Mesa's Andrew Christianson, left, challenges Mountain View's Ben Nelson for the ball during the Jackrabbit Invitational championship match Saturday. The Jackrabbits won the tournament and are 9-2-1 this season despite not having forward Luis Lopez who's training at the RSL Academy.

Here we go again? Club soccer vs. high school soccer?

That debate rages on in Arizona during the winter months, as it has for years. Those difficult dichotomies aren’t imminent going to disappear, and that discussion could rage on for eternity.

It does, however, offer up another juxtaposition for kids — moreso on the boys side than the girls side, according to coaches — between playing for a top club team or even the Real Salt Lake academy in Casa Grande. The latter is a top-notch training and developmental academy for invitation-only kids as a means to enhance their skills and perhaps reach major college or national team abilities.

It’s often the best thing a kid can do for themselves (whether youth, high school or college player). It’s also left several East Valley high school teams in a lurch because they lose a top player or two from their school team. Or have to wait on kids to make decisions which often come down to the last minute before the season starts.

And they have to make a choice because it’s Arizona Interscholastic Association rule violations to play high school and some other organized (club or RSL) for boys or girls at the same time. Meanwhile, the end of a fall club season and start of high school often collide, creating issues with kids being burned out, lacking free time or heeding schoolwork or overuse of their bodies that leads to injuries.

Many high school coaches also coach club outside the winter season, but even those who “double dip” are aware of the advantages to each side, even while high school-only coaches are sometimes left in a lurch with fluctuating rosters and uncertainty come November.

Mesa’s boys team is off to a fast start this season after winning its own tournament last weekend, but Mesa could be even better if junior Luis Lopez had opted to play high school again. A top player for the Jackrabbits as a freshman, Lopez instead opted to play club as a sophomore and with RSL Academy this winter. In-part looking for a college of Lopez’s choice, Jackrabbits coach T.J. Hagen said the hope is Lopez will find a college he wants to commit and then return to Mesa soccer for his senior year next season.

“Being selfish I wanted him playing for us, but knowing what will help him most is getting those other opportunities,” Hagen said. “I don’t think he would be any worse playing with us, but to get to the next level, maybe the RSL academy is where he needs to be.”

Brophy standout Riggs Lennon didn’t know if he’d play for his high school team or stay at RSL until the first week of the high school season. Much to the delight of coach Marc Kelly and possible chagrin of most opponents, opted to return to Brophy soccer for his senior season. Riggs’ freshman brother, Brooks, opted to stay at RSL.

Jason Speirs played at Chaparral and in club soccer, but the Firebirds’ coach lost several kids to club, especially sophomores and juniors whom Speirs believe are erroneously told their prospects for college scholarships mostly happens while playing club ball.

“A lot of club coaches have convinced parents that high school soccer is pointless and the players will not benefit from playing high school,” he said. “I have had some great teams in the last eight years but it is extremely difficult to build a team when players come and go every year.

“The sense of pride and honor you get for playing for your school cannot be replicated by club soccer. In school, kids are also held accountable for their grades, which of course does not happen at club level. I also believe high school soccer prepares players to handle college and college soccer better. College soccer is very fast and physical, which is closer to high school soccer than club. I feel sorry for the kids who decide against high school soccer because they are missing out on a great experience.”

In the minds of Matt Smith (Corona del Sol), Andy Barber (Red Mountain), Sasha Hunter (Chandler), Paul Schanaker (Valley Christian) and Chris Diana (Horizon), girls waffling between club and high school is not really an issue during the winter. High school soccer is here to stay, and there is no RSL equivalent for elite girls around these parts.

Perry girls coach Garald DeGrow noted one of his players made the team last year but opted not to play this season so she could get a better shot at being scouted from her club team. Basha girls coach Greg Johnson said one of his formerly better players (Austin Overson) is not playing high school this season in order to train with her club team. Cactus Shadows girls coach Jeff Vitorio said a girl was waffling about which to play and had not played with her club team during the first four games of the high school season. She wanted to join the Falcons two weeks into the season but was not allowed.

Those might be more exceptions than rule on the girls’ side.

“One thing we have been able to do, which has become a more popular move in many other ‘lower-income’ schools, is to take players to less expensive youth leagues like (Arizona Youth Soccer Organization) that offer scholarships and are more flexible to give opportunities to these players to participate and get some experience besides school ball,” Mesa girls coach Andy Clarke said. “It’s not as good as some of the clubs where they are paying hundreds of dollars to play, but it is helping and is better than nothing.”

It remains a thorn in the side of the boys teams. In the end, club and high school can (and have) co-existed fine during these couple of months, and it’s up to kids and parents to decide which route to go from November through February. Yet whether you’re on one side, the other, or even stuck in the middle, few recruiting stones go unturned these days, so you might as well have a blast in the process.

“Teenagers are impressionable and to hear adults (parents and coaches) close to them routinely suggest that school soccer coaching is somehow second rate may give them a less-than-complete picture of the reality in their particular school,” said Tempe Prep girls coach Iain MacDonald, a former player through the U.S. and Europe whose daughter grew up playing in YMCA and high school circles.

“In the end, whether it’s school or club, colleges will find them if they have the talent.”

Contact writer: or (480) 898-6576.

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