College Soccer Needs to Adapt

Men’s college soccer is in crisis.

For much of the modern era of U.S. Soccer (1990 onwards), college soccer has been a valuable resource. Key players on the current U.S. Men’s National Team pool such as Clint Dempsey, Alejandro Bedoya, Geoff Cameron, Darlington Nagbe, DeAndre Yedlin, and Brad Guzan all played college soccer. The 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel (Atlanta United) went to Providence College.

From the time the old NASL folded in 1984 and the inaugural season for the MLS in 1996, the United States lacked a proper first division. During that time, college soccer carried the torch through the Dark Ages. American footballing legends like Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda, and Claudio Reyna, among others, cut their teeth in college before eventually playing in World Cups and for top clubs in Europe. But times are changing.

When the United States failed to beat Trinidad & Tobago, a country with the roughly the same population as New Hampshire, to qualify for Russia 2018, it served as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Something is rotten in the state of American soccer. Lack of scouting in low-income communities, pay-for-play academies, disorganization in the pyramid, coaching that stifles creativity, and the inefficiencies of college soccer were thrown out as excuses by fans and media alike.

U.S. Soccer is playing catch-up with the rest of the world. As evidenced by its failure to make the 2018 World Cup, it still has a long way to go. While other countries like England, Germany, and Italy have had an established club system for over a century, the MLS has only existed since 1996. MLS is the only major soccer league in the world that has a draft, primarily because of the college system. NCAA men’s soccer remains an awkward thorn that sticks out of the U.S. soccer pyramid. No other country plays college athletics as America does.

Let me be clear. I enjoy college soccer. When I attended Georgia Southern, I loved going to both men’s and women’s matches. Kickoffs were usually timed for mid-afternoon, right when I got out of class. I would suffer through sweltering September days, sitting on steel bleachers, just to watch a bit of footy. For a half-Argentine kid that was born three days before Maradona’s Hand of God goal in 1986, any soccer is good soccer. I’m the sort of guy that would watch a pickup game in the parking lot.

I don’t want college soccer to disappear. I want it to adapt and survive. Scholarships offer kids a chance to go to college and not be burdened with a massive amount of student loan debt when they graduate. American parents are expected to push their kids into college. Soccer is often seen as a means to an end, instead of an end in itself.

However, soccer in America has grown up during the past thirty years. The top two divisions: MLS and USL, are thriving. Attendance for MLS matches is on par with the NHL and TV ratings for the big games (Champions League, World Cup, EPL) outpace the NHL and sometimes MLB. Thanks to soccer mom culture and the video game FIFA, soccer is extremely popular with kids under 25. Every MLS franchise now has its own development academy, something that wasn’t true just a decade ago.

MLS academies can sign players as young as U-13/14. European and Latin American academies start as young as the age of six. While the NCAA only allows teams 20 hours of practice per week, no more than 4 hours per day, crammed into a 132 day season; academies work year-round with no restrictions.

I don’t have to tell you which system is better for player development. You don’t have to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to understand that more practice produces better players. Lionel Messi joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at the age of 13 and made his professional debut at age 17. He won his first Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year awards by the age of 22. At the age most American kids graduate college, Messi had already conquered the footballing world.

Take Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. Pulisic is perhaps the best player the United States has ever produced, up until this point. He’s the youngest foreigner to ever score a goal in the Bundesliga. He’s also the youngest player ever to score a goal for the USMNT at age 17. After playing his early teen years for local U.S. Development Academy teams around his native Hershey, PA; his parents saw the talent he possessed and did the smart thing. They moved him to Germany. He entered Dortmund’s development academy, one of the best in the world, and now he’s the face of American soccer post-Landon Donovan.

It’s evident when you see him play. At just 19, he regularly starts for one of the best clubs in Germany. When he plays for the national selection, he’s the best American on the field. Similar things can be said of fellow Americans John Brooks and Bobby Wood, who also moved to Germany during their teen years.

Would Pulisic, Brooks, and Wood be the players they are today if they had decided to go to a four-year college in the United States? Probably not. Imagine how much practice time those players would have lost if they had toiled in the college ranks.

But to their credit, the leadership of college soccer is clamoring for change.

The current format has the season starts in September and end with the College Cup in mid-December. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCA) instead wants to adopt a proposal that would extend the college season so that it would span both fall and spring semesters. The regular season would start in September and end in April, with the College Cup taking place in May. It would also increase the number of practice days to 144.

This proposal would bring men’s college soccer season closer to what leagues in Europe have. Most of the soccer world in America back this proposal. An extended season is better for development and player recovery. Having the NCAA tournament in May means soccer doesn’t get buried beneath football and basketball. Instead, it could get the same wall-to-wall ESPN coverage that baseball, softball, and lacrosse do. While the NCAA has allowed soccer programs to schedule exhibition matches in the spring, it’s not an adequate replacement for real competition.

The NCAA published a study where it found that injuries increase six-fold when soccer players play two games a week. College soccer players often play three time in one week. It also takes an academic toll on the players. Midweek games combined with travel usually means a week or more of missed school. This equates to a high drop-out rate for college soccer players.

But convincing the NCAA and college administrators that this change is necessary is the most prominent hurdle. The NSCA has spent the past four years trying to convince the NCAA to adopt their proposal. But the NCAA’s Competition Oversight Committee is made up of football and basketball people, non-revenue sports like soccer get token attention. This was their ruling last October:

“does not support the concept due to concerns related to student-athlete health, safety and well-being, financial, facilities and personnel implications for institutions and the impact of the current championship format.”

A statement that directly contradicts their own study. It contradicts what coaches and players are saying across the country. With every passing year, more and more American teenagers choose to bypass college in favor of an MLS development academy. That trend will continue to speed up as the U.S. Soccer Pyramid evolves.

NCAA conference meetings are next month. It gives the NSCA one more chance to save college soccer. One more chance to convince the stodgy bureaucrats at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to breathe new life into college soccer. It’s up to the NCAA to decide if it wants to let men’s college soccer wither on the vine or to adapt to the times.

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