Tag Archives: College soccer

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?


Going Pro: Kelsey Davis, American Soccer, and Emerging Adulthood

During the last few weeks much of the news from both Major League Soccer and Women’s Professional Soccer came from that odd American sports concoction known as “the draft.”  And while the draft itself may well be of diminishing relevance to North American versions of the global game, it still fascinates me as a marker of a transition—the draft offers that rare moment in sports where everyone can win, where everyone has new life.  For American soccer players, however, that new life is rarely as certain as it promises to be for the future millionaires drafted by the NBA or the NFL.  For American soccer players such as Kelsey Davis the draft is instead a first step into the uncertainty of adulthood.

photo by Jamie Francis/The Oregonian

Davis was recently drafted as a goalkeeper by the Chicago Red Stars, recently graduated from the University of Portland, recently completed a national team training camp (with the U-23’s), and recently was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about it all.  I actually talked with Davis before the WPS draft, and do not have any particular insight regarding her role with the Red Stars.  In other places she seems to have said the right things—“Obviously it’s been my dream since I was a little girl…I know Chicago is an awesome city… it’s a huge sports town.”

But my interest, motivated partially by my academic life studying human development, is more in Davis as a profile in what it means to be a young American player full of potential who also has this “real life” thing to figure out.  I’ve known Davis indirectly for a few years, just enough to be aware of her reputation around Portland as intense, engaged, and thoughtful—both on and off the soccer field.  And I have a long standing curiosity in thoughtful perspectives on what it means for American soccer players to go pro.

For most, it’s not about the money.  Though I have no idea exactly what Davis will earn, it won’t be much.  The average WPS salary has been quoted as $32,000, but that average includes minimum salaries of $40,000 for national team players and a few international salaries such as Marta’s reported $500,000.  So the average player actually probably makes more like $20,000.  In other words, significantly less than the typical college graduate who isn’t an elite athlete.

For many, there would be other options.  Davis has been a serious student, and holds academic ambitions beyond her undergraduate degree in theology (with minors in education and social justice)—maybe law school, maybe graduate work in ethics.  She feels called ultimately to some sort of human rights work.  But that is tough to combine with professional soccer, even in the low-paid world of WPS.  If you want to go pro, soccer kind of has to dominate your identity.

Davis, however, doesn’t seem like the type of person to let any one thing define her.  She is passionate about soccer, but she also lit up when I asked her about the signature line in her email—a quote from mid-20th century writer, monk, and social activist Thomas Merton: “We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”

“Merton is just my man” Davis explained.  “Theologically and spiritually, I just connect with his line of thought and where his heart’s at.  But also, for my own self, in life and in soccer we are constantly searching for what we are, who we are, and our identity.  But I think that literally all the answers are already there.  It’s just a matter of it being revealed in us.  And learning to trust ourselves a little bit.”

“There’s so much insecurity that comes around, especially in sports. It’s just you’re constantly being measured, and questioning yourself, and compared to this person or that person, in this constant pursuit of something.  So for me it just grounds me to remember, ok—it’s already there.  Just work with what you’ve got.  Don’t look too much around at other people…I love that quote.”

Learning

It’s been an eventful year.  In the summer of 2009 Davis got called up to the full US National Team for a training camp, and shattered her jaw in a collision while playing in an exhibition with the U-23 team.  In the fall she helped lead a good Portland Pilots team to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, losing at that stage after being sent on the road for the second year in a row to UCLA—the school from which Davis transferred after her freshman year.  In the winter she graduated from UP, and in January she was drafted.  But hovering around it all is the fact that in June of 2009 her father committed suicide.

Davis has been remarkably open and peaceful about losing her father, who she calls her best friend.  As she told her hometown paper in July, her Dad had been struggling with depression for many years and “he was kind of just too tired to do it again.”  And as she told me when I asked her if she thought her Dad was important for telling her story, “I think it definitely matters to the story…he still influences me every day…We primarily communicated through emails because he was a little bit deaf.  But he was a brilliant guy, a lawyer, an English major.  So we connected intellectually.  And he was always a source of comfort, and affirmation, and perspective.”

When I asked about him getting tired, she explained, “yeah, he struggled with depression and he had an addictive personality.  But he just stopped taking his medicine…something was off.  But he and I were pretty open with each other.  I knew his demons; I knew what he struggled with.  Did I ever expect that?  No.  Not really, just because he would always come back around.  He would always find a way to make sense of things.”

Finding a way to make sense of things is not always a specialty of elite American soccer players.  From a young age our players are tightly programmed, carpooled to suburban club teams, shuttled around the region with state teams, targeted for college scholarships.  Davis actually remembers being frustrated as a 12 year old when told by her coaches that she would have to either switch from field player to goalkeeper or find a new team—until her Dad confronted her in the kitchen: “You have the talent.  Use it.”  She explained “he helped me realize what was inside me, like the Merton quote.  My dad was amazing at extracting things out of me, and saying: ‘Look, you have it too.  You can do this.’”

By age 14 Davis was playing goalkeeper with her first in a series of youth national teams, soon to be travelling the world at the pinnacle of US youth development: Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and more places that opened her eyes.  But even on those trips the system is tightly programmed.  I’m regularly amused by US Soccer web features celebrating their various travelling teams finding the best Starbucks in Shanghai or the perfect hotel pool in Egypt.

