D-Free

In soccer, unlike basketball, there aren’t a lot of scholarship dollars. But the money chase is still hectic.

Part 5: One soccer parent describes the hustle and grind to get his son a Division I scholarship

It was time to have “the talk.” We both knew it. Max’s sunken shoulders said everything his quivering lips couldn’t.

We’d just gotten home from a fourth night of training, and our drive on this rainy and cold night was a bad one. They were all bad, actually. The practice fields are 35 miles from home, and it’s typically an hourlong drive through rush-hour traffic.

The 90-minute training session is probably the easiest part of his day. After school, he jets home for a quick snack and gets into the car. The only window to do schoolwork is after practice — usually for two to three hours after a shower and dinner.

Five months of this routine had taken its toll on my then-15-year-old son. Soccer, the game he’d played since before he could walk — his Jamaican soccer-mad dad used to roll a miniature soccer ball on mom’s pregnant belly — was hardly fun anymore. It felt more like a job.

“Honey, we can talk about this tomorrow — it’s late,” my wife told me as I tried to engage him in conversation.

Max stood there, hunched over on the kitchen counter, his eyes welling up and pellets from the AstroTurf field falling off his loosened cleats. The boy was hella tired — we all were.

“Do you still want to do this, Max?” He looked away, then up at the ceiling. “I … I mean … yes,” he said, his voice trembling. “I’m just tired.”

‘DO WE WANT THIS MORE THAN HE DOES?’

Malcolm Walters, Max Wright and Sean Suber of the Carolina Rapids.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

“The talk” was almost exactly two years ago. As a player in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (“DA” for short), Max is in the top tier of youth soccer in the country. As he’s gotten older, playing on too many teams to remember, and has grown in stature and in ability, soccer has become a real option as an avenue to college.

Now almost 17 and a rising senior, Max is a center forward/midfielder on a U16/U17 team that earned a playoff spot in the recent DA Summer Showcase and Playoffs competition in Oceanside, California. Being there, particularly as a playoff team, was a big deal for Max’s 5,000-member Carolina Rapids Soccer Club, which hasn’t fielded a playoff team in five years.

Crowds of players and their families come in and out of the entry way of the 2018 USSDA Showcase & Playoffs at the SoCal Sports Complex, Oceanside, CA, June 19, 2018.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

The venue, SoCal Sports Complex, has 22 full-size fields across 52.5 acres. Imagine a large airport — and then replace the roads and runways with perfectly lined fields. The Summer Showcase is the equivalent of the NFL combine. Almost every major Division I and II school is represented here, with either a head coach or a scout posted along the touchlines.

For our family and all the others in Oceanside, it’s been a journey. Along the way, we’ve asked ourselves: Are we those parents? Are we pushing because we want to win at parenting? The answer is no. We want our son to succeed and will do what it takes to nudge him on his way. He set the dream, he put in the work, we supplied the tools.

But if we’re honest, we’re fatigued with the chase — knowing that, if we’re lucky, we would reap only a fraction of the scholarship dollars that basketball and football student-athletes get. Full rides? Not in soccer. With only 9.9 scholarships allowed per team, at an average of $16,199 per player, soccer players know that whatever money they get in scholarships might only make a dent in their final bill.

We know Max has the talent. We also know he’s an even better student — 4.25 GPA going into his senior year, taking a number of Advanced Placement courses — than he is a goal scorer. But the questions linger: Is all of this sacrifice — the time, the effort, the money, the conference calls in the car — really worth it? And, most importantly: Does Max want this, or do we want it more than he does?

If we’re honest, we’re fatigued with the chase — knowing that, if we’re lucky, we would reap only a fraction of the scholarship dollars that basketball and football student-athletes get.

Clockwise from top: Sean Suber launches for a kick during the 2018 USSDA Showcase & Playoffs in Oceanside, CA, June 19, Sean Suber; Malcolm Walters; Max Wright.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

At a cost of $5,000 annually, the DA price is significant. When you throw in money for four nights a week of training and out-of-state games, that number easily doubles. DA players aren’t allowed to play high school sports. (When would they find the time?) But for any high school player who aspires to play in Division I or II, the DA is a near mandatory rite of passage. Founded in 2007, the DA is where college coaches and scouts come to see players play, starting as early as U14.

