Changing the College Soccer System

By | November 16, 2013

In the debate on how to best achieve the first World Cup title for the United States, the differences between how youth are filtered into professional leagues in the U.S. verses other nations who have had World Cup success is often the main topic of conversation. All other national programs outside of the U.S. have youngsters who dedicate the majority of their time to honing their footballing technique essentially from the onset of puberty. For this to happen in the U.S., it has often been said that education would have to take a backseat to training and preparing for the professional world mainly through bypassing the college system all together [2]. This type of approach would be going against the current trend in the sporting world, as a majority professional sports (basketball, football) have passed rules that require at least a year in college before it is possible to move on to the professional leagues.

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Photo from dukechronicle.com

However, some have denied that the approach to soccer success in the United States needs to be all-or-nothing in doing away with the college-level game, and instead suggested that America can even have an advantage over the rest of the world in containing an additional avenue to success offered by the college system. A possible compromise would be to encourage potential professional players to get involved with MLS academy team while still playing at their respective universities [1]. This solution could allow for a vitally important rigorous schedule while also lessening the harmful bottlenecking effects that exist in nearly every other successful national team and league when 99% of the talent pool doesn’t make it on the professional level. In this hybrid system, all the positives of the college system remain as players would have more to fall back on in terms of education and other career opportunities in comparison to nations like Brazil or England, while allowing the best players to be given access to the top training facilities and programs available.

Additionally, this would fix many of the problems within the college game itself. Many critics of the college system have said that the type of soccer played at this level is too slow, too direct, and too physical to thrive on the national stage [1,2]. The unlimited amount of substitutions is typically cited as the main reason for this, as an endless supply of rested legs can be dumped on to the field in order to sustain a type of play that favors chasing the ball instead of possessing it. With the increase amount of proper training and game time experience where the actual rules of soccer are used, players could get the type of training and preparation they need to succeed on the global stage. Furthermore, the low number of games played year-round in the current setup would be injected with many more MLS academy games, most likely against better competition. Collegiate players could use the additional playing opportunities to fill the large amount of downtime in the college soccer schedule from December to February and in the summer months.

Also, this would eliminate the competition between universities and professional clubs for the soccer talent pool in America. While a child prodigy would still be able to forgo college all together to work exclusively with a professional club around the clock, a player who shows great potential but may not be as sure-set on a professional career wouldn’t have to make such a huge life decision so soon. Rather, this player could attend a university and have 4 more years to develop and decide whether the professional athlete track is really meant for them. This secondary option is extremely beneficial to the overall talent pool available for the national team to draw upon. The college system is phenomenal in the amount of opportunities it gives its players to develop and shine, especially for the type of “late-bloomer” player who may need a few more years to incubate in order to be ready for the next level. There are much more places to play across the three college divisions than in one or maybe two divisions in professional leagues. You also get 4 years to show that you are worthy of the next level, instead of a tryout period that can last only months in a professional environment. In this way, colleges provide a kind of “back-door” into the professional and national team setup that could aide greatly in catching talent missed at earlier stages [1].

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Gabriel de los Rios/MLSsoccer.com

Lastly, and maybe most importantly to American soccer, this option provides the greatest opportunity for Americans to forge an intimate connection with a soccer team by preserving the collegiate system [3]. University teams are virtually the only organizations that can provide the ties to the surrounding community necessary for the development of a deep connection with a team. In improving the level of training given to collegiate players and still allowing them to be nestled in a community which will readily support them, maybe American soccer fans can have their cake and eat it too.

References:

[1] Fox Soccer Exclusive. The Future of College Soccer. Four-part series by Leander Schaerlaeckens. Accessed on November 16th, 2013. http://msn.foxsports.com/foxsoccer/usa/story/college-soccer-under-spotlight-as-competition-with-professional-soccer-leagues-grows-102413

[2] Examiner.com. Does college soccer hurt the US National Team? Mike Burke. Accessed on November 16th, 2013.  http://www.examiner.com/article/does-college-soccer-hurt-the-us-national-team

[3] Pitch Invasion. In defense of American college soccer: a community perspective. Andrew Guest. Accessed on November 16th, 2013. http://pitchinvasion.net/blog/2009/08/31/in-defense-of-american-college-soccer-a-community-perspective/

3 thoughts on “Changing the College Soccer System

  1. Balser

    I agree that this is a great post, and the tactical differences involved with unlimited substitutions is something I’ve never thought about. I also agree with the above critique. In addition the timing of when collegiate players would be an issue, since in addition to the actual fall season they also have spring practices and training and tournaments, so the only time to go to the academies would be in the summer. I think the issue with mixing professional organizations and collegiate players would be taken up most strongly by the NCAA, who maintains extremely high standards for amateurism, but if they two systems could find a way to work together I think it is an interesting concept to consider.

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  2. Jarrett Link

    Great post. I really like the idea of limiting the number of substitutions, especially as a feasible short term solution. I had never really thought of that as a cause for the direct, physical nature of the college game, but it makes perfect sense. Merely changing that rule alone could be sufficient to produce better players/teams as it would necessitate more focus on technical skill, rather than raw athletic ability.

    A small critique I have, however, is that I am unsure how well the two arms of soccer available to college aged players would coexist. Mixing amateur and professional organizations leads to many logistical issues and conflict of interest. Furthermore, while a college coach may appreciate his players gaining skill and experience in the offseason, I would not be surprised if many coaches are unwilling to risk their player’s health in the offseason. Colleges invest a lot of money in their players, and they surely would not want that money to go to waste if a player happened to tear an ACL for an academy team. A reasonable analogy would be club coaches aversion to releasing their players for international duty. In any case, if these issues could be circumnavigated and an academy system instituted, then American soccer would undoubtedly see marked improvement.

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