship to play Division 1 soccer at Drexel late last spring, he made up his mind to return to the high school team for his senior season.
With Murphy gone to Trinity College, Rodriguez became the team's leader and best player. Montclair avenged the two losses to Montclair Kimberley, won an impressive county championship, but in a twist of fate lost to West Orange in the sectional semis in the last game of Rodriguez's high school career. He told the local Montclair Times it had all been worth it -- the highs, the lows, everything.
The benefits of the academy programs, outlined in my story, are undeniable, especially for that very special player and most likely for American soccer in the international arena. But the rewards of Murphy's and Rodriguez's experiences, while harder to quantify, are also impossible to deny. In a sports culture that grows increasingly regional/national and more segregated by ability, something is invariably lost -- a sense of neighborhood, of crosstown and border rivalries that stir the passions.
High school coaches are hoping a pattern is developing and that players, upon settling on a college, will figure out that they can have it both ways. I'm not so sure; the academies are pushing harder for kids to commit to them sooner. But I hope the coaches are right. The U.S. might not win the World Cup with our old developmental system. But a lot of adolescent lives will probably be richer for it.