- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

Run down a list of reasons athletes miss game action, and there are the usual explanations among them injuries, various suspensions or "coaches' decisions." Now, with small but steady groups of teen-age stars making their way to Major League Soccer each year, an unprecedented addition may be made: Did Not Play incomplete homework.
Four players three of whom play for D.C. United are signed with MLS while they finish high school classes, and three more teens have finished in the past eight months. For years, tennis phenoms have gone away to sport-specialty academies while attending school, and high school entries to the NBA draft have become commonplace. However, MLS has all the team sports beat.
In just his second season, skilled and energetic United forward Santino Quaranta has established himself as one of the rising stars on his team and in MLS. But ask the 17-year-old about high school, and his body sags.
"If I had a choice, I wouldn't do it. But I've got to do it," said Quaranta, who will complete his high school degree in about eight months through a tutor provided by MLS.
MLS "wants me to get it done if not, they get real [ticked] off."
MLS wants him to get his degree so much that Quaranta said Todd Durbin, senior vice president at MLS, has threatened to suspend him if he does not complete his assignments. United midfielder Bobby Convey who at 18 is in his third season with the team has used the same tutor to complete his high school requirements for the past year and half and will finish in August.
While most of his peers are playing high school sports and preparing for the prom, Quaranta and his young teammates make thousands of dollars playing pro soccer. Who needs school?
"It's tough because we're in the heart of the season, and you know how it is," Quaranta said. "On a [sunny] day like today when you want to go play golf, for me, it's tough. I guess [MLS] is going to use us like role models."
Call them what you will, but pushing talented young American players to the highest level is a trend that has developed recently. MLS and U.S. Soccer collaborated to cultivate young American talent to fulfill a two-fold goal: building a top professional league that also serves as a feeder system to strengthen the national team.

United forges path
Quaranta is only one of the teen-age prodigies United has signed in recent years. Teammates Convey and 17-year-old Justin Mapp who will join United full-time in late May, when he finishes high school in his native Mississippi along with former player Sergio Salas are others. United has signed more high school players than any MLS team.
"We knew it was a risk in a sense, with the possibility that relatively young players would take a year or two to get ready to become professionals," said Kevin Payne, D.C. United's former president and general manager, who had Convey live with him, his wife and children in Reston during the player's first year with the team. "And that has been borne out to an extent. But [Convey and Quaranta] have shown by their second season they are ready to be starters. We've drafted [young] guys because we thought they were enormous talents, not for [public relations] purposes."
Other teams have followed suit. The Chicago Fire drafted Craig Capano at 16, the youngest player in the league and the Dallas Burn drafted Jordan Stone, 18, in February. Last season, players signed while in high school were Quaranta; Dallas' Edward Johnson, 18, and Miguel Saavedra, 18; and the San Jose Earthquakes' Devin Barclay, 19.
There is no MLS bylaw that mandates that players must graduate from high school to play in the league. But "every young player we've signed, we make a critical point there always is that those guys finish high school," Durbin said. "It's difficult to envision us signing someone who didn't. We spend a significant amount of time to make sure it's a priority."

Two-way street
The pipeline for these young players to MLS is the residency program for the U.S. Under-17 national team, in its fourth year. All seven high-school-age players who have entered MLS in the past two seasons have gone through the program.
Players chosen for the U.S. U-17 team are invited to train and attend school at the IMG Soccer Academy just south of Tampa, Fla. There, players focus almost solely on two things: soccer and school, which they attend at nearby Bradenton Academy.
For players, "it's kind of like going to college and majoring in the sport," said Tom Durkin, director of the IMG Soccer Academy. The academy is one of several sport-specific academies based on the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which helped develop Grand Slam champions Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.
With players living and training in one place year-round, U.S. U-17 coach John Ellinger can build team cohesiveness. It's all part of U.S. Soccer's "Project 2010," an initiative dedicated to the United States winning the World Cup in 2010.
"Playing now makes us that much more ahead of [current national team players] when they were our age," Johnson said.
Durkin said: "It's a trend kids are graduating high school earlier, college earlier and getting to the pros earlier. People are seeing the advantage of getting a kid [to the pros] at 17 rather than 22 or 23."
The residency program benefits both sides; players go from Bradenton to MLS, where they can improve against good competition.
MLS initiated Project 40 before the 1998 season, with the intention of allowing younger players from high school age to those who played some college an option to bypass the typical route reserved for U.S. youth soccer players. Through Project 40, players earn a salary from $25,000 to $30,000, a shoe contract, which includes endorsement money, with Nike and an opportunity for $10,000 per year in grants for college.

Away from home
Top teen-age soccer players forfeit the typical high school life to devote time to their sport and school, something top youth tennis players have been doing for years. It's a sacrifice some make willingly and others reluctantly.
"It's difficult keeping up with all my friends in Allen," Stone said of his Texas home. "I lost a lot of friends, I guess. You sacrifice that. You feel like you miss out on a lot of things. "
At 14, Capano's parents pulled him out of New York's Roosevelt High School early in his freshman year and enrolled him in the U-17 residency program. He was there two years before he was drafted in the fall by Chicago. He lives in the Chicago area with former U-17 teammate Mike Magee.
Capano hangs out with Magee and his friends, but life can change a bit on the road for a 16-year-old pro soccer player.
After a big road victory, Fire players might go out to eat and then to a nightclub. Capano sticks around for the meal, but then it's back to the hotel for a relaxing night with a movie.
"At first, everything the contract, the Nike deal it was hard to take in," said Capano, who isn't taking classes now but will finish school with correspondence courses through Texas Tech in the off-season. Stone and Mapp also used correspondence courses to help finish school. "You think everything is going great, then you have to take somebody's job. You have to work and earn your spot."
Players who enrolled in the residency program had mixed feelings about the school. Some liked the exclusivity of the program, while others disliked its restrictive nature and lack of a social life. Regardless, all agreed it was the best thing they could have done for their soccer careers.
"We didn't live a normal high school life. Right now, we're not living a normal 17-, 18-year-old life. It had its pros and cons," Quaranta said. "The bottom line is, it's worth it; it's got to be to get here."
Now, he just has to get that homework assignment in on time.

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