For players growing up in the United States, the opportunity and possibility of playing for a high-profile and high-calibre university has long been the end goal. During a player’s teenage years either playing high school soccer or for a competitive club, they learn that statistics matter more than performance. Yes, for recruiting purposes, statistics supersede performance during these pre-college years. It can be argued that statistics are a true measure of performance, and that’s partly true. But, the reality is coaches and recruiters often base their recruiting decisions on statistics rather than performance.
Here’s a dose of reality: American soccer is plateauing. The level of play, the calibre of player, and the collective technical ability in the American game isn’t improving at the rate it should or could. The reasons are aplenty, but college soccer is one aspect that needs to be addressed and assessed.
Right now, college soccer is about athleticism and results. Technical development and tactical awareness are compromised and give way to a run-and-gun style of play that’s become commonplace for the college game. For example, in my freshman year of college soccer the ‘number one recruit’ (what a great label) was recruited on the rumour that he “could run 25 miles per hour on a treadmill”. Seriously, that was what the coach at the time based his decision to award this player a full scholarship at the NCAA Division One level on; his ability to run on a treadmill.
But there I was, entering the college game ready to take part in a hurried pre-season of conditioning and fitness tests wondering if Division One soccer was a misnomer for Track and Field. In the locker room, I looked at this “number one recruit” and he stared at the rest of the team with trepidation, as if his performance hung on the tenterhooks of expectation and, lest we forget, the treadmill statistic, which we all knew was absolute nonsense.
The Beep Test quickly whittled down the player pool. One of the first to drop out was the aforementioned treadmill king. After the Beep Test, we took part in a two mile run, or The Cooper Run, which proved to be disastrous for many players. I finished the run in 9 minutes, 50 seconds and a few other players finished with respectable times as well and collectively, we were on hodgepodge scholarship packages that really amounted to cover the cost of a few books and nominal fees; but we were grateful to be “on scholarship”. In a team of 25 players with 9.9 total scholarships, the player awarded a full scholarship finished near last.
During our first team training session, I looked at his footwear. They were football foots, no, not football boots, but gridiron football boots. This guy had a pair of cleats suitable for a member on an American football team’s Special Teams unit and honestly, he looked more like a Tight End or Cornerback than a midfielder. This was ridiculous at an NCAA Division One institution. So, what’s the point of this narrative? It’s simple; statistics and athleticism should not replace soccer-specific performance with regards to the college recruiting process.
So, what place does college soccer have in the larger context of the American game when it’s clear the NCAA doesn’t fully care about the sport? To compound the enigma of what has long been the traditional route an American player takes, college soccer is being challenged by the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and rightly so. College soccer isn’t about developing talent. It doesn’t exist to keep the student-athlete safe and better their athletic experience. The college game is rife with under-educated coaches and trying to produce thoroughbred athletes, not soccer players. It also has great coaches and players being suffocated in a confining system.
In the chaos that is the NCAA-formatted season, in hindsight, it makes sense that “the athletes” are preferred over soccer players – they hit harder, run faster, and jump higher. But do they have a first touch? Not a chance. This lack of development during the ages of 18-22 is irrevocably detrimental as evidenced by the lack of technical quality in the professional ranks of the American game. It’s not an opinion, but a fact that until technical development is valued in the youth and college game, the quality of play will remain the same when it could improve tremendously.
The reality is college soccer does have a place in the American game. In fact, when the NCAA and the U.S. Soccer Federation decide to recognize this and work together, the rewards will be in the form of a better prepared player pool throughout all divisions of the college game ready to either go onto the next level, or appropriately enter the working world.
I’ve sat in many coaching conventions listening to academy coaches tell parents and players not to play high school soccer because it will hurt their chances of playing collegiately. They frame a college soccer scholarship as the ultimate mark of a player’s worth. It’s a charade, a facade wrapped in the lunacy of the modern business practices so common in American youth soccer- selling empty dreams at wholesale prices. This stale rhetoric has done nothing but fill the bank accounts of these “academies” whilst inflating the egos of players and depleting a family’s bank account. Parents, put that exorbitant fee towards your son or daughter’s college fund because chances are, they aren’t getting a full scholarship and will not play professionally.
It’s no secret that college is expensive as it operates both as a business and revenue producer for the institution and as an academic institution for the consumer, the student. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics post in the Economics section of the New York Times as of 2012, “College tuition and fees today are 559 percent of their cost in 1985″. Well, it’s 2014 and that figure is unlikely to decrease. It’s easy to see why parents and players clamour and salivate over the possibility of a scholarship playing college soccer.
