College soccer and player development

It’s been a pretty slow news day as far as my particular interests in soccer are concerned, but late in the day, this story popped up in my ever-so-interesting twitter feed.

I’m completely torn on this debate. I’ve really only worked in my current field for a short time, but the first responsibility I was given in this profession was in collegiate men’s soccer. Suffice to say, even with a team that was decidedly average on their best days, I’m a bit partial to the sport. And as I’m beginning to start my sixth year working in collegiate athletics, I’m a bit partial to its role in the sporting landscape of the United States.

However, the piece makes a pretty hard point to argue against, the NCAA is rightly set up in a way that prevents an optimum amount of training for potential American soccer stars. If one goes to college to play soccer, they are prevented from full-time coaching and supervised training (while engaging in other duties like partying, underage drinking and studying, of course), and I don’t have a problem with that. Those are the rules of the game in the NCAA, and one can’t just change that around for the purposes of not losing as much in international soccer.

That’s not to say that eradicating collegiate men’s soccer is the answer either. I think the college coaches quoted in the story make some pretty valid points. In my experiences with programs that are not considered in any way major schools, I think it’s safe to say that there are athletes who fall through the cracks in every sport. I have to think that the money available to the youth academies and residency programs compared to the sheer size of the country makes it exceedingly easy for quality players to fall through the cracks, and definitely at a much higher rate than sports like basketball, baseball and football (for which everything from stats to mother’s educational background is available online). In addition, I don’t really want to go heavy in detail on this point, but I think that letting collegiate athletes play in the USL Professional Development League is a great middle ground in the same vein of college baseball wooden bat leagues.

On a more localized level, one has to also recognize that it’s improbable to think that the U.S. will ever appreciate the sport to the point that every municipality has a team as the way that it is in other countries. In a lot of cases, the college squads serve as the local team. It’s incumbent on those schools (and in turn the coaches of the community) to work together in order to grow and develop the sport through those avenues.

This is very much an anecdotal example (and I understand that), but the fact that the University of Evansville was a dominant soccer team in the 1980s and 1990s played a massive role in the development of soccer within the city. A focus on developing the sport was put forward by the high schools and UE, and the level of play within the city grew along with the level of play at UE. The Purple Aces ended up being a regular in the NCAA College Cup for a number of years, and high school teams within the city became some of the better sides in the state, a fact that has remained steady even as UE has fallen back to earth.

That’s not to say that we should be heavily dependent on the college game (or even high school in some cases) for player production, but I do think that their role can be and has been understated quite often. I would agree that fewer elite players go to college, and that number will continue to drop as academy systems and scouting continue to improve as time goes on, but players will always fall through the cracks and local involvement in the sport only helps in building it for the future.

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