In defense of American college soccer: A community perspective

For most Americans who identify as soccer aficionados (including many émigrés) this time of year is exciting because of the start of the European season.  In this crowd the fact that it is also the start of the American college season is mostly of no note at all, or perhaps a cause for casual derision.  In my experience as an American soccer fan there is no more fertile source for soccer snobbery than our college system.

And while I agree there is much to criticize about American college soccer, I also think that those criticisms obscure what are some particularly (and peculiarly) American advantages to our system.  While most serious discussions of how to develop soccer in America completely dismiss college soccer as irrelevant at best and problematic at worst, I tend to agree with successful University of Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, who told L.E. Eisenmenger last year that: “We cannot be Germany, we cannot be England, we cannot be Brazil…College soccer, which is a larger scope of the college experience in America, must be part of the solution in any of the development programs we have.”

There are two main issues to consider when thinking about American college soccer as part of further developing the game in the United States.  The first, and the one that gets by far the most attention, is the issue of player development.  The essential argument is that for a wide variety of reasons trying to combine education with elite soccer is not going to serve our international ambitions as well as a more extensive professional system.  While I think there are some interesting problems with that argument (for one, I’ll take former college players such as Claudio Reyna, Clint Dempsey, or Oguchi Onyewu  over professional versions such as Eddie Johnson, Nik Besagno, or Danny Szetela—but I know the anecdotal evidence goes both ways), I’ll save that for another day.

Here I’d like to focus on the second key issue to do with American college soccer that I think gets less attention: the possibility that supporting the college game provides a distinctive opportunity to build the types of community engagement with soccer that are essential for America to truly embrace the global game.  (In this post I focus on men’s college soccer—but women’s college soccer is an interesting topic of its own which I hope to discuss some in the future).

Sasho Cirovski

Sasho Cirovski

College soccer and “American exceptionalism”

In their excellent 2001 book Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman categorize college soccer as another example of “American Exceptionalism”—one of the many ways Americans tend to operate differently from the rest of the world system (for both good and ill—the term “exceptionalism” is used mostly in an international relations sense of being different rather than of high quality).  Another key element of that exceptionalism, however, is the fact that our professional soccer clubs have virtually no genuine community roots.

In most other parts of the world the top football clubs evolved from genuine “clubs” with authentic connections to the community. European giants ranging from Barcelona to Manchester United to Bayern Munich, for example, all began through the initiatives of local community members with organic connections to their cities.  As such, they have an authenticity that will never be available to the San Jose Earthquakes, the latest iteration of MLS’s failed efforts to franchise New York, or Real Salt Lake (are the citizens of Utah really genuine about saluting the Spanish monarchy?).  The only thing that can come close in regards to community roots in America is the college system.

While the US college sports system has evolved into a unique beast that makes little sense to anyone not from the US, it is worth noting that American college sports were initially not that different from other countries.  The simple fact is that colleges and Universities everywhere in the world are nice places to get together for games, something that explains the origins of many famous clubs around the world including UNAM Pumas (which started as a school team at Mexico’s Universidad Nacional and borrowed its colors from Notre Dame’s American football team) and Argentine champions Estudiantes de La Plata.

As sport became professionalized, however, most global clubs separated from their University roots because those institutions were quite reasonably focused on education.  American universities, on the other hand, have long tended towards an odd amalgam of education and entertainment necessary to survive in a more business-like marketplace.  Though I’m over-simplifying a complex historical process that is well described elsewhere, college sports proved a useful tool for American universities competing for public recognition, donors, students, and community support—with just enough veneer of educational mission to rationalize separate “departments” of athletics.

If we fast forward to 2009 the American college sports system has evolved into an elaborate and diverse entity, its manifestations ranging from 100,000 fans watching essentially semi-professional American football players on Fall Saturdays in Gainesville Florida to a smattering of parents and friends watching the non-scholarship Buena Vista Beavers play soccer in Storm Lake Iowa.  Within that system, including NCAA Divisions I, II, and III, the NAIA, and the junior college system, there are probably at least a 1000 college soccer teams in the United States (despite searching, I could find no exact figures).  Yet, partially because soccer aficionados have dismissed college soccer, many men’s programs are being eliminated as part of University budget cuts and soccer advocates have little leverage with the powers-that-be.  So what are they missing?

The college soccer experience

Many of the best places to watch soccer in the United States are on college campuses where intimate facilities designed for reasonable soccer crowds create the type of buzz I’ve never experienced at an MLS game.  That is not to say that American college soccer generates huge attendance figures or revenue streams.  The top drawing college teams draw an average of 3,000-4,000 fans per game and I suspect none earns enough money to pay for itself.  That is also not to say, however, that college soccer has nothing to offer an unaffiliated soccer fan.

Klöckner Stadium

Klöckner Stadium

If I could ever afford it I’d love to take a Fall tour of soccer at places such as the University of Virginia’s Klöckner Stadium, Saint Louis University’s Hermann Stadium, and the University of Connecticut’s Marrone Stadium (I consider myself lucky to live about five blocks from the University of Portland’s Merlo Field which is also one of the greats).  With their 5,000-8,000 person capacities and local flavor, such grounds are the closest thing America has to the small town lower league stadiums that have long fueled European community love affairs with soccer.  Furthermore, having those stadiums in places such as Charlottesville Virginia and Storrs Connecticut offers the additional advantage of selling the game in towns that would likely never support fully professional teams.

