Tommy Smith sees the relationship between elite football clubs, high school coaches and players at a tipping point, and he said he’s torn about it.
For the most part over the past 15 years, the triumvirate has had a relatively peaceful coexistence, with players competing for club teams in the spring and summer and their respective high schools in the fall. And everyone was happy.
“We’ve developed a pretty good relationship,” said Smith, the football coach at Albuquerque Sandia Prep. “I’ve coached club and high school, and there’s a lot of us that do that. We’ve built relationships over the years sharing players, collaborating with players and doing what was best for them.
“We’ve always found a way to work together.”
But in the last five years the landscape has changed. The emergence of the USL championship franchise New Mexico United and its club system, as well as other elite football clubs at the local, regional and national levels is beginning to impact the prep level.
These programs, committed to elite-level training and development, also sometimes require their players to make a difficult choice – play for us or them, but not both. A prime example came this week when Santa Fe High Boys soccer star Alex Wagoner said he had committed to playing exclusively for the United Academy club team.
The club has yet to announce their new signing, but Wagoner said he was excited at the opportunity to hone the skills that allowed him to score the state’s best 73 goals and lead the Demons to their maiden state title last November .
However, he also admitted that he felt guilty for not playing for his high school. But he plans to support his now-former teammates as best he can next fall.
“I will always support them and give them everything I can offer,” Waggoner said. “I mean, I still have a say [head coach Chris Eadie]and I still go to school there.”
For his part, Eadie supported Waggoner in his decision. But he said Waggoner’s departure, combined with the expected departure of up-and-coming young defender Ivan “Chongo” Lozano to Barca Residency Academy in Arizona, leaves the Demons essentially rebuilding rather than reloading.
“I had mixed feelings,” Eadie said. “I would like for [Waggoner] to be with us again. But he will be an asset to any team he plays for.”
But there’s a growing uneasiness among prep coaches about the state’s top talent. Albuquerque St. Pius X football coach AJ Herrera, who coached at Santa Fe High from 2008 to 2015, said there had to be a way to divide the top players without potentially generating bitterness among coaches.
“Obviously we want them to pursue what they want, get the attention they want and play at the highest level possible,” said Herrera, who was a star with the Sartans and played at the University of Maryland. “And I’m not saying New Mexico United Academy doesn’t have a good product. I just feel like we can’t present players with things where that’s their only option.
Smith understands where Herrera is coming from because two potential starters at Sandia Prep have played for the New Mexico United Academy in the past 1½ years. Previously, the academy allowed its players to compete for their respective high schools as well, but that policy changed during the offseason.
Smith said he has no problem with players trying to do what is best for their football careers, but he also feels players miss out on playing for their school alongside friends they’ve met over the course of the season years have grown up. However, he acknowledged that more of the state’s best players will shun the high school experience.
“That’s probably going to be the trend,” Smith said. “I think at some point in high school, maybe we’ll just have the kids who aren’t necessarily college-level players, but the kids who like to play and want to compete.”
Hersch Wilson, the former Santa Fe Prep head coach who also coaches club teams in Santa Fe, said coaches may have to adjust to losing players to academies or clubs. He faced that dilemma seven years ago when Sam Brill gave up his senior year to play for the Colorado Rapids Development Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
However, Wilson warned his players not to base their decision solely on football.
“I tell them to put all their eggs in one basket,” Wilson said. “I always tell them to have a plan B because even if you get to a hyper-competitive club, only two or three are going to the big dance [playing college]. But the number of kids who have careers in any sport is quite limited.”
In fact, Santa Fe Prep has lost four boys and girls to academies or clubs in the past decade. Steph Coppola, former Santa Fe Prep girls head coach who is technical director for Albuquerque United Football Club, said the Blue Griffins had a chance to contend for the Class 1A/3A state title in 2019 – until leading scorer Anna Swanson decided to play in California.
Coppola said her initial reaction was that a state title was slipping away from the program, but she needed to think quickly.
“My first reaction was disappointment, but then I thought, ‘This player needs my support’ and asked what I could do for her,” said Coppola. “Whether I thought she could play high school and pursue her dreams at the same time, that wasn’t my choice. All I could do was support her and give her positive feedback because she would base her decision on what she needed.”
Coppola said she understands why many high school and other club coaches feel this way, but she added that a player’s departure is simply an opportunity for another player to step into the spotlight.
“When New Mexico United wanted to start an academy, the bigger clubs freaked out because they said, ‘They’re going to take our best players,'” Coppola said. “But once that initial reaction happened, people saw the opportunities for other players. And like everything else, water rises and falls and everyone adapts to it.”
Michael Hensley, a former Taos headboy coach and director of instruction for the Taos Youth Soccer League, said the most important thing communities can do is develop youth programs that increase the attractiveness of the sport. He said elite athletes ultimately follow their dreams, whether it’s playing professionally or in college.
But when youth leagues get kids excited about the sport, regardless of skill level, it can help mitigate the impact of losing top talent, Hensley said.
“You want to instill a love for the sport in the kids,” Hensley said. “That’s one of the things I’ve focused on – teaching and learning the game and helping them develop a football IQ. The most important thing is to get them to enjoy the experience and keep playing every day.”
Hensley knows from experience losing several players to academies or international games during his ten-year run at Taos. However, the program also produced around 80 boys and girls who eventually received an athletic scholarship, Hensley added.
Smith said that regardless of the state, the best players will eventually stand out. He and Wilson praised the value of high school sports, from the camaraderie of playing with classmates, the life lessons that work in conjunction with each school’s ideals, and for elite players, learning how to play with less-talented teammates .
Smith added another element that the top players might be missing, which is the crowd factor. He pointed out that the Class 5A championship game between Santa Fe High and Albuquerque Sandia Prep had a crowd of about 2,000 and created an atmosphere that clubs and academies cannot replicate.
“I think the high school experience is a great opportunity for kids to play,” Smith said. “I think it’s still going to be a possibility, possibly playing in college or going to the next level.”
Right now, Smith and other high school coaches are learning to adjust to a new relationship where not everyone has happy faces.