Lucas Mendes’ POTY award shows absurdities of club-high school battle

Congratulations are due to Lucas Mendesthe 2015-2016 Gatorade National Boys High School Player of the Year. Mendes is a good kid, a genuine talent and quite possibly a future professional, the sort of small, elusive, creative player that the United States is so often accused of failing to develop or nurture properly.

Through no intention or fault of his own, he’s also highlighted one of the many absurdities of the current youth soccer landscape — and it’s one that the U.S. Soccer Federation specifically set out to address several years ago, but seems to have merely made more complicated and contentious.

+READ: Lucas Mendes named Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year

It’s a tribute to Mendes’ abilities — and a comment on the silliness of the system — that he’s earned this major award for his exploits in a laughably short high-school career: just 13 games and counting.

His senior season is his first (and last) with the Washington & Lee Generals, because up until this year he was, as a standout member of the D.C. United youth academy after first starring for the Arlington Soccer Association’s travel teams, obeying the ban on high-school play that’s been imposed on U.S. Soccer Development Academy players since 2012.

So, as the system asked him to, Mendes focused on academy soccer, and excelled enough to earn a major role with D.C. and consideration for the U.S. youth national teams’ player pools. He did well enough to be recruited by, and eventually commit to, George Gelnovatch‘s powerhouse NCAA program at the University of Virginia. The Cavaliers’ 2016 recruiting class also includes fellow blue-chippers Weston McKennie (FC Dallas) and Raheem Taylor-Parkes (Philadelphia Union) and is rated as the third-best crop in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer.

But once his place in college was sewn up, Mendes did what a small but rapidly-growing number of top players have done: He walked away from his academy and seized his final opportunity to represent his school before his youth sports career ended. He traded D.C. United’s black and red for W-L’s blue and white, and got to play with his classmates and neighbors before they all went their separate ways.

“I just came in wanting to try and hang a banner in the school, win a state championship,” he told reporters as he was handed his POTY award on Tuesday.

Most people can understand this impulse, of course. School sports remain a central part of the American youth experience, and the nation’s soccer leaders have yet to figure out how to infuse club play with that sort of meaning and intensity, even as they work to cut it out of this sport’s upper echelons here. It’s worth noting that Gatorade’s annual POTY awards, which are awarded across many sports, are based on high-school play, not club, because that’s been the dominant norm for decades. 

Suli DainkehHis D.C. United academy predecessor Suli Dainkeh did much the same at South Lakes High School before going off to the University of Maryland and becoming an immediate starter as a freshman at one of the nation’s top NCAA programs, and current Seattle Sounders regular Cristian Roldan turned heads for putting high school before club during his teenage years.

Taylor Twellman visited W-L to present Mendes with his award on Tuesday. The former Maryland, MLS and U.S. National Team striker has spoken out with his reservations about the DA’s no-high-school approach.

“There’s nothing like playing for your school, there’s nothing like playing for your classmates – they tell you when you were absolute crap and when you were absolutely great. There’s pressure,” he said at a panel discussion on the future of college soccer last month. “Signing a[n MLS] Homegrown deal, getting lost in USL – that’s one way. But there’s real value in playing for your school, and having your student-athletes be in the midst of their peers, getting their college education.”

Mendes’ decision is generally considered a transgression by those who are tasked with growing future professional and international players in this country, the coaches and technical directors and federation mandarins who got tired of coexisting with high-school soccer’s messiness and unevenness and simply told their kids it was off limits. The general thrust of their message runs something like this: A player with genuine professional aspirations has to sacrifice and make difficult choices in order to make the most of their gifts, and those unable to turn their backs on high-school play probably aren’t really cut out for true greatness.

It’s a message Mendes has surely heard more than once over the past few years. But he gave his school team priority for a few months of his life just the same, and stepped back from a professional program to do so. Does that mean he lacks ambition? Or could it actually be the other way around?

+READ: Alecko Eskandarian’s compelling read about high school vs. Development Academy

D.C. United haven’t signed a Homegrown (that is, inked an academy product to a senior-team contract) in more than two years, having slashed their academy budget repeatedly and built the first-team roster primarily with MLS veterans. Jalen Robinson, the last HGP promoted from what once once looked like one of the most promising youth systems in the country, has yet to see sustained playing time for United, having spent most of his pro career with USL affiliates the Richmond Kickers to date.

DCU-Jalen-Robinson1Sources tell SoccerWire.com that other United academy products, who shall remain nameless for now, have urged current D.C. academy kids to avoid signing with the senior team at all costs, pointing to the relative dearth of opportunities provided to youth under head coach Ben Olsen.

It’s entirely possible that Mendes simply failed to see sufficient reason to spend the second semester of his senior year in service to a club that most likely won’t give him a chance to prove his pro chops. (I’m highly confident, though not certain, that Mendes has already logged sufficient “training units” for D.C. to be eligible to sign him as a Homegrown, though those rights will expire if he does not return to the club in some capacity, most likely as a PDL player, in the months and years ahead.)

Even after leaving his United team, Mendes still got a chance to measure himself against the global standard, spending training time at English clubs Fulham and Leicester City earlier this year. Rumors abound that he returned quickly due to homesickness, but that door isn’t closed. I spoke briefly with Mendes at D.C. United’s match vs. New York City FC at RFK Stadium on Sunday night, and while he sounded excited about starting at UVa this fall, he admitted that further European trials or training stints are a possibility this summer.

