College Soccer and American Youth Development

ncaa-soccerThe United States U-20 team began its games this week at the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland with a 1-0 win over China, thanks to a goal from 16 year-old Omar Salgado, assisted by 18 year-old Alex Molano of Dinamo Zagreb.

The American roster named by U-20 coach Thomas Rongen has nine professional players on it: six of them play overseas, including Molano in Croatia, three players in Portugal (Samir Badr at Porto, Greg Garza at G.D. Estoril Praia and Gale Agbossoumonde  at S.C. Braga), Ernest Nungaray and Adrian Rueles in Mexico (Monarcas Morelia and Santos Laguna respectively) and three domestically in Major League Soccer, Juan Agudelo from the Red Bulls, Fuad Ibrahim from Toronto FC and Francisco Navas Cobo at the Houston Dynamo.

There are only six players on American college rosters on the 18-man roster (and interestingly, only one of them is a midfielder or forward). That’s six more college players than you’ll find on most other countries’ U-20 rosters: but it’s also about half the number of college players from the American roster announced for the 2005 Milk Cup, that included the likes of Charlie Davies (Boston College) and Sasha Klejstan (Seton HallUCLA), and had only a couple of professionals on it. The decline in the number of college players represented on the US U-20 national team is a trend, but the country is still set apart by this route of youth development.

Rongen has been coaching the US U-20 team for almost the entire past decade. And in an interview this week with Zach Berman of the Washington Post, he alluded to this change:  “If you look at it from a purely objective standpoint, [college soccer is] not an ideal soccer development for a critical stage of a player’s development between ages 17 and 21.” He went on to suggest that college soccer was not the best way to develop elite players.  “I don’t care what college coaches say. You cannot replicate a professional environment. There’s too much down time, there’s not enough games. And if there are games during the season, there are too many of them in a short amount of time, which means most teams pretty much have starters end up recuperating between games and not training.”

In an excellent article at the Huffington Post a couple of months ago, Beau Dure looked at other problems of the college game as a key development area for men’s soccer in the United States: the limited number of full scholarships, for example, that limits the diversity of the intake, and the non-traditional rules that see revolving substitutes, encouraging a fast, physical and aggressive game that bleeds into MLS:

The scholarship numbers also limit the player pool. Partial scholarships may not be enough of an incentive for needy kids to go to college. Instead, the pool of players is more likely to live up to the clumsy stereotypes of American soccer as a game for wealthy suburbanites.

The NCAA also has loose substitution rules, a departure from the standard rules of allowing only a few substitutions through the game. A talented player can find waves of tough guys taking turns hacking at his ankles. Some of them find it difficult to lose these habits upon making the pro ranks, giving MLS a sad reputation as a “physical” league rather than a skillful one.

But as long as MLS remains “physical,” a tag reinforced by some coaches’ tendency to recruit foreign players who can match the Americans foul-for-foul, the college game is good preparation.

“I didn’t come from a very physical style of soccer,” Colorado forward and Harvard grad Andre Akpan says. “That was something I got used to in college soccer.”

Akpan is part of a disappearing group of players who excel in international youth play — in his case, a stellar run with the U.S. Under-20 team in 2007 — and spend four years in college. Many of those players are tempted by — if not pushed toward — the pro ranks of MLS or Europe.

MLS is still playing nice — just about — with college soccer. All MLS teams are now required to have a youth academy, a majority of them free to play in, but a vast majority of those players will still go on to play college soccer. Most clubs are careful to ensure college eligibility is not ruined for players with the NCAA’s byzantine rules in mind — though importantly, thanks to a rule change earlier this year, MLS clubs now have first option on players from their academies when they leave college to play in MLS.

This is an important balancing issue for American soccer. The player development systems elsewhere may be vaunted for their production of players — but how about for the production of, well, people?  Nine out of ten talented youth players in most countries of the world end up putting all their eggs in one basket, in the hope of turning professional at 16, and end up at a dead end. Education is often, if not always, an afterthought. In England, for example, Watford were recently touted as an outstanding exceptional model for their focus on school and sports:

Watford have gone even further. Cox says: “Like all clubs we wanted to increase the contact time with the kids but we decided to go about it in the opposite way to most: not to get them out of school, but to put them into one.”

Three years ago, they offered 34 young players places in the local secondary school in Harefield, which, driven by the former Olympic figure skater Haig Oundjian, a governor at the school and at the time a director of Watford, was being reinvented as a comprehensive academy with a focus on sport. So unlike Dutch clubs or residential programmes for young footballers such as France’s acclaimed Clairefontaine model, Watford have integrated their academy players into a mainstream school, securing more time with their charges while saving on cost and preserving a healthy sense of normality among aspiring footballers.

Cox says: “We pick the children up at around 7am and they then do all the normal subjects but also have scheduled coaching throughout the day – at times when they are fresh – then we drop them home at 7pm. We get to do about 15 hours of football with them a week, up to three times more than most other clubs in this country.

“And not only do kids not have to sacrifice their education, we find that they actually perform better in the classroom as well as on the pitch because the environment is more stimulating and they are more driven in everything – they know if they are not doing their best in the classroom we can take away the privilege of training. We have 50 kids here now – before, they might have been in 50 different schools and we would have had no idea what they were doing for 95% of their time. Here we can take more responsibility for their development, both as players and as people.”

Most Americans at MLS youth academies keep enough focus on school as almost all want to have the grades to be able to go to college: for now, anyway.

Andrew Guest made an eloquent defense of the important of American college soccer to people and communities, including for the development of the game here in a broader perspective than solely churning out talented youngsters, on these pages last year.

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.

Could we, then, find ways to improve college soccer’s value to the sport and youth development, rather than cutting it out entirely?

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