What Happens to College Soccer?

Last year's number one pick in the MLS SuperDraft was college soccer's Hermann Trophy winner Andrew Wenger.  Credit: Bill Barrett - ISIPhotos.com

By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 12, 2012) US Soccer Players — The Indiana Hoosiers are college soccer champions. In 2012, that means something different than it did in 2002 or even 2007. The achievement is still notable, and represents a return to the top for Indiana and their eighth championship overall, but the victory comes during a very strange time for the game at the college level.

As America’s professional soccer concerns try to wrap their arms around the idea of academies designed to grow, nurture, and develop the next wave of pro player without the detour college soccer represents, college soccer itself thrashes about with instinctual vigor. Call it a defense mechanism.

In the aftermath of his team’s penalty kick loss in the semifinals of this year’s College Cup, University of Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski acted as the unelected spokesperson for the collective ego of college soccer. He railed against the notion that college soccer was somehow less important than it used to be.

“To all the people that think the college game is fading in relevance, tell them to give me a call,” he said. They’re either ignorant or they’re just not knowledgeable. It’s embarrassing for anybody to think the college game is not relevant. 2010 World Cup, 16 of the 23 players played in a College Cup. Virtually every successful team in MLS has 70 percent college players on it. Virtually the top five coaches in the history of this game in the US either played or coached in college.”

College soccer will rage against the forces that would relegate it to irrelevancy. It will claw and fight to retain its status as integral part of the American soccer hierarchy. It won’t go quietly, willingly, or with humble grace. It will refuse to accept any reality, conjured or otherwise, that would rob it of the hard-won respect it has earned as the origin of so many of America’s top soccer talents. Cirovski speaks for many with his angry words.

“So I take it personally that someone says to me that college is not relevant,” he continued. “It is the glue that has kept soccer going in this country. It is the most important connecter for the growth and development of the game in this country.”

It’s not actually clear if the perception that Cirovski lashed out against is real. As he mentions, MLS is rife with college soccer connections. Still, by most logical measures, college soccer’s relevance, at least from a professional soccer player-development perspective, should be fading.

Academies are here, and while they’ve yet to have a widespread impact on Major League Soccer, the idea that clubs will produce their own players rather than rely on the imperfect conditions of the college game is one most agree is a good one. Consistent, quality coaching from teenage years through to MLS contract will make for a better player in the long run.

The problem remains the gap that exists between MLS academy graduation and MLS contributions. College soccer remains the obvious bridge, giving young players a chance at an education while they continue to play and, presumably, improve as players. Despite the academy push, MLS is still dependent on college soccer for infusions of talent from year-to-year. The new wrinkle is that young academy-trained players are hitting the college ranks with their MLS future, should they choose to take it, already decided. The MLS team that “developed” them prior to their leaving for college has first rights to sign them when they exit the scholastic world.

There’s an unspoken assumption that trails any discussion of college soccer and its relationship to MLS and, further, to the US National Team. MLS and its member clubs are anxious to cut the cord linking college soccer and the professional game. Is that true? From an institutional angle, MLS has every incentive to remove college soccer’s influence from the player development process. The short season, minimal training time, and odd rules that hold sway during some of the most crucial years in a young player’s career can’t be the best way to get them ready for the rigors of the professional game. There’s little debate that academy products will, in the big picture, be better players than those that emerge from college.

Beyond the playing ranks, there are deep connections to the college game in nearly every corner of the professional soccer establishment. As Cirovski made a point to mention, the MLS coaching ranks are full of former college coaches.

Even if those in positions of power, with their pasts awash in college soccer experience, fully appreciate that divorcing professional soccer from college soccer is a “good idea”, it won’t be so easy. These are people with a bias towards college soccer, and undoubtedly see value in the players emerging from there. It’s likely that those connections will extend college soccer’s lifespan as the leading MLS talent provider. Coaches and GMs, by nature, are a conservative lot. They’ll lean on what they know for as long as they can. For many of them, what they know is college soccer.

Decoupling MLS from college soccer is not a matter of “should” or “will”, not with how intricately entangled they are with one another. Over time, perhaps the academies become the predominant source of new young talent, with college soccer relegated to a secondary role. That eventuality won’t necessarily lessen college soccer’s relevance in any significant way.

The transition of players from college soccer into the pros will always happen, if only because there’s bound to be an occasional player that blooms late or slips through the cracks. For that reason, it’s impossible to imagine a future when college soccer isn’t a significant part of the American soccer landscape. The relationship so many in MLS have with the college game ensures the amateur will have influence over the professional for years to come.

If there’s any doubt, college coaches like Sasho Cirovski will stand ready to remind everyone that college soccer’s relevance isn’t fading. Not really.

“So I hope they hear me loud and clear because myself and 200 other coaches and 3,000 players work hard every day to make this game relevant,” Cirovski said. “I know sometimes it can get a little chaotic. There’s things we want to do to improve the game, but for anybody that even has the audacity to think that, they ought to look in the mirror and have a gut check.”

Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact him:matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.

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One Response to What Happens to College Soccer?

  1. Trey says:

    It seems like I’ve heard this debate for decades. College doesn’t play the right way. The countdown clock, unlimited subs, and coaches that tailor their style to winning college soccer games rather than playing creative soccer. I don’t think that’s changed and it’s more about the players adjusting. It’s like all the sports, high school to college, college to pros. Only in our case, it’s elite youth soccer to college and then to pros. Same thing, and it always ends up being about the player.