Thursday, May 8, 2008

Higher Learning = Lower Level?

I make the case that the college game isn't preparing American players adequately. Agree or disagree and tell me why in the comments.


L.B. said...

Totally agree. Players typically come out of college on the wrong side of 20 and haven't seen enough top-level competition.

FC Uptown said...

Agree. The good players already do bypass college and go straight to the pros (looking at our U17/U23 programs). The college game is fairly brutal to watch generally - because of the odd rules you describe.

East River said...

I agree with you AC. I've been going back and forth the last few days with some dudes on BS regarding Matt Kasel going to Maryland insteading of RedBull. Colleges recruit players telling them they will develop them in skill and maturity/emotionally. The latter may be true but developing skills is a different matter. College soccer has a differnt agenda, they want players to help them win games there is no incentive for them to actually develop you into a better player for the pro game. Thats why MLS had to develop youth teams, so that they may have persons coaching players for what they need in the pro game.

L.B. said...

The bad thing about the youth system is that if an MLS club produces a good prospect and that kid has colleges offering him scholarships, it would be a tough sell for the MLS club unless they are prepared to offer more than a developmental contract with shit pay. I know of one example of a kid who was offered a developmental deal, took a full ride scholarship instead and then left school altogether for a club career abroad.

RHdigitalYS said...

Definitely agree. NCAA soccer reminds me of Championship and League 1. Hysterical pace but the only emphasis being athletic ability.

Sometimes it can be fun to watch but it doesn't translate well to a higher level of play (MLS or the BPL).

Beax Speax said...


The entire 'system' of American soccer is in a state of transition. Kids growing up now have the option of a pro career, whether is the US or overseas. This is still a recent phenomenon. Until very recently, the main objective was a college scholarship; a pro career wasn't really viable. As others mentioned, the good players are now bypassing the college game. I don't think that the objective of the college should be pro preparation, as most collegiate players will never see action beyond college.

That said, I do enjoy the college game for what is is: spirited! Then again, I am biased. I'm a UCSB alum-Go Gauchos!

(Chivas USA would love to get crowds like UCSB!)

starinyourfire said...

i agree, and i think you can notice it in the draft with players who are in the adidas generation program or who were/are with US-camps are usually the players that get taken first. also the fact that if you aren't a highly touted player you'll just be a extra pick in the later rounds that might get cut before the season starts.

if and when NCAA will conform to this is a question of it's own, since they won't change the BCS system for football(since many people want a playoff) they aren't doing it because they don't want the players to miss more classes but something that contradicts that is the basketball season is set up where most programs students miss a lot of classes before march madness and those schools who get in the dance miss about a month or two months of classes.

if they conform it could be a good thing for the country's development in futbol and for the league but at the same time the league really needs to make the rosters bigger so that clubs can compete while developing their college draft picks so they won't be thrown to the wolves and get cut.

Bonji said...

While I agree that rookies are often not ready for the transition to the pro game and that the format of NCAA soccer should more closely resemble the world's game, I disagree that college is a handicap. Look at the young Rapids players doing well in the league. They are all college grads. No, they didn't contribute in their first season, and in the case of Harvey it has taken three years, but they're all doing well in MLS after a couple years of reserve play and pro coaching. Nick LaBrocca is having a great second season as is Kisuka Kimura. Harvey looked like a seasoned pro against DC at left back. Then compare them to the guys who didn't go to college, going directly to the pros. For every Altidore you seem to have many Santino Quarantas. I think if you look at the Americans actually making a name for themselves in the league you'll find as many college players as not.

#2 scorer in the league Alejandro Moreno, college. Sacha Kljestan, college. Chad Barrett, college. Bouna Coundoul, college. Alan Gordon, college. Adam Cristman, college.

Sure, not in their rookie years, but what non-college American has had a stunning rookie season? Freddy Adu? Bobby Convey? Kyle Beckerman? All young players need time in the league.

As I said, I think things would be better if the NCAA switched to more uniform rules however I don't think the college kids are as "handicapped" as some people think and their transition to the pro game takes less time then younger players who go straight to the pros (aside from Jozy Altidore and Landycakes McDonovan).

FC Uptown said...

Title IX is another factor in the equation. Only one Div 1 mens soccer program in Texas, SMU. Fairly pathetic compared with the multiple womens programs in the state. Essentially, outside of a few kids, you have to leave Texas or give up the game. The college rules need to resemble world rules (for the good of the players and the game), and there needs to be some assistance for the men's programs, which have been dwindling in numbers.

Jon E said...

I mostly agree. For me, fundamentally, college shouldn't primarily be a place to develop professional athletes, so I'm fine with the college game not preparing student athletes for the pro game. I think that MLS, the NFL, and the NBA should follow the example of MLB, NHL, and world soccer and put their athletes into professional developmental teams rather than having universities run those developmental teams for them.

