Snohomish’s Jason Fairhurst (left) points before trying to pass to a teammate during the 3A state championship match against Roosevelt on May 27, 2017, at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Snohomish’s Jason Fairhurst (left) points before trying to pass to a teammate during the 3A state championship match against Roosevelt on May 27, 2017, at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Patterson: Club teams have hurt quality of high school soccer

I missed covering the high school boys soccer state tournament this year.

Ever since becoming a full-time sports writer I’ve always been the “soccer guy” at my newspaper. Not because I was a soccer player growing up, but rather because I became an enthusiastic recreational soccer player upon graduating from college. And also because when I was getting started, soccer was viewed with disdain by most in the U.S. sports media world, so my co-workers were always more than happy to leave the soccer coverage to me.

But my responsibilities at The Herald changed in February, meaning I was needed to cover the Snohomish County Amateur golf tournament this past weekend. While I can’t complain about spending three gloriously sunny days strolling the golf course, it was still with an element of sadness that I missed out on state soccer.

I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t charged with covering at least one of our local soccer teams in the state semifinals and finals. I was there when Snohomish made substitutions like a hockey team to beat Inglemoor in the 2015 4A semifinals en route to a repeat championship, the third state title I witnessed the Panthers win. I sat agape when Archbishop Murphy suffered a stunning last-second overtime loss in the 2006 2A final, Highland claiming the championship with an impossible goal as the announcer was counting down the final seconds. And I had the fortune to be on hand for Glacier Peak’s first state championship in a team sport in school history in 2010, the then-3A school winning in just the second year of its existence.

So I missed covering state soccer, even though I acknowledge that high school boys soccer is no longer what it once was.

During my time covering high school soccer, I’ve watched the caliber of play diminish. That’s because select soccer has stripped high school soccer of its best players. Top club teams don’t allow their players to play for their high school teams, and high school soccer has suffered because of it.

This year Snohomish finished as the 3A state runner-up. But the Panthers had at least two players who were high-impact players as underclassmen who weren’t on the team this year because of club commitments. Snohomish already finished second in the state’s second-largest classification. How good could that team have been had it had its best players at its disposal?

Now, I don’t begrudge the players and their families for choosing select over high school. Nowadays that’s where college recruiting takes place, so if a player’s goal is to earn a scholarship, select is where he has to be. And though I’ve never attended an elite-level 18-under select soccer game, I have little doubt the caliber of play is higher than high school, considering top clubs draw the best players from throughout the entire region.

But I do have an issue with the way the soccer system functions in this country.

Everywhere else in the world soccer is the working-class game. That’s because all you really need to play a soccer game is some sort of ball. Whether it was Pele growing up in the slums of Brazil, or Luka Modric living as a refugee during the Croatian War of Independence, or Victor Moses fleeing Nigeria after his parents were murdered, world soccer is filled with stories of players overcoming difficult circumstances in their youth, as fancy shoes and personal trainers were unnecessary for honing one’s skills. It’s why soccer is the world’s game, because it’s accessible to one and all.

But in the U.S., with the select system now serving as the development program, soccer has become a sport primarily for those with means. In most cases having a child play for a top club is expensive business. Without playing select, it’s nearly impossible to be seen by those who control whether a player progresses, be that in college or through professional opportunities. Don’t have the money required to play select? Then you’re chances of making it big are remote.

The lack of soccer rags-to-riches stories in the U.S. is illustrated during the World Cups. Television loves a good human-interest story. Every time the Olympics roll around NBC has a long queue of spots about American athletes who reached the Olympics from humble beginnings. During the World Cup, whether it’s the U.S. men or women, those type of stories tend to be few and far between.

At least high school soccer provides an outlet for everyone. I’ll always have a soft spot for the teams that recruited their goalkeeper off the football team. And at state, those teams play to win a trophy for the hundreds of screaming students clad in school colors watching in the stands, rather than to try and impress a college coach.

So yes, I missed covering state soccer this year. Even if it may not be what it used to be.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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