“It’s been a lot of sacrifice,” said Emanuel Walters, whose son Malcolm is also on the Rapids. The Walters commute 75 miles each way to practice. “We’ve sacrificed vacations — we’ve sacrificed having a lot of stuff. I switched jobs. I left a management position for a place I was at for seven years to make this work,” continued Emanuel, who works for FedEx. “And my wife [a registered nurse] also changed jobs. She was working nights or weekends and I was working days, so it’s really been a hardship to make it all work.”

Derek and Jeanne Suber, who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, have two sons. Their oldest, Taylor (everybody calls him TJ), just completed his freshman year as an engineering major at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte on a partial soccer scholarship. Younger brother Sean is a teammate of Max’s, and team captain. The Subers estimate they’ve spent upward of $40,000 for DA soccer for both sons.

“The conversation you have to have with your kids, if they say they want to play academy soccer, is, ‘Do you want to go play soccer in college, or do you just want to play at the top level and then just go to college and not worry about that?’ ” said Derek Suber, who sells internet services to small businesses. “Because if that’s the case, you can still play a high level of soccer and not have to commit yourself to the $5,000 to $8,000 it’s going to cost you per kid to play per year.”

‘it’s been a lot of sacrifice’

Four young men watch another game as they wait for a match to begin at the USSDA Showcase & Playoffs in Oceanside, CA, June 19, 2018.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

Max Wright performs a sliding tackle against the Montreal Impact during a Showcase Playoff matchup.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

“Pay to play” are three words that U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to hear. But the reality is that not all the athletes in this exclusive pool are great players. It’s also true that the player pool lacks diversity. The DA, which consists of 197 total clubs, composed of teams across six age groups in the boys’ program, does not keep racial demographic data. Max, Malcolm and Sean are three of five black players on their team’s 18-man roster.

“But we can stand here and look around these fields and say that, depending on what part of the country you’re looking at, it also is drastically different in terms of the diversity,” said DA director Jared Micklos. “There’s obviously a change in the Southwest versus the Northwest. And you see it in places like Texas and Florida, that that demographic looks a lot different than the Northeast.”

Eddie Johnson understands that — but also thinks we, as a country, can do better. A retired pro who has made 63 appearances for the U.S. national team and played most of his 14-year club career in MLS, Johnson, 34, came through the ranks when the DA did not exist. The Olympic Development Program, created three decades ago by U.S. Soccer to identify national team players early at the youth level, was his path to being noticed.

“Our best athletes come from humble environments, and I’m not just saying black Americans,” said Johnson. “I’m talking about Hispanic players, Caribbean players, as well as white players that don’t have the means to play at the DA level. If we can cater to them early — at 6, 8 and 10 years old — we will see a higher number of African-Americans, in particular, playing soccer at an earlier age and we can get them involved and get them seen,” added Johnson.

Several MLS clubs have fully funded academies where young athletes play tuition-free. Those clubs’ teams typically have the strongest DAs and almost always showcase a diverse roster. Why? Because they draw from a larger pool. As a parent who has spent what feels like a lifetime on sidelines watching games at this level, I can attest that when a diverse squad jogs onto the field, palms get sweaty.

‘our best athletes come from humble environments’

Scouts look at the program while watching matches and learning players names during the 2018 USSDA Showcase & Playoffs in Oceanside, CA, June 19, 2018; a scout watches as the Carolina Rapids play a match during the showcase; Max Wright gathers his belongings while watching another game after his match.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

While Max played multiple sports as a kid, soccer was always No. 1 and became his singular sport after he turned 11. By his second year in the DA, when he turned 16, he received a partial scholarship offer from American University in Washington, D.C. His teammates Sean and Malcolm have both accepted partial scholarships to attend and play for UNC Charlotte. (Offers aren’t official until the players sign acceptance letters in February.)

“I definitely felt an overwhelming sense of relief when I accepted the offer from American,” said Max, who hopes to major in communications. “I like the level of competition and traveling across the country and playing the highest level of soccer, but ultimately the final goal was to get into college, and when I finally got the offer from a great school with a good soccer program, I definitely felt relieved, and it also made me feel encouraged knowing I was ahead of a lot of my friends with my college search.”

It’s been a good year for Max, Malcolm and Sean. Collectively, the trio accounted for 19 of the team’s 57 goals — and helped the team gut out a 19-13-6 season, including going 8-1-1 over its last 10 games.

“The time and effort spent, and the driving, it was all worth it.”

