By Charles Boehm
Several noteworthy coaches left Baltimore Bays Chelsea to form a new club called Baltimore Celtic SC earlier this year – and took a number of top players with them – due in large part to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s mandate against participation in high-school soccer.
Led by veteran coaches Steve Nichols and Brandon Quaranta, the founding of Celtic SC turned heads across the region, raising many questions, chiefly: Why would elite players and coaches walk away from the chance to play in the nation’s top youth club competition?
And once they did, how would Bays Chelsea keep pace in the DA this season after losing a chunk of its leading talent?
When U.S. Soccer barred Development Academy players from taking part in high-school competition last year, Nichols and the rest of the Bays Chelsea staff hoped exceptions would eventually be made for situations like Baltimore, where the level of play among many high-school teams is quite strong.
But when the policy was firmly enshrined, Nichols, who coaches full-time at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., faced a conflict of interest and something of a watershed decision.
“After last Christmas I sat back and said to myself, the academy 10-month schedule without high school really doesn’t work in our area,” Nichols recently told SoccerWire.com. “In a 28-game schedule, we played four good games: [New Jersey club] PDA twice and D.C. [United] twice. So to play four or five competitive matches out of 28 games really doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t work.”
While coaches elsewhere in the region would dispute that characterization of the DA’s competitive balance, it was not the only factor, as Nichols cited dissatisfaction among some Bays coaches and noted the club’s relatively limited access to training and match facilities. His teams now compete in US Youth Soccer events and take part in high-profile showcases for high-school age teams.
“I sat down with Brandon Quaranta – because I was the DOC of the Bays, trying to coach the academy teams, Brandon did the pre-academy teams and Mike Lookingland works on our [Under-]8 through [U-]12s, so we had all the best teams in the club,” he explained. “Brandon and Mike were a little bit dissatisfied with Kevin Healey and the Bays anyway, they weren’t really happy. I was kind of the guy hanging on. I said, ‘Hey, Here’s our opportunity, we can use this to move on and start our own club.’ And they were 100 percent behind it.
“We brought all our academy teams over – my academy teams, Brandon’s three academy teams, and Mike’s really good with the [U-]13s … We kind of brought, really, the more important guys from the staff and the best players over with us. We’ve just about got everybody.”
But Bays president Kevin Healey says there’s plenty of room in Charm City for two elite clubs, and more than enough talent for both of them to be highly competitive in their respective spheres.
“The [Development] Academy is the best league and it provides the best opportunity for kids that are out here,” said Healey, who is the general manager of the Baltimore Blast professional indoor team and says he’s working for the Bays on a pro bono basis. “We’re just out there in the best interests of the kids.
“We want Baltimore to be a part of that. [The Development Academy] gives the kids an outstanding opportunity to play against the best players in the country, because the vast majority of the best players in the country are in the academy.”
Said Healey of Nichols: “I think he thought it was in his best interest to split from the academy because of the high-school rule and him being a high-school coach. And that’s certainly understandable, and we move forward.”
While it’s very early in the season, Bays Chelsea have yet to show ill effects from the split, with their U-15/16 and U-17/18 Development Academy teams kicking off the 2013-14 campaign with winning records. Healey said that the players who departed for Celtic have been replaced from within and also via some new arrivals, including some who have joined up from Potomac Soccer after that Washington, D.C.-area club lost its place in the DA.
“We kept kids, we were able to promote kids from within our club, and we were able to find kids from outside our club,” he said, “and they’ve taken that opportunity.
“The key to the academy is, we’re training four times a week to play one game,” he added. “So most of what’s happening is, kids are working hard and getting better and growing as a team.We’ve had some new players come in that haven’t necessarily played with each other for a long period of time…so I applaud the players and the coaching staff for what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Healey laughed at the idea that there might be rivalry or ill will between Bays and Celtic, noting that his coach at the Blast, Danny Kelly, is also a Celtic coach.
“They’re going to do well, and we’re doing well also,” said Healey. “We have a great coaching staff, we have a great group of players and we’re off to a very good start.
“There’s no animosity, there’s no problems. We understand why they had to split. Kids got opportunities, kids have taken advantage of opportunities, and on the other side, kids will get opportunities…This is positive.”