Missing out on high school hasn't bothered rookie Devin Barclay, 18.
By RODNEY PAGE
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 23, 2001
For most high school sophomores, getting a job means working at a local grocery store or fast food restaurant. For Devin Barclay, getting a job meant leaving school, leaving his family and leaving his youth behind.
Two years ago, when Barclay was a junior at McDonogh High in Owings Mills, Md., he made his career choice. He was going to be a professional soccer player.
With his parents' support, he packed his bags and enlisted at Bradenton Academy, part of the Bollettieri Residential Program that allows student-athletes to live on campus and train extensively. The under-17 U.S. national team is based in Bradenton, and Barclay also played for that squad.
He studied in the morning, then spent hours honing his skills and playing. But what about the high school experience? What about homecoming and prom and toilet-papering a fellow student's lawn?
"It's an honor," Barclay said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You're a 16-year-old and someone tells you you're good enough to play pro, basically, something's wrong with you if you don't accept that. People that have the ability and don't do that are just scared."
Barclay had the ability. He has been part of Olympic Development teams since 1996, when he was 13. He had 11 goals and 11 assists in 25 games as a freshman at McDonogh and had 19 assists as a sophomore.
Barclay spent a year in Bradenton, then signed as part of Major League Soccer's Project-40 program. The program, started in 1997 in conjunction with U.S. Soccer, allows players to train with an MLS team and also play on aProject-40 team during the season.
The players earn the rookie minimum of $24,000 a year and receive a five-year academic package worth up to $37,500.
Project-40 has been a popular choice for college underclassmen, and recently a wave of prep players has made its presence felt on MLS fields. Chicago Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, D.C. United midfielders Bobby Convey and Santino Quaranta, and San Jose forward Landon Donovan left high school to play professionally and have succeeded.
"It wasn't a gamble for me," Convey, 18, said before leaving for the World Youth Championships in Argentina with the under-20 national team. "I knew I wanted to turn pro and get to the next level. You always have to look at your options and for me it was the right decision to play in MLS."
The goal of MLS and U.S. Soccer is to get the best American players playing on the best teams the country has to offer. The national teams provide international competition, and MLS provides Division I club competition.
The hope is that the teenagers of today are U.S. national team members and perhaps World Cup champions 10 years from now.
"We're taking it a step further than some other sports by taking kids before they graduate high school," said Mutiny general manager Bill Manning, an adviser on the U.S. Soccer board. "I know around the world they've been doing this for a long time. We've had good and bad results on this. Not all high school kids are going to make it. It's definitely pushing the bar."
So far, it has worked out for Barclay. Now 18, he lives by himself in a Tampa apartment and has adjusted to life as a professional soccer player. He has a tutor and plans to earn his high school degree in August.
Because of the Mutiny's injuries and suspensions, Barclay has played more than expected. He has 495 minutes in nine games but does not have a goal or an assist. He likely will stay with the Mutiny for the rest of the season, but he could play some Project-40 games.
As a Project-40 player, Barclay does not count against Tampa Bay's 18-man roster.
"At first it was kind of cool, but now it's like a job," Barclay said. "I'm not considered a young guy anymore. I work hard and I think the guys know that."
Mutiny coach Alfonso Mondelo first approached Barclay about joining Project-40. Mondelo was a youth scout for U.S. Soccer in 1999 when he saw Barclay play.
"I saw him play in the Sun Bowl (in Tampa)," Mondelo said. "I told him it would be a good idea if he considered Project-40. We kept track of him for a year and we saw a lot of things we liked. It was a good move for him."
If Barclay ever needs advice about being a young professional, he can ask teammate Gus Kartes. Kartes was 15 when he left Tarpon Springs High and signed with Olympiakos of the Greek First Division.
He's now 19 and in his first season as a Mutiny forward. He has not earned a high school degree but says he plans to obtain his general equivalency diploma.
"Now it might be okay to see a 15 or 16-year-old playing, but four or five years ago it was unheard of," Kartes said. "I kind of paved the way, I think, for these other guys like Convey and Donovan and Devin. But at the time it was a lucrative contract and I didn't expect it. I had to take the chance."
While Barclay hasn't enjoyed the success of Convey, Donovan and Beasley, who are starters for their clubs, he hasn't regretted his decision. He plans to stay in MLS for a long time.
"I'm glad I chose this," Barclay said. "I'm going to mature fast and become a better player faster. I don't think the level in college is that good. This was the best decision for me.
"I want to see MLS succeed. I think this league is going to explode in the next few years. We're going to be able to build on all the young MLS players that are playing now. I want to see U.S. soccer do well. I don't want to train in Europe."