But Davis tells me it depends some on the team.  She admits the players often joke about travelling to amazing destinations only to hole up in the hotel for weeks, but she also remembers fondly a trip to Brazil with the U-20’s where head coach Tim Schulz encouraged the team to soak in the culture—to go to the beach, hike in the rainforest, visit the market, and see true passion for the game: “Soccer can be just absolutely beautiful as a game itself.  If you break it down technically it is almost like a dance or an art.  Having the ability to participate in that is like being able to make music, in a way.  When I think about soccer like that I think about Brazil.”

Promoting the Ronald McDonald House (photo by Will Crew, on espn.com)

And when I think about soccer at its best I think about a game that can open minds—which is one reason I’m amongst the odd group of serious American fans who like college soccer.  When it is done well I like the idea of sports being combined with education, and I like how a player such as Davis seems to have used her college experience to genuinely explore ideas and identities.  She started at UCLA, attracted by the prestige of the place.  But it wasn’t for her—“I made the decision to commit to UCLA when I was like 16 years old.  I mean how much do you really know about yourself when you are 16?”  So when she transferred to Portland she immersed herself in soccer, in school, and in the community.  She’s particularly proud of taking the lead on a successful initiative for the team to adopt a room at the local Ronald McDonald house—where they had an ongoing tradition of student-led volunteer work.

It’s all led her to feel a commitment to something beyond soccer, maybe in combination with soccer.  But that path is less clear and seems more challenging to make sense of.  Beyond college, it is hard to think of soccer players who genuinely combine the game with serious intellectual engagement—though they may be out there?  But for Davis, perhaps thanks partially to the hard-won perspective garnered from an eventful year:  “It’s pretty simple when it comes down to it.  I honestly believe I have a talent for soccer.  A gift for soccer.  I’m in a place right now that’s pretty special.  I have opportunity before me.  My capacity to continue to get better is still there.  I’m not at my peak yet.  And in the same right, I think that I have a gift for the academic world too.  I have a desire in my heart to continue my education, to continue learning.  I think that I have tools necessary for that.  Have I arrived?  No.  Have I arrived athletically?  No.  Who knows if I ever will arrive either.  It’s more the capacity for the pursuit is there.”

Pursuing

Davis looks like she was made to be a goalkeeper.  She has square shoulders that frame a tall athletic build at once compact and lithe.  In her goal box she conveys an air of being simultaneously commanding and fraught, as if she cannot let the ball cross the line because she realizes the stakes.  As if she sometimes wonders what life would be like if she was not made to be a goalkeeper.

There are many perks that come with being a great soccer player, but opportunities for identity exploration are generally not among them.  In fact, in the study of lifespan development there is a term for what happens to adolescents who commit very young to a particular identity—such as that of an elite athlete.  We call it foreclosure, and it is generally considered a bad thing.

There is also an idea that in contemporary Western society the identity exploration of adolescence no longer leads directly to a relatively settled identity in adulthood.  Instead, there is a whole other stage of emerging adulthood—a period of continued exploration necessitated by greater educational expectations, increasingly eclectic career paths, delays in the age at which people start a family.  This “new” stage is full of exciting opportunities, but it can also be full of anxiety and uncertainty.  And I have an untested theory that it can be particularly challenging for elite athletes whose success and focus through their youth offers little help in exploring other domains of their potential.

Davis recognizes the challenge, but is more optimistic than me: “Soccer is amazing, and I have an extreme amount of goals in that.  But there’s this whole other side [of academics and intellectual engagement].  Can I do both?   I’ve had coaches in my life that have told me no, absolutely not.  There is no way to be an Olympian and try to get a masters or a doctorate.  And for me that’s heartbreaking.  I feel like they are so much both a part of who I am that I want to do both.  And I know that in the past people told women’s soccer players, you can’t be a mom and have a family on the full national team.  And then people like Joy Fawcett, they totally just shattered that.  They were like, yes we can.”

So when I ask Davis about who of her US Soccer predecessors she particularly admires it is not necessarily the goal scorers or the goal stoppers—it’s players such as Christie Rampone.  Davis explains, “Being into camp last year and seeing the way that she functions as a mother, and as an elite athlete, and just the integrity that she has is amazing.  It’s absolutely amazing.”

But it is also interesting that it is hard to think of examples of players—male or female—who’ve balanced anything other than soccer and family, no matter how amazing that particular balance may be.  There are, in fact, ways in which excelling at soccer requires a single-minded focus that precludes the types of intellectual engagement towards which Davis could be inclined: “It’s ironic because part of what I’ve learned to be successful in soccer is to just not think.  But it’s such a part of who I am, it’s been a challenge for me to keep things simple and turn it off.  Because I can analyze and over-analyze anything in the world.”

So for a player such as Davis is “the draft” an opening, or is it just another step in “turning it off?”  Will she get a chance to genuine explore the possibilities of emerging adulthood, or is she destined to struggle with the necessity of identity foreclosure?  By going pro Davis is living the dream of many young players—but is it her dream?

She thinks so.  “I love it.  And I think that when you love something you stay with it.  Regardless of what it gives or takes.  Just like a relationship.  And I think that it’s good for me to remember that I do love the game.  Regardless of what’s going to happen.”


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.

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