High School Sports

‘The environment’s crazy!’ High schoolers make leap to major league franchise.

11th Region boys’ soccer championship: Henry Clay upsets Dunbar

Henry Clay defeated Paul Laurence Dunbar, 2-1, in the finals of the 11th Region soccer tournament at Madison Southern on Friday, October 19, 2018.
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Henry Clay defeated Paul Laurence Dunbar, 2-1, in the finals of the 11th Region soccer tournament at Madison Southern on Friday, October 19, 2018.

The next step in the evolution of American soccer has reached Central Kentucky as three talented young players this fall will forgo their high school seasons for the opportunity to be trained by a Major League Soccer franchise.

Bryan Station’s Max Miller, Lexington Christian’s Tacobi Nsimpasi and Frederick Douglass’s Jean Claude Bikorimana will don the blue and orange of FC Cincinnati Academy for the 2019-2020 elite club season of under-17 soccer after earning three of 25 highly coveted roster spots in an invite-only tryout this past May.

“The high school experience is always fun … but, you know, an opportunity like this doesn’t come much,” Bikorimana, a junior, said in a phone interview on speaker in the car with his FC Cincinnati Academy teammates as Miller’s dad drove them all to a training session Friday. “You can’t really turn it down. It was a pretty easy decision for me. For my goals and what I want to pursue, FC Cincinnati was the way to go.”

As the high school season begins this week, Miller, Nsimpasi and Bikorimana will enter their second full week of FCC training. Rosters were formally announced Aug. 1 and both of FCC’s youth teams (they also created an under-15 team) were unveiled at the MLS team’s Aug. 3 home game against the Vancouver Whitecaps in front of a packed Nippert Stadium.

As part of U.S. Soccer’s mission to develop elite players who will be able to truly compete not just at a national, but an international level, MLS mandates all its clubs establish academy systems to train the next generation of potential stars. And those academies must be free of charge to the players. The players become part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system, which forbids them playing high school soccer. It does not affect a player’s college eligibility.

“For me it was just an easy decision because I’ll improve so much better playing at FC Cincinnati,” said Miller, a sophomore.

Each said their friends and teammates have been supportive and proud of their placement with their new club, but they are saddened they will miss playing together.

“They got mad at me,” Nsimpasi, a junior, said with a laugh. “For me, it actually was a little bit hard. I like playing high school with my friends. … This is like the next level for me to actually go pro. I thought this was the best step for me.”

Each player has been part of Lexington FC, one of the top select soccer clubs in the state. Training, uniforms, tournament fees and travel for such pay-to-play clubs can total $1,500 or more annually.

“I’m just happy that soccer helped make this stuff free,” Nsimpasi said. “I’m happy that my family doesn’t have to go through those sacrifices to pay for my soccer.”

There will still be travel, especially the carpooled commute from Lexington several days a week for training at the club’s Cincinnati training ground. And the three will have to manage their studies carefully as each continues their high school education at their respective schools.

Each of the Lexington players said they’ve been blown away by their new club.

“It’s better than I thought,” Miller said. “It’s super professional: top training facilities, top everything, top coaching staff. The environment’s crazy!”

While the move is a first for these players and their respective schools, they are not the first Kentuckians to make the leap to an MLS academy. Last year, Elizabethtown standout Jansen Wilson, a 2018 Gatorade soccer player of the year, skipped his senior season to play for the Columbus Crew’s academy, the same club that Austin and Preston Welch of Georgetown signed with a year ago instead of playing locally. The Welches are now FC Cincinnati Academy teammates of Miller, Nsimpasi and Bikorimana.

Another of their contemporaries, Tates Creek’s Moses Nzilamba, will spend his senior year with a host family in Indianapolis and train with Indiana Fire Academy, another U.S. Development Academy club.

Choosing an elite club over high school is relatively new for boys’ soccer in Kentucky, but it has become commonplace in other areas — especially in girls’ soccer where many academy opportunities are not free.

“Losing Taco from a small school like ours is a big deal,” LCA Coach Steve Fugmann said. “However, we are much happier that he got this chance. We are counting on him to continue with his incredible love for the game and his high work rate at the academy.”

Losing such players isn’t a death knell for high school soccer by any means, Lexington high school coaches said in a recent Herald-Leader preseason survey.

“The players who are good enough to play for a DA and want to, should do so,” Lafayette Coach Chris Grimm said. “I have thought for years there are certain players who have no business playing high school soccer if they really have high aspirations with their soccer future. It is a great opportunity for those kids, and I am really happy that Lexington has developed a few capable of playing at that level. In the end it will have a small impact on high school soccer overall and it gives opportunities to other kids to step into big roles.”

Omar Shalash, Bikorimana’s coach at Frederick Douglass, agreed.

“It’s not MLS vs. (high school),” Shalash said. “At the end of the day, these are professional academies selecting elite talent from the area — an opportunity that many players did not have before. High school soccer will always be here, but opportunities like MLS academies you can’t pass up on.”

After Bryan Station’s historic season last year in which the Defenders earned their first 42nd District title and first trip to the 11th Region Tournament, Miller said he knew he wanted to move on.

“I worked super hard to get here. It’s just crazy to think I’ve finally made it here,” Miller said of his FC Cincinnati opportunity. “I set a goal at the end of the year and told my mom, ‘I don’t think I want to play high school next year. I want to pursue something bigger.’ And then I accomplished that.”

And he’s not satisfied.

“It’s great to accomplish a goal and actually achieve that, but you’ve got to keep setting goals higher,” he said.

Jared Peck, the Herald-Leader’s Digital Sports Writer, covers high school athletics and has been with the company as a writer and editor for more than 19 years.
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