The Carolina Rapids U17 DA team kneel in a team huddle, June 19, 2018, Oceanside, CA.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

If the parents had it to do over again, would they? Sean Suber’s father, Derek, doesn’t hesitate. “I would definitely do it again — no ifs, ands or buts,” he said. “We got to where we wanted to be, and that’s to play college soccer.”

Malcolm’s father, Emanuel, estimates the family has spent between $9,000 and $11,000 for soccer this year. He and his wife, Michelle, drive older-model cars — he has a 2000 Nissan Maxima, and she drives a 2002 GMC Envoy. Pushing older whips is just a small reminder of the sacrifice made.

“We couldn’t be happier,” Emanuel Walters said of the outcome for Malcolm. “We’re just very ecstatic that it worked out, and we feel like the investment paid off. The time and effort spent, and the driving, it was all worth it.”

We’ve had a number of conversations about this process — and have tried to stay mindful of the toll it’s taken on our son. The 10-month season starts in early August, when friends are working summer jobs or hangin’ at the beach, and it ends right before July 4. Just under 13,000 miles for the year takes its toll on the car, not to mention his old man’s back. But there’s also the toll we parents don’t always see: the struggle to manage “student” and “athlete.”

“Being in the academy, a bunch of my friends from school didn’t really [understand] what I was going through,” Max said. “They knew I was on an academy team, but they didn’t really understand really what I was going through every day: going to practice four days a week, having games away in Florida and Georgia every weekend.

“It got tough sometimes, especially with the road trips, time away from school, having to have separate meetings with all my teachers to make sure that they knew I was going to be away [and getting assignments ahead of time].”

MAKING THE PLAYOFFS

Five players from the Carolina Rapids U17 DA team stretch and stay ready to be called in as substitutes, Oceanside, CA, June 19, 2018.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

As soon as you walk into SoCal Sports Complex, the pungent smell of fertilizer hits you, aided by a steady breeze. “Pardon our (occasional) odor,” a sign reads near the entrance to the facility. “As part of our environmental efforts, the nearby mulch facility is transforming tree and shrubs clippings into re-usable ground cover.” The rich odor explains why all 22 of the fields here are World Cup-quality.

Max and his teammates had three of the biggest games of their young soccer-playing lives here this week against some of the toughest teams in the country.

Their first opponent, Montreal Impact, lets them know exactly where they are: good, but not yet great. Montreal’s mostly black, French-speaking side takes control of the game in the second half, winning 3-1. The Rapids’ second game comes against a St. Louis team, and Max breaks through the middle of the field with a top-shelf finish, putting the Rapids on the score sheet early. But a second goal doesn’t come, and the game ends in a disappointing 1-1 tie. By the time Game 3 rolls around — the boys knew they had no chance to advance to the national championships — they play a complete game, beating Players Development Academy 2-0, as Max adds to his goal tally with a tap-in header.

We think the DA journey has toughened Max — so much so that his sometimes overbearing parents feel good knowing he won’t be overwhelmed when he leaves for college in a year. (Yikes!)

“The DA, I think, does prepare you a lot for the college experience, especially as a student-athlete,” Max said, “because it has you structured and it has you going to practice every night and knowing that you have to keep that commitment up. You can’t just miss practice because you want to or because you have too much on your plate. You have to balance everything.”

L-R Sean Suber, Max Wright and Malcolm Walters of the Carolina Rapids, Oceanside, CA, June 19, 2018.

Lauren Crew for The Undefeated

Last February, 1,056 DA players announced college commitments. Most of those players were likely seen at SoCal Complex, where there seem to be more college scouts and coaches than fans, all looking for players.

“Who’s No. 37 … he just entered the game?” a Yale scout asks a Rapids parent during the second half of their last game.

“That’s Malcolm Walters — he’s already [committed] to UNC Charlotte,” comes the reply.

“Agh!” the coach groans.

“And, who is No. 38, the center forward?”

“That’s Max Wright — he’s going to American University.”

“Too bad we don’t offer scholarship dollars … they’re good players.”

The coach scratches Wright and Walters off his list. It’s an exercise these coaches and scouts go through almost every game. When told that Yale had expressed an interest in their son, Michelle Walters responded, “Yale would be nice, but no way we can do Yale without a scholarship. It’s the whole reason we’re in the DA.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Mark W. Wright is the director of special projects for The Undefeated. Born in England and raised in Jamaica, He sends referees running for the hills when they see the soccer dad (and Howard University alum) coming.