Still, as you say, it's clear that college soccer isn't preparing potential pros. So if the NCAA wants soccer to remain relevant as a feeder for MLS, it'll have to make changes. At a minimum, they need to bring substitutions in line with FIFA norms.

I think Title IX is great, and I think the dwindling men's soccer (and lacrosse, and wrestling, and ...) programs across the country aren't really Title IX's fault. They're the fault wealthy alumni and administrators who put two-thirds of the available men's scholarships into football and basketball. Sure, top programs can help recruit students, but logically most schools can't have top programs. So mostly those sports end up costing the school money and scholarships. It's great that USC has a semipro football franchise, but that's at the cost of having a men's soccer team at all. A major SoCal school without a men's soccer team? (Especially when the women's team is the national champion?)

CACuzcatlan said...

I used to look down on Basketball players who left college early for the pros. After I got into soccer I realized that to be the best you have to develop professionally as soon as possible. Given the quality of college basketball, there's no harm in staying in college, even if the player reaches his maximum potential at that level. However, soccer is a different story. Imagine if Altidore or Bradley had gone to college. They'd still be unknown to us U.S. soccer fans that now view them as the first potentially world class American players (non-keepers).

A.C., what's your opinion on the PDL. Isn't its goal to help develop players during the NCAA offseason?

pat said...

I had no idea about the substitution rules in the college game... That's totally crazypants - although it partially explains why I have so much trouble watching college games. ... So much that I turn off the tv and don't stick around long enough to learn the rules, apparently.

I do worry about players on the other side of the equation all the time... players in europe who sign small contracts and go to live with a club but then don't end up breaking through and find themselves at a certain age, without either an education or the means to obtain one.

Maybe that doesn't happen as much as I fear it does, but it just hits me sometimes that, for every Christiano Ronaldo, there's about a ton of guys struggling to make ends meet at that tiny club he came from. ... And when soccer's done for them, where do they go?

Raffi said...

AC -- I want to question one of your suppositions -- it seems you pointed to the silly substitution rules in NCAA soccer as having a negative effect on players coming into MLS since these players aren't having to concentrate for the full 90 on tactics, etc.

On consideration, I need to ask, are the college players who are coming in to MLS the players who are being liberally subbed in and out of these games? I don't want NCAA soccer at all, but I would have to assume that those players who go on to professional careers are typically the best players on the team. I would be surprised to learn that these players are regularly subbed out of any games at all. I figure it would be more likely that these players would be playing the full 90 and playing the full 90 against players who *are* being subbed in and out; in some ways, I would expect this to force them to a higher level. I would expect the player who is playing the full 90 to have to rely more on tactics than physical skills as the match wears on and they become fatigued physically and mentally.

Do you have any gut sense or quantitative numbers on the college players and how many minutes on average they played each of their games? Just curious.

Anyway, one thing is certain and that is most players coming out of college are not ready to step in and play professionally anywhere. I would suspect the source of those problems is really rooted in the training between the ages of 13 - 17 and not the college years.

Jim said...

Don't forget to save some blame for High School soccer as well. Whether it's ego maniacal (and unqualified) coaches demanding their players drop their club commitments (almost always a higher level of play) to dreadful pitches shared with the gridiron team, to still more bizarre rules, HS soccer kills off lots of potential players' pro ambitions.

Our county in NoVa has 8 high schools built in the last 10-12 years, all sharing fields with the 'football team'. The fields are all 55 x 110 with a severe crown in the middle, rendering any wide play obsolete. Since the center of the field is so completely abused, control is impossible, and it' straight 'loop it over the top stuff and run'.

Yet for some reason, there's pull to play for your school and the local paper will cover the games (ignoring the much better club league games).

This part of US soccer culture has to change.

Great article Andrea.

Anonymous said...

I think all youth development leagues have their shortcommings. A patchwork U-20 USA team recently beating Bolton and ManU reserves is testiment to that. Better coaching at these levels is the most likely answer.

A.C. said...

Raffi, yes, the top players on soccer teams get subbed out all the time - just like in NBA basketball, coaches pull their stars at strategic moments to leave them fresh for the most important part of the match. They sit on the bench and catch their breath - a luxury they won't have in the pro game.

Steve said...

Okay, I'll agree with the basic premise: through a combination of by-the-book coaching and stupid rules (the sub rules, no injury time, golden goals, etc.) the college game exemplifies why the word "soccer" makes many purists' teeth grind. On the other hand, getting a well-rounded education is an opportunity that no one should be denied. Also, judging by the "College Soccer" Wikipedia entry, most of the USMNT A-team played in college, notable exceptions being LD, DMB, and Tim Howard.

