More student-athletes specialize in one sport

Youth sports have changed with the times. Exceptional athletes now tend to specialize in one sport, rather than change sports with the seasons. And, in many sports, club teams have replaced traditional school-based teams as the major recruiting pool for college coaches. In no sport is this perhaps more true than in soccer.

“If you want to play soccer in college, we put the most kids in the most places,” said Danny Storlien, director of the girls program for Minnesota Thunder Academy in Richfield. “We have the highest level of competition in youth soccer.”

 The Thunder fields teams for boys and girls between ages of 9-19. Schedules vary, but each season lasts around nine or 10 months. Players must try out for the teams. They train from three to six days a week, and play 25 to 30 games, traveling to all parts of the country during the summer and over holiday breaks during the school year.

For players in the 15-19 range, tuition and travel expenses can cost families $6,000 to $7,000 annually. Among other expenses, tuition covers indoor facility rental and coach salaries. Many parents, however, see these costs as investments in their child’s college future. Storlien noted that from last year’s senior class of 34 girls, 30 have gone on to play collegiately, and most have earned scholarships.

“Soccer is the avenue for parents not having to foot the tuition bill,” said Cliff Anderson, whose daughter Eva graduated from Edina High School last May and who now plays for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT head coach spotted Eva as a sophomore when the Thunder played in an Elite Club National League (ECNL) Showcase tournament in Florida. ECNL Showcase events can attract from 70-100 college coaches per match, Anderson said. That’s where the connection between coaches and high school players is usually made.

MIT, which competes at the Division III level, cannot offer athletic scholarships. Because the coach wanted Eva on his team, however, Anderson believes his interest in her soccer talent greatly improved her chances for admission to the prestigious university, a school that accepted fewer than 8 percent of applicants in 2016. Anderson noted that even without athletic scholarships, Division III athletes may qualify for other types of generous financial aid.

Rob Zahl, director of the Thunder’s program for boys, said that seven of the nine seniors from last year’s team now play Division I soccer. Nationally, fewer boys than girls win soccer scholarships because of NCAA policies that grew out of Title IX, the federal law that attempts to balance collegiate participation levels for both sexes.

 While the NCAA has 333 Division I women’s soccer teams and allows 14 full scholarships per team, men have only 205 teams, with 9.9 scholarships available. All Big Ten schools, for example, have women’s teams, but only nine of 14 have men’s teams.

Youth club teams will never guarantee college slots for their participants, but playing for them seems to increase the odds.