College Cups and the State of American Soccer Culture

Photo via Al Santos/DC Sports Box

Photo via Al Santos/DC Sports Box

If you are one of those American soccer fans who, in the post-MLS Cup lull of the last few weeks, watched the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s ‘College Cups,’ I’m sorry.  I fear that the games were the types of rough defensive affairs that won’t deter soccer aficionados that look at the American college game with disdain (though I personally enjoyed watching).  If you are counting, North Carolina won the women’s championship 1-0 after scoring in the third minute and defending their lead, while Virginia won the men’s championship in PK’s after a 0-0 tie.  But can I still ask you to join me in looking at the big picture and asking what the College Cups might have to say about the men’s and women’s game in the US: who plays, who coaches, and what factors into success?

While I recognize that college soccer is a peculiar and flawed concoction, as I’ve written previously I still tend to think there are some pragmatic reasons why it does matter as part of a distinctively American approach to the game.  If you are a US national team fan or an MLS fan (or even a WPS fan) you may not like college soccer, but unless you think it likely that some other system will magically appear in the US to give several thousand 18-22 year olds opportunities to continue playing competitively then you might as well appreciate college soccer for what it’s worth.

My general take is that while there will and should be opportunities for talented young players to opt out of college and take the professional route, such opportunities will never be realistic for more than a select few players, will discard the potential of players who might be ‘late-bloomers,’ and require that many young people sacrifice other educational opportunities in hopes of winning the soccer lottery.  In fact, in their recent book Soccernomics: Why England LosesSimon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that a major problem in the English youth development system is its tendency to exclude players interested in education.  Unlike places such as the Netherlands or even Brazil, the English system is so specialized that young people usually have to give up on school if they want to have a chance of succeeding in soccer.  And, Kuper and Szymanski argue, the people willing to take that chance are primarily those from poor or working class backgrounds.  As a consequence, a significant portion of the English population is excluded from the potential player pool.

The US youth development system usually has the opposite problem—too often excluding people from poor and working class backgrounds in favor of relatively wealthy suburbanites.  In that light, it is probably not insignificant that the seven Universities involved in the men’s and women’s College Cups this year are almost all outstanding academic schools: the University of North Carolina (which sent both its men’s and women’s team), UCLA (women), and the University of Virginia (men) are among the best public Universities in the country, while Stanford (women), Notre Dame (women), and Wake Forest (men) are highly selective elite private Universities.  The fact that some of our best young players are also capable of high quality academic work would seem to be a good thing—though it may also say something about social class exclusion in American soccer.

Which brings me back to thinking about the College Cups in relation to the big picture of American soccer.  Whether you like or hate college soccer, you have to admit that the schools and teams on display these last few week-ends have been influential to the American game.  To cite just a few examples, men’s champion Virginia has produced some of the most successful US players and coaches in recent generations (including Claudio Reyna, John Harkes, and Bruce Arena) while women’s runner-up Stanford is the alma matter of former US captain Julie Foudy and WPS league commissioner Tonya Antonucci.  Further, by my tentative count, the eight programs in the College Cups have produced 26 current MLS players (not to mention a good number of European pros such as Bakary Soumare from Virginia and Michael Parkhurst from Wake Forest) and 34 current WPS players.

men's college cup

So it strikes me that the College Cups, despite their lackluster display on the field, offer a chance to check in on the state of American soccer culture (though the NCAA Division I College Cups get the most attention, and will therefore be my focus here, I’m also a big fan—and former participant in—Division III soccer and I think all the different levels of the college game are good for the future of the sport).  I won’t offer a recap of the games or the star players—since those are easily available elsewhere—but I will offer some interpretations of what the teams might suggest about the big picture of the game in the US:

American college soccer is overwhelmingly American: This may seem to be stating the obvious, but there has long been a perception that good college teams need some foreign flavor.  There have been many programs that rely on international players interested in the prestige of an American university education and foreign coaches interested in the stability of a college coaching job.  But when I did some quick counting of the eight rosters (via each school’s team web-site) for the 2009 College Cups, only 10 of 220 players listed came to the States to play college soccer—and those are mostly Canadians (the UCLA women’s team had the most foreigners with three, but all are from Canada).  Likewise, of the 24 full time paid coaches (each team has three full time paid positions, though most also list additional volunteer coaches whom I did not count) only two were foreign born: UNC men’s head Elmar Bolowich was born and raised in Germany but has been at UNC for 21 years, while UCLA women’s head Jillian Ellis was born in the UK but came to the US at 15 and played college soccer here.  These tallies were surprising to me—I’ve always worried an inferiority complex in American soccer makes us too deferential to the allure of a foreign accent.  But after looking at the statistics I’m wondering if I should actually have the opposite concern—that American college soccer may be too insular.