So how do you improve the game? First, they could change the rules to conform to FIFA norms. Having "reserve" team games would help the less-than-stellar players get more time and players would have to think more for themselves. No idea how flexible the NCAA would be on this issue. Secondly, teams can opt to avoid the NCAA entirely (BYU plays in the PDL!?!). This would be good if every school did it, but the college-sports landscape in America is all about inter-school rivalries. I don't think any really big schools would go for this. Finally, what about a MLS-NCAA partnership under the US Soccer umbrella? It would be great to see a coordinated effort to develop players, coaches, and refs across all levels in all leagues. Real partnerships between MLS and college teams will probably never happen (no college wants to give up control - ditto for the teams), but we can dare to dream, right?

A.C. said...

Heck, FIFA rules for games would be a big step forward that I for one would be quite happy with.

Anonymous said...

Catamount says...

A. C. I am a huge fan of yours, but I think you have greatly oversimplified the situation here. The problem Gullit sees happens throughout the entire development of the player from a child onward. The same kid who learns football from his father, his high school coach, and his college coach, can't get the same kind of devlopment in soccer, because the Dads and club coaches, and high school coaches don't have the same expertise in the sport.

I don't think foreign coaches of youth gridiron teams in Europe would have as much success as youth soccer coaches do here. Coaches and Dads don't understand the nuances of the game so they tell the kids what then think is best, faster, bigger, stronger, work harder. Kids with a soccer brain are often left on the bench or off the team, and players like Sean Franklin who was an amazing creative midfielder as a kid (he played at our high school) are moved to the back and wide because they are fast and athletic.

There have been several outstanding players emerge from the Antelope Valley where I live and coach, Leonard Griffin is another one. Many of them learned the game at the ages of 10-14 under a guy named Wayne Dickerson who grew up in Brazil. These players are very tactically aware, and technically gifted as a result. Wayne didn't worry about winning as a youth coach, just playing good soccer. The players were not given positions.

The youth club system in Southern California causes most of the problems in my opinion. It is where the high school and college coaches get their players, and I have heard numerous complaints from college coaches that players have lower soccer IQ's than they used to.

If you look at the lower leagues in Europe that develop players, say Blue Square league. I think you'd find that many college teams compare favorably. Many foreign players like Joseph Ngwenya come through the colleges and do very well. You don't see anybody criticizing Michael Parkhurst for his tactical stupidity.

The reality is, college soccer can develop a huge number of players compared to academies or professional teams. It's tends to develop other qualities and life skills that help players to handle professional life in soccer and in all walks of life.

Finally, no other country on earth has anything like our higher education system, so there is no model to follow. Maybe other countries rely on professional teams to develop their players because they don't have the resources to do it at school?

College kids are smart and they analyze their options really well. Many of the best players drop out of soccer before anyone really notices how good they are, pick another sport, or realize their business or engineering degree will start them at $50,000 a year with the potential for six figures in a few years. A developmental contract for $12K doesn't makes sense.

I think colleges could change their rules to help the kids, but I think the MLS needs to realize that their talent pool isn't like anywhere else in the world. They are paying for young professional men who need to see a $45K salary with the potential for six figures in a few years.

Soccer savvy will infuse the whole country in another generation or two. The question is, what do we do in the mean time?

A.C. said...

Many of the college soccer problems that I focused on in the article are things that the university programs could address. Full games, for one, instead of the substitutions that exist now.
Nowhere in my article did I discount that college can give athletes a good education, but that wasn't the point of the piece.
Generally, though, a certain amount of simplification is needed, because to talk about everything that contributes to American soccer would be a good-sized book, not a 1000 word article. I get enough flack from editors for going over my limit as it is.

Anonymous said...

Agree. College soccer is perverted soccer, and it's the same at the high school level.

Hopefully one day players will completely bypass college soccer and start up with professionl youth teams through MLS, and gain that tactical ability.

As far as education goes, you are really never too old to get an education. If soccer doesn't pan out for the player, he can still get a college education. And I'm sure a player can take some courses while honing those soccer skills.

Paul said...

“The thinking in this scenario is that players are actually handicapped by the college game because they become accustomed to a format that doesn't translate to the professional level. In this context, the cog gums up the works entirely, and is thus something to be eliminated rather than appreciated.“

Interesting thesis but to back it up you would have to show that MLS players played significantly less than 90 minutes a game in college.

“Already, certain first-year players have caused onlookers to wince painfully at "how could they?" moments. Shea Salinas (Furman University) blazed over the net from point-blank range; Roger Espinoza (Ohio State) threw an ugly elbow that drew a red and left his team short-handed; Chance Myers (UCLA), the first pick in the MLS draft, committed a brutal miscommunication error that left both the defender and his goalkeeper unable to reach a ball that Robbie Rogers adroitly poked into the net.”