Another problem with the perception of college soccer manifests well before a player heads off to school. Parents must pour massive amounts of money into clubs attempting to provide a platform of exposure to a system (college soccer) that’s not only limiting in scholarship monies, but in the quality of the soccer experience. College athletic complexes in the United States are some of the best in the world and yet, our college soccer products are under-prepared and underpaid for and by Major League Soccer, which has enjoyed utilizing the pipeline of cheap labour for years.
So, what’s the solution? For starters, recognizing the infrastructure is in place to product great players who are earning a degree must lead to a decision to lengthen the season from a condensed three-four month rapid-fire flurry of games to a Fall to Spring season with an extended Winter break. The current format places heavy physical demands on the student-athlete whilst compromising their education with travel, fatigue, and the decreased chance for an injured player to recover.
The next step is realizing that instead of competing with the Development Academy system, college soccer, with direction from the U.S. Soccer Federation, should work with the academies and professional leagues (yes, plural) to help find a way for even the perceived “late bloomers” to play at the next level. Realistically elite players will always be elite players and should be on a track that expedites their path to the professional game if they choose to pursue it. They belong in a dedicated academy.
But what about the rest of the players taking the college route who, if given a chance with a longer season where development can be stressed and performance can be maximized, would be better prepared to play at the next level? College soccer coaches don’t have the time or compliance contact hours to develop players. They need players to be ready out-of-the-box to perform and play three games a week with travel while attending classes. The reality is not every player can or should become a professional, but the amount of players who hang their boots up at 22 years-old is amazing, and quite sad. Currently, collegiate players experiencing a poor season are shoehorned into early retirement due to a lack of opportunity to recover from injuries or the inability to find form in a condensed season.
According to data from the NCAA compiled by Dr. David Geier, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist, compiled in May 2012 on men’s soccer injuries, the common ones include: muscle strains (25.8%), ligament sprains (25.3%), contusions (20.3%), and concussions (5.5%) all of which require extended periods of time for recovery and safe reintegration into competition. The significance of these findings is the current condensed season forces players to make the decision to either play injured, or settle with missing significant time out through injury to the detriment of both the student-athlete and quality of play. Players would be afforded the chance to recover from a concussion or body injury in an extended season. Furthermore, development and recovery can finally become factors in the college game.
There is a belief that college soccer isn’t conducive to producing professional players at the requisite level for the modern game and that’s true in the current system. The days of the top American players being college products are long gone, but players will still matriculate through the college pipeline and become professionals. The infrastructure exists to make college soccer another development academy system. The facilities, the training and medical staff, the environment are already in place, they’re just being under-utilized. Student-athletes should be playing a longer season without such stringent NCAA-imposed training restrictions. Per NCAA rules, coaches can take only 20 hours a week in-season for training. Out-of-season – during the academic year – teams are allowed only eight hours of training a week.
The college game at the Division One level is frenetic but is rich in raw quality in terms of the product on the pitch. After all, it’s a collection of the best young players outside of the professional and academy ranks in the country. However, there are too many limitations placed on the college game to fully realize the potential of this facet of the sport. If the NCAA isn’t on board with promoting college soccer, perhaps the U.S. Soccer Federation should move to allow college teams an opportunity to play in domestic tournament competitions like the U.S. Open Cup starting from the qualifying rounds, which begin in the Spring as to not interfere with the dedicated college season.
By even allowing the Elite Eight of the previous year’s College Cup to take part in qualification, development becomes a reward in the college game at the top level. College teams would gain valuable opportunities for exposure and experience and any money won could be used for the programs’ scholarship, travel, or equipment budget, which are vastly underfunded. As it stands, many top college teams play friendlies against top academy, national, and professional teams, so allowing these college teams to compete in the USOC isn’t shock to the system for a strong collegiate player.
The major stakeholders here should be the U.S. Soccer Federation and the NCAA. As the governing body of the sport in the United States and with affiliations with MLS, NASL, NWSL, USL (and its seven sub sections), USASA, USYSA, and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), the U.S. Soccer Federation should be making a move to add the NCAA to this list of affiliates. Unlike big revenue producers like college basketball and football, college soccer needs exposure and potential competition against top domestic sides could prove to be a step in the right direction to promote interest in the college game.
The end goals should not solely be aimed at the top stratum of the American game. If the level of play and quality of the college game rise, the professional game will follow suit. The youth organizations and associations serve college soccer just as college soccer serves the professional game, but under the current, fragmented and condensed format, the search and utilization for talent will remain elusive in a country with so many resources, talented players, and an established infrastructure and quite frankly, it’s time to utilize each of these for the betterment of the game.