There’s more diversity than you might think: Just as the seeming international insularity of American college soccer surprised me, so did the racial and ethnic diversity of the players in the College Cups.  Because college soccer is often associated with the white suburban base of the American game, it was interesting to see that many of the teams seemed more representative of the American population than I might have expected.  I didn’t do an exact count of the players (partially because I didn’t want to make too many assumptions about specific individuals based just on names or pictures), but from what I saw I wouldn’t be surprised if the break-down was close to the US population: about 65% “Non-Hispanic” White, about 15 % Latino, about 12% African-American, about 4% Asian, and about 4% other.  In looking at some of the player profiles, however, it was interesting to note that several of the African-American players seemed to be from African immigrant families—Akron striker Darlington Nagbe, for example, is listed as a son of “a former captain of the Liberian full national team” and Virginia maestro Tony Tchani is a Cameroonian immigrant. But, of course, that does not make them any less representative of America as a nation of immigrants.  In fact, in some ways the broad palate of player profiles and family backgrounds offered an interesting version of America as a global partner—be it Virginia goalkeeper Diego Restrepo whose family came to the US to escape violent threats in Columbia, or Stanford women’s team defenders Alina Garciamendez and Ali Riley who grew up in Texas and California but represent Mexico or and New Zealand internationally.

If you want to coach American college soccer you better be male: With all its flaws, the American college soccer system has long provided opportunities for women’s soccer to grow and flourish.  A reasonable argument could be made for the claim that the dominance of the US women’s national team in the early days of FIFA women’s competitions was due largely to the competitive opportunities of the college game.  But those opportunities don’t seem to be translating to the coaching ranks.  Of the twelve coaches paid by the four women’s programs in the College Cup only four are women—one assistant at Stanford, one assistant at Notre Dame, along with the UCLA head coach and one of her assistants.  Unfortunately, it almost goes without saying that none of the twelve men’s coaches are women.  While I’m sure all the male coaches are competent and hard-working, the relative dearth of women in coaching does raise interesting questions.  Is there subtle discrimination?  Are women less interested in coaching?  Does the predominance of men mean American soccer is limiting its coaching talent pool?

women's college cup

The North Carolina women are a culture unto themselves: North Carolina won the women’s College Cup this year, which is not a surprise because they almost always win the women’s College Cup.  Anson Dorrance coached North Carolina teams have won 20 of 28 NCAA Division I women’s soccer championships, and they do it his way—with huge stockpiles of talented players that play at a furious pace taking full advantage of the nearly unlimited substitutions allowed in the NCAA.  Dorrance has developed an entire coaching system that seems remarkably well-suited to American women’s players, mixing hyper-competitive training sessions where every individual performance is charted and compared with a careful attention to the emotional cohesiveness of the team.  I once heard Dorrance talk about his initial transition from coaching men to coaching women, and his sense that women required a different kind of attention—where men’s players could be called out publicly to celebrate their success (“let’s give it up for Pat—he was the hero today”) when he tried that with women they would crumble (“why is he giving all the attention to Pat—does she think she’s so great?”).  I’m not sure I agree with some of the broad-swath stereotypes about the differences between coaching men and coaching women, but I do admire Dorrance for having created a successful system by focusing on what is distinctive about his particular context (and I’d recommend his now somewhat dated book Training Soccer Champions for anyone interested in an intriguingly idiosyncratic approach to coaching the game).  Rather than just aping what others do, he’s created a way of doing things that works for his particular team—which strikes me as necessary for all levels and types of American soccer.

Soccer works better where it’s warm: A few months ago when Sepp Blatter was on about how MLS needs to switch to the international calendar, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati pointed out that “Chicago is not London in January. Chicago is Moscow in January” (and something similar could be said for Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc.).  College players seem to agree.  With the notable exceptions of Notre Dame and Akron, all the teams in the College Cups are significantly south of Chicago—in places where you can play outside most of the year.  And though I didn’t bother to count specifically, a disproportionate percentage of players seemed to be from warm-weather states such as Texas and California.  True, it looked pretty damn cold in College Station Texas and Cary North Carolina during the actual final games.  But it wasn’t Moscow.

Colleges are better at coming up with team names than MLS: Maybe it’s just that college sports nicknames have been around for so long that they seem fun rather than tacky, but there is something great about the Tar Heels v the Cardinal (referring to the color rather than the bird), the Demon Deacons v the Cavaliers, and the simple fact that Akron calls itself the Zips (according to one web-site, the name comes from a type of rubber shoe produced by BF Goodrich in Akron and was chosen from other options including “Tip Toppers, Rubbernecks, Hillbilies, Kangaroos, and Cheveliers [sic.]”).  The great college team names have some local relevance, are distinct and catchy, and avoid the pretense of trying to be something they are not—a Football Club, a United, or a tribute to a monarch.  At their best they are also a reminder that while college sports (and college soccer) may not be ultimate in competitive sports, they can be pretty fun.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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