What do any of those plays have to do with college versus pro development? I have been impressed by the play of all three players you named. All three players had been on the field less than 36 minutes when the event occurred.

"College soccer doesn't prepare them to be professionals because college soccer is a very athletic game," Los Angeles Galaxy defender Greg Vanney said.

College soccer is more athletic than professional soccer? You can’t be serious. Many college players find out that the speed and strength they had in college isn’t enough speed and strength in the pro game. Since they may not have ever had outstanding technique, their productivity suffers. Chris Gbandi was a man among boys when he played for Connecticut, but a boy among men when he played for Dallas.

"'It's run and gun, and if you're not doing it, we'll sub you out and maybe we'll put you back in,' Vanney said in reference to the NCAA substitution rules, which allow for an unlimited number of replacements per match."

Actually, there is a limit, since a player cannot return in the first half if subbed out and can return only once if subbed out in the second half. If the college game is so fast, why do many college players have a difficult time adjusting to the quicker pace and speed of play of the pro game?

“Professional soccer, except for select exhibitions, doesn't allow more than three substitutions. What's challenging is not just the physical nature of the endurance needed to go the full 90 minutes; it's also about the mental focus required to concentrate that entire time. That discipline is compromised in a system that allows for players to take breaks while the game continues.”

Uh, a defender can usually take a break when the offense possesses the ball, and vice versa. For Greg Vanney to say he is fully engaged 100% of the time in the games he plays for LA is laughable.

“Clint Dempsey didn't go from Furman to Fulham -- he learned the pro trade with the New England Revolution first.“

Clint Dempsey scored 7 goals his first year and was named Rookie of the Year. I believe he was the “Texas Tornado” long before he got to Foxboro. He did develop as a player in MLS but so have a gaggle of other players.

Greg Vanney may have suffered through the college system at UCLA under Sigi Schmid, but he still played 2,236 minutes as a rookie for LA. His college career must not have hurt him too terribly much.

"But here in the United States they play soccer in the schools and then college, and they are 20 or 21 years old and they are coming to me, having been coached straight out of a book."

Actually, most U.S. players spend more time playing for clubs than schools or colleges.

“That skill doesn't need to be taught when a player can be subbed out to get tactics from a coach and then reinserted into a match.“

Many schools do not maintain statistics on minutes played (a shame). A few do. Among the first round picks in 2008, Nyarko averaged 70 minutes per game, and was limited by injury. Myers and Espinoza averaged 79 minutes per game. Beltran and James averaged over 90 minutes. I suspect most MLS draft picks played large portions of the games they were in.
And besides, US Soccer says the best way for players to learn is to just let them play. If coaches are giving players tactics in a game, they are obviously misguided.

Anonymous said...

The article has really good quotes from Vanney ... sounds like he'll be better as a coach than a player.

Matthew Zimmerman said...

Of course I agree. I've felt for years that the entire American system is not built to create quality soccer players. You have club coaches whose big goal is to win this weekend;s club tournament, then you have high school and college coaches whose aims are the same: win the next game, hope a kid goes to the next level so you can sell your program to the next group, and move on.
Kids come out of college having played a certain rigid, uncreative, bullrush the goal style their entire lives, and then they bring that ugly physical style to MLS.
If MLS' developmental squads can help produce kids who are well-coached but choose college, then the college game itself will get a nice infusion of talented people with knowledge of the game. So how long will that take?
But really, this can just be distilled down into one simple trivia question. Name the last four-year college player who made a major contribution to the national team. As in, entrenched starter, would be a top 11 player in every pivotal match.
Now name one such player who, going forward, will make a major contribution.
As the U.S. moves forward as a soccer nation, the college game declines in importance. That is a good thing.

papa bear said...

it is 100% not up for debate from anyone, until NCAA soccer plays by FIFA rules. Once they do that, then people can make the case in favor of NCAA (they'll still lose but at least it's more grounded in reality)
You can't expect someone to succeed when they have literally been playing a different game. The college game reminds me of the pick up games I play in North Hollywood on the weekends not of a professional game.
As lb (and Ruud Gullit) said up top they also come out too old to be still truly developmental players. Players coming out of college are the same age as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for Christ's sake. The gap is obvious.
Of course, none of that will be solved until MLS teams can offer a real 'bypass your educational future for this' salary to young players. Kassel was a perfect example of this. If they would have offered him the $80k GenAd contract he would have stayed. $ doesn't seem like it should be that big a deal to offer a guy $80k for a pro sports team. I also think the league is mature enough to make $80k a solid MINIMUM salary.

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