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College soccer remains viable option

College Soccer: The Future
College Soccer: The Future
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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So long as there is such a thing as intercollegiate sports, college soccer will exist in some form. That much seems certain. What’s uncertain, however, is what shape it will survive in and how relevant it will be. And, more importantly, where it will fit into the larger development structure of elite American prospects.

Speaking to a dozen or so experts on college soccer and the professional game in the United States, there was a broad consensus that college will remain a viable route to the pros. It just won’t be the broadest or most direct avenue.

With the proliferation of Major League Soccer academies, which largely suck up the best talent in the rest of the 100-club US Soccer Development Academy and offer the best and most mature talent direct access to professional soccer through the homegrown contract, it stands to reason that the remainder of talent will go to college.

Not unlike in professional baseball and hockey, a scenario could unfold where talent will flow into the pro game in two waves. Some will sign out of high school, after spending time in an MLS academy. Others, the players not yet ready to be signed, the fringe prospects and those not sold on soccer as a career -- MLS salaries remain low and wash-out rates very high -- will opt for college and flow in later, as an underclassman Generation adidas signing or an upperclassman conventional draft pick.

That would make college a crucial piece to the development puzzle. "There’s certainly some players where college can play an important role," says US under-20 national team head coach Tab Ramos. “Because physically they’re not ready to go to the professional level and having one or two years of growing a bit more, some players need that physical development still before they make the jump."

College will likely become a second-chance circuit of sorts for the immature and the overlooked, a professional repechage that offers players an entry into the game through the back door. Major League Soccer’s rules implicitly encourage this.

As of 2014, you retain a year of a player’s future rights once he leaves for college for every year that he has spent in your academy. If a player spent two years in a youth program, say, you keep his homegrown rights through his sophomore year of college, meaning the player in question doesn’t go through the MLS SuperDraft and so doesn’t get exposed to other teams.

Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler looks like a good bet to be a starter for the United States men’s national team at the World Cup in Brazil next summer. Besler spent four seasons at the University of Notre Dame and very much doubts that he’d have made it as a pro had he signed any sooner. "I think [college] had a lot to do with my success so far," he says. "I believe in the college system and I think that a lot of kids should play college soccer. There’s only a special few where players are really ready to play professional soccer coming out of high school or the academies. I would not have been one of them.

"The experience you get in college of coming in as a freshman and competing against older players, I figured a lot of things out off the field and about soccer," Besler says. "And so for me it’s totally worth the playing experience instead of [as a professional] having to just practice and sit on the bench for a couple of years."

College, if nothing else, offers up a steady diet of games you might not get in the pros, where reserve teams don’t play much. This past season, MLS has linked up with a minor league to give reserves more competitive games. "We started this relationship with [the third-tier] USL-Pro," says MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin. "And it’s our expectation that we’re going to continue building that out over the next year or two. What we forecast happening is that players will play for their MLS youth academy team and the ones with the most promise, who want to become professionals, will then transition and play in USL-Pro as a means of transitioning from youth soccer to first team [MLS] soccer.”

At the moment, however, reserve teams only play about a dozen games per season. That number will have to at least double for it to become an effective finishing school for homegrown prospects. And the bulk will still need an intermediate step to bridge the wide gap between youth or high school soccer and first or even reserve-team soccer.

“Realistically, it’s going to be a very small percentage of players that are going to go from the academies straight into the MLS,” says Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark, who has been coaching in college since 1985. “I honestly think this is the best system in the world. If the Chicago Fire has a [new Lionel] Messi and they can take him in right away that’s fantastic. But there’s going to be a lot of players that aren’t Messi and they’re going to be the kids that can go to college; that they can keep on eye on, that can come back and play in their under-23 squads and train.”

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“If you take the college option out of the equation, you’ll have a bunch of players that are good enough to go into the D.C. United first team or reserve team as 16-year-olds, and that’s great,” says Georgetown University head coach Brian Wiese. “But Matt Besler went through four years of college at Notre Dame. He needed college to incubate and to blossom in his time. The college setup is a catchall for a lot of different scenarios and players.”

The other factor playing in college’s favor, Wiese points out, is logistical. An MLS team can have no more than 30 players under contract at any given time. “How many homegrown players can an MLS team sign in a year?” says Wiese. “There’s only so much room. Some of these players are going to have to incubate in college for a few years.”

The knock-on effect of this backlog of prospects is that the level of college soccer is steadily improving as the caliber of available players rises sharply, even if the very best of them are now unattainable. “I think there’s more and more teams trying to play soccer the right way and I think you’re getting more and more players that are able to play that way,” says Wiese. “We weren’t able to play the way we are now three years ago. That’s a tribute to these MLS academies and the U.S. Development Academy -- we’re getting more and more good players.”

College soccer’s place atop the development pyramid may have been usurped by the academies, but the limitations of the professional game -- borne both of growing pains and its own regulations -- mitigate the damage and would seem to guarantee a future for the collegiate track.

“I think there’s always going to be a space for college soccer,” says Ramos. “I think it will continue to be less and less for the elite player but we will continue to find good players in college for years to come.”

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in FOXSoccer.com’s four-part series on the future of college soccer: No. 1 | No. 2 | No. 3 | No. 4

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