+READ: Sources: D.C. United restructure youth academy’s staff, budget as funds routed towards stadium process

He could test those waters and still come back to the NCAA’s top echelon as a Cavalier, so long as he does not hire an agent or sign a full pro contract. The fact that he has a European Union passport thanks to his Portuguese heritage only empowers him further. United could yet come calling eventually, or he could stay in college long enough for their rights to expire and enter the MLS SuperDraft, though that process still excludes underclassmen, save those who are offered “Generation adidas” contracts.

The main knock on Mendes is his size: He’s just 5-foot-5 and slight of frame, though he might still have another growth spurt ahead of him. The rough-and-tumble of college soccer might help him learn how to cope with the bigger, stronger opponents who’ll try to muscle him out of games. Or a pro club abroad may see enough value in his attacking skills to sign him in spite of his stature.

Did he reach his current level of play because of the DA and its rules, or in spite of it? Or was it irrelevant in the end? The debate will rage on, and players will continue to chart their own paths through the mess.

By | May 10, 2016 | 5 Comments | Tags: , , , , ,

  • Charles Boehm

    FANTASTIC perspective Tony – thank you! I might have to steal some of these thoughts, because you may have stated them better than anyone else I’ve discussed this with.

    Over and over I hear smart observers lament the assembly line of similar and mostly average players being churned out by the DA system. It doesn’t appear to be a particularly good return on the substantial investments made in the program to date.

  • Tony Damiani

    Eryk Williamson did the opposite. Eryk played 3 years of high school then missed his senior season playing one year for DCU (most of which was spent with the YNT). Eryk started as a freshman at Maryland and no less than 2 college coaches have called him the best player they have seen in college soccer.

    Talent wins out. The DAs do a fine job with average players, simply because they train more, but they do a poor job with exceptional players.

    This is a problem because the YNTs only select Academy players (or foreign based players). Eryk dominated every level of play as a young player. His quality was obvious from his first touch. He attended several US Training centers and crushed the competition, but was never called in to a YNT camp. He moved to DCU and 4 weeks later was called into camp.

    So our best kids, who aspire to be YNT players, are forced to leave the environment that nurtured them and helped them develop and enter an environment with an abyssal record of developing world class players. This is why so many great talents go undiscovered and why guys like Zelalem and Pulisic left their families and friends behind to seek better training in Europe.

    Why did this happen? Simple. US Soccer put too much emphasis on the players, especially older players, and too little emphasis on the coaches. They believe, incorrectly, that quality curriculum matters more than quality teaching. Accordingly, the DAs are populated by coaches who go through the motions, working on things mandated by US Soccer but utterly disconnected from their players, especially the talented ones who are way above the mean. Who wrote this curriculum? Guardiola? Cruyff? Ferguson? Jozak? Any outstanding coach with a track record of developing world class players? No.

    This post has moved away from high school vs DA, but maybe because that is just s symptom of a larger issue with youth soccer. We have the talent to compete for and win a World Cup. The current system just fails that talent.

    • Ron

      U.S. Soccer’s coaching education curriculum is now headed by Nico Romeijn, who was formerly the head of coaching education for the KNVB.

      I’ll let you decide if there is a track record there of developing world class players.

      • Tony Damiani

        Nico Romejin is involved in writing the new coaching curriculum, which is fantastic and long overdue. But, the development of the players will be left to the same guys. And, who will be teaching this new program? It would be great if we could get UEFA Master coaches to do it, but otherwise it’s just words and diagrams on paper when the true genius lies in how the details are implemented.

        Why aren’t our best young coaches in Europe/South America/Africa learning the minute details of how they do things with players at different levels? It takes more than a week long trip to do this. They need to go there for a few years. Klinsmann obviously prefers it when our players make that choice. He should mandate it for our coaches as well.

        I could go on, but I am a huge fan of the US National Team. I want us to succeed and know that we have the talent to do so. We just won’t unless more things change.

    • David Shafer

      “Talent wins out. The DAs do a fine job with average players, simply because they train more, but they do a poor job with exceptional players.”

      Fantastic post and discussion. Couldn’t get this comment out of my head. You see I grew up a swimmer, competed at the highest level of US swimming. We dominate the world in swimming, with kids from the same strata of society that soccer attracts. Do we have young swimmers leaving their club team to train with some elite club? No. In fact, it is not until our swimmers go off to college that they usually choose the top coaches and teams to compete with. All their development is done with local club teams. Here is the secret, youth swimming programs don’t spend their time trying to do the impossible, identify what 11-12-13-14 year olds are going to be elite swimmers, instead develop all who want to put in the work. You see, elite athletes develop at their own rate, sometimes are immediately noticed, but many times their talent doesn’t become apparent until well into High School. In fact, US Swimming has a multiple decade long series of data that tracks how many top age group swimmers end up as top senior swimmers competing in national championships, NCAAs and Olympic Trials. The results? 9% for boys and 19% for women. So where do the other 91% of elite male swimmers come from? They come from the same local clubs as the 9%, but are just late developers, multiple sport kids who settle on swimming over other sports, or kids that just needed to get through puberty before their talent and determination showed through. Some Olympians even gave up the sport or never trained at club teams until the middle of HS. So yes, talent wins out and US Soccer should be more concerned with developing all kids talent than eliminating most of the soccer pool from consideration of NTs.