Two weeks ago, I was standing in front of a prominent high school soccer state association head in a hallway in the sleek, glass-walled Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. We were talking about this and that – how state associations collect their All-America nominations, high school and the development academy, cheesesteaks – and the topic of high school girls recruiting bubbled up to the surface. The hottest of buttons.
The conversation inevitably turned to what he described as an ever escalating arms race for younger signees. His region is one of the country’s lushest hotbeds for college talent, and the feedback he’s gotten from his coaches is that the generally accepted age to begin the college recruiting process has dipped into middle school. With the ECNL and other club outlets providing prime scouting opportunities outside a school environment, college scouts no longer have to stay tethered to the school calendar.
Even now, things are changing rapidly.
This, he assured me, was widely looked down upon by the coaches he knew. Most thought it mildly disgusting that 13-year-olds were in a position to make decisions on college before they’d even gotten to high school. But then, I wondered, why is it happening if the lion’s share of coaches and parents abhor the process?
And therein lies the inherent difficulty of this trend’s design. It’s a cold war, operating entirely under the surface and out of plain sight. The trouble is that coaches are fighting shadows. Let’s say you’ve heard of an incredible 8th-grade talent in, say, La Jolla, Calif. You may hate that the system has identified this player already, and it may well be against your better judgment to start wooing her to your side. But that won’t be enough to stop you when you know a dozen other programs will soon be at her door.
The madness here is that it’s entirely possible none of these coaches truly want the system to be this way, but that they’re led to act based on the notion that if they don’t, they’ll be left behind. In the same way JFK and Khrushchev shadowboxed in the early 60’s, both unwilling participants in a drama neither wanted to escalate, the paradox here is that the expansion of covert war is entirely out of the leaders’ hands. The idea alone will carry it along.
My conversation was nothing particularly novel in the sense that this has become a hot issue over the last year or so. We profiled the cold recruiting war here to some extent late last year with an excellent video series with then-USC coach Ali Khosroshahin and our own J.R. Eskilson. I thought the most interesting bit was his take on the ever-escalating war on recruits here.
Some shocking admissions by Ali here, but perhaps none more sobering than this: “We’re already getting contacted by the class of 2017.” Those are current high school freshmen, or girls who are 14 to 15 years old.
The New York Times recently profiled Haley Berg, one of the most egregious (but not the only) examples of early recruiting. Read it and feel free to be creeped out. The lede is enough to cause immediate recoil: before she was through middle school, she had the numbers of 16 college coaches in her phone. The way college coaches get around the largest recruiting hoop is by contacting club coaches, who can at times act as surrogate agents, go-betweens in the middle of the player and the college. The attendant difficulties that can cause in the hands of the wrong coach can only be imagined.
This is more of an issue on the girls’ side simply because there are more scholarships than there are talented players. It’s also because the college soccer system is even more valued for girls than it is for boys. Cases like Lindsey Horan do happen, but they are far, far more rare than they are on the boys side. That’s why the stakes here are so high.
The more it continues apace, the more the system will continue to wrap its tentacles around recruits at younger ages. It’s perhaps naive to assume more restrictive policies will definitively ward off recruiters at young ages. It’s possible, and it may be the easiest tack, but they haven’t worked yet. There are essentially rules in place now that are being brushed aside. Tightening recruiting restrictions on the club level is a good place to start.
If the system is to see any real change, there will have to be a holistic shift from the root level in tandem with legalistic changes. Teams will have to start making moral stands on recruiting players at young ages and hope the rest of the college world follows suit. The trouble with a shadow war is that you never know who’s lurking around the next corner.