An instructive example in that vein can be found through Creighton University’s Morrison Stadium, a facility that some American fans claim to be among the best in the college soccer world.  Creighton is in Omaha Nebraska, a town that is not generally considered a soccer hotbed.  But Morrison Stadium is a beautiful, reasonably sized facility in a downtown location that draws 3,000-4,000 fans for a good game in the Fall.  Because it taps a local emotional attachment to college sports, and because Creighton does not try to compete with the behemoth University of Nebraska American football program, I suspect Creighton soccer does more to help soccer in Nebraska than a professionalized youth league could ever hope to accomplish.  Just speaking geographically, only a small portion of the American population will ever have easy access to professional soccer but a huge portion can find decent college soccer within an hour’s drive.

But is there really such a thing as decent college soccer?  A prominent criticism of men’s college soccer is that its rah-rah character favors a brutish version of the beautiful game; as one commenter on Big Soccer noted “college soccer appears to indeed be useful still, but mostly for “piano movers” and not “piano players.””  While there is a degree of truth in that criticism, the other side of that coin is that good college soccer games have an intensity and physicality that can be entertaining for the casual fan and a psychological challenge to the developing player.

Maryland coach Cirovski argues that “The NCAA Division I top 20 experience is a professional environment…You play games that matter. You play games in front of thousands of people. Winning and losing matters.”  That desperation to win may not always be pretty, but it does provide a sharp contrast to typical regular season MLS games where no one really cares anyway because at the end of the season the majority of the teams make the playoffs anyway.  The athleticism of the college game also provides a retort to the tired argument that American soccer will only flourish if “true athletes” (usually meaning NBA and NFL stars) had instead played soccer.

Santiago Solari

Santiago Solari

It is also worth noting that while the quality of college soccer is uneven, some very good players have passed through its ranks.  Take one of my favorite odd soccer trivia questions for example: What level of American soccer has produced both an English Premiership team captain and an Argentine national team regular for Real Madrid?  Would you believe the NCAA Division III (Ryan Nelson, sometime captain of Blackburn Rovers, played for tiny Greensboro College from 1997-1999 before transferring to Stanford, while Santiago Solari spent 1994 playing with Richard Stockton College of New Jersey).  To think that European fans paid hundreds of dollars to watch Solari play in his prime when a few hundred lucky Americans got to see him for free—all because they followed college soccer in New Jersey.

What is the ultimate point of the game?

All this is aside from the ultimate point of college soccer—to promote the game as part of an education that produces the citizens who may one day be leaders in their communities.  Of course that point is not always adhered to as college sports struggle with the tensions between the business of elite sports and the values of education—I have many concerns about issues of access to college and I worry about many of college sports administrative policies.  Further, in defending college soccer I do not want to suggest it should be the only option for youth players.

At the same time, however, one of my biggest concerns with dismissing college soccer in favor of increased professionalization is the social implications of creating a youth system that is focused on finding a few great soccer talents at the human cost of thousands of others.  If we continue pushing for a system that forces people to specialize at earlier and earlier ages, both in terms of sports and in terms of education, we will likely have more success identifying 18 players for a World Cup team sheet while simultaneously creating a generation of individuals who devoted their adolescence to soccer at the expense of the many other potential contributions to their communities.  The things we think we want to do at 15 are often very different from what we think we want to do when we are 22.

I must admit to having a vested stake in this issue: I played college soccer, coached college soccer in graduate school, and work at a University where soccer is the most popular sport.  As a general rule, I think colleges are good things.  I also had the opportunity to play with University affiliated teams on two other continents (when studying abroad in Ireland and when on a Peace Corps stint in Malawi), so I know well that American college sports are an odd breed in global perspective.  American college sports make sense to Americans, and make very little sense to anyone else.  But it is partially for that reason that I think it worth considering college soccer as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.

In much contemporary discussion about growing American soccer there is a recognition that our system needs to do a better job of gaining acceptance and interest beyond niche groups of hardcore fans.  Creating professionalized youth systems for elite 15 year olds will not do that, but college soccer might help. One of the best things about my own college soccer experience was how at a small liberal-arts college in rural Ohio we managed to build community around soccer.  Our American football team was no good, the soccer team was very good (by the relative standards of NCAA Division III), and on Saturdays in the Fall the whole school and town turned out for our games—bringing picnics, throwing Frisbees, mingling, cheering, and loving soccer.

Years later I ran into a classmate who had grown up as many Americans do with no interest in soccer.  Now living in Boston, she told me that some of her fondest memories of college consisted of those Saturday soccer games—to this day when the leaves turn color and sunshine comes with the cool bite of Fall in New England, her first thought is “it’s a great day for soccer.”  In the United States that thought, made possible by college soccer, is all too rare.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion

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