Alex Waldron remembers well his last high school boys soccer game three years ago.
Then a freshman, the goalkeeper played a key role in Bella Vista’s 4-1 penalty-kick upset of nationally ranked Granite Bay for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II boys championship at Cosumnes Oaks High School.
Waldron had nine saves, including a penalty-kick stop on a shot by Tommy Thompson – who now plays for the Earthquakes – that set off a celebration in front of a large, raucous crowd.
“Granite Bay had some of the best talent around, so to pull off the miracle in that atmosphere was pretty remarkable,” said Waldron, who had 10 shutouts that season.
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Waldron is a senior now, but he doesn’t play for Bella Vista, which made this week’s section playoffs for the third time in four years. Instead, he’s playing his third season for elite-level San Juan Academy, a United States Soccer Federation-affiliated program that competes nearly year-round.
So while Waldron will root for his Bella Vista classmates in today’s match against Jesuit, he is preparing to fly to Southern California on Friday, take a bus to Phoenix to play the Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake U-18 team Saturday, then bus back to Pasadena to face the FC Golden State Strikers on Sunday.
That’s typical of what Waldron and his teammates on San Juan Academy’s U-17/18 team (San Juan also has U-13/14 and U-15/16 teams) do to hone their skills while hoping to catch the attention of national team and pro coaches or college scouts.
San Juan Academy is one of 79 clubs in the nationwide U.S. Soccer Development Academy system. Many are associated with Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League or USL Pro teams, though San Juan is independent.
That soon could change with Republic FC, Sacramento’s popular first-year USL Pro franchise, in talks with the U.S. Soccer Federation and the San Juan Soccer Club about assuming the reins of the academy program.
Rise of academy system
The academy system was started in 2007 to develop more skilled, consistently trained and system-savvy youth players, help make the United States more competitive with some of the world’s top soccer powers and give top teenage players a sense of the demands and sacrifices required to become a professional player.
But the emergence of academies also caused a rift with high school coaches, including locally when during the 2011 high school season players in the California Development Academy, the predecessor to San Juan, were abruptly forced by the USSF to choose between playing for their high school teams or the academy.
“That option was taken out of our hands,” San Juan U-17/18 coach Brian Willey said.
For San Juan Academy players such as Waldron, center back David Burns and midfielder Justin Rene Moreno, the chance to play high school soccer was trumped by the opportunity to play, be coached and be scouted at the highest levels.
As a further enhancement, the cost for training, travel, meals and equipment is covered by the San Juan Soccer Club.
“It’s a huge honor to play at this level,” said Burns, who received an invitation to a recent U.S. National Team U-18 training camp (he was unable to attend because of an injury) and aspires to play professional soccer. “The coaching is a ton better, and you get to play with some of the area’s best players and against really challenging competition.”
The 19 players on the San Juan U-17/18 team, who attend 15 area high schools, train three to four nights a week and play in the Bay Area, Southern California, Oregon, Washington and Canada. The team also hosts matches, including against the Chivas USA youth academy Saturday at the Mather Sports Complex near Rancho Cordova.
Within their division, San Juan Academy plays against MLS academy teams such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Earthquakes. All but one MLS team has an academy program.
“It’s clearly a high level of soccer,” Willey said. “When we played against Vancouver, they had three players who already have played with the senior team. That was an amazing opportunity for our high school guys.”
Moreno, who attends Pleasant Grove, played for the Earthquakes’ academy team as a sophomore and junior, but the four-day-a-week commute to the Bay Area and steadily decreasing playing time led him to join San Juan Academy closer to home.
He expected a big drop in the level of talent with the local club – MLS academy teams usually are at or near the top of the standings – but was pleasantly surprised, especially when San Juan tied the Earthquakes 1-1 in a recent match.
“I was pretty shocked to find we’re not that far off from the Earthquakes,” Moreno said. “I’m impressed with the talent and skill of our guys.”
Adjusting to academies
Moreno, who said playing for an academy team helped him land a scholarship with UC Davis, admitted he misses high school soccer.
Like Waldron, Moreno stopped playing after his freshman year.
“Not being able to play high school makes a person lose a little school spirit, and that’s not good,” said Moreno, whose Pleasant Grove Eagles made the postseason this year.
Waldron said the toughest adjustment was as a sophomore. He would watch games – his older brother Matt was on the team – as freshman goalkeeper Drake Callender took his spot and helped Bella Vista win another section title. Callender now plays for the Earthquakes Academy 17-18 team.
“It was tough to let go at first – I definitely missed that connection with the fans pushing for you and the pride in being able to play for your school,” said Waldron, who has committed to UC Irvine. “But I also understand why it was done. The academy wanted to keep us safe. High school is very physical, and there are more injuries.”
Unlike Moreno and Waldron, Burns never had a desire to play high school soccer growing up in El Dorado Hills (Oak Ridge also made the playoffs this season). He saw the academy as the best way to reach his goal of playing in college, if not professionally.
“High school soccer was not in the picture,” said Burns, who attends a charter school in Folsom. “I just saw the academy as the best place for me as far as helping me reach my full potential.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.