A recent article in the Washington Post (U.S. youth soccer: Is it best to play in high school, or on an academy team?) does a nice job of demonstrating the current dilemma in youth soccer as elite level clubs (soccer academies) put pressure on their high-school-age players to commit exclusively to their programs by requiring them to "forgo" playing for their high schools.
Their goal, as reported by the Post, is to develop top notch players, something the U.S. has failed to do in the past with their mixed up "system of club teams, summer development leagues and the Olympic Development Program." They want to grow the type of players that can compete on the world stage, the kind that can play in the MLS and/or on the national team. In addition, there is movement toward a ten-month club season rather than the seven-month seasons of the past, thus, crowding out and overlapping the high school season for many.
The theory on all this is that requiring players to stay with academy-type programs gives them better training and competition as they are practicing and playing alongside and against better players than they would likely see on their high school teams. I don't think many would question that; however, what I would question is their implementation. Basically, the fact is they are attempting to, in one way or another, make the athlete choose one over the other rather than finding ways to inspire them to do so.
In an article written last May, 2010 (Club or High School Sports: Why do I have to choose?), I discussed the general benefits one gains from both sides of the coin--playing club sports and playing for high school teams. Even though my piece is detailed from the perspective of any sport, it has strong relevance here. Take a look at the positives highlighted in the article both for playing club and playing high school and you will see what I mean.
I fully understand the concept of training with the elite to become an elite, but what about the many who are forced to make this choice and don't quite make the grade? For example, say you take 100 players who decide to play only academy because they are forced to make that one or the other decision, but only 15 of these hundred rise to the higher levels.* What happens to the other 85? What happens to the positive development, and experiences, they could have gained by being able to do both (if they wanted)?
It is not that I am against a player playing one over the other if they choose, on their own, to do so. And I am well aware that there are other countries that develop elite level soccer players, and other athletes in other sports, in this manner. However, the question I ask is, is this the only way?
My take on it is this. If the powers that be, in soccer, feel that the way to the top is by getting soccer athletes to dedicate more time and training with top level coaches and players (and maybe rightfully so), then it would behoove them to find a way to inspire and motivate players who want to reach this level to make that choice all on their own. It has been my experience that it is very difficult to stop an inspired and motivated athlete from reaching the level they want to reach. Following this path would negate any reason for having to make them; they will do it all by themselves. You might find that original 15 out of 100 might turn into 25 or 30 out of that 100, and there will be a lot less chance of the ones who don't make it feeling cheated since they made the choice to "try."
*The numbers listed in the example given are only for concept clarification and are not meant to represent actual factual data.