The truth is ugly. If the end game is winning World Cup tournaments, the unseen price of getting there is steep. Developing soccer players is a numbers game, and you can’t hedge that bet. To have any success at it, you need to do it in large numbers. And that means you have to be willing to eat your young.
For your country to stand any chance at the top end of the world stage, your best young players have to be fully dedicated to soccer from the time they hit puberty. That’s simply the nature of a highly technical and tactical game. The more players who are fully vested in their careers, the better the outcomes will be, meaning education has to take a backseat. The world’s elite soccer academies fit schooling around soccer, not the other way around. The question then, is if, as a country, you are willing to mortgage the future of your youth.
This system is deeply flawed. The vast majority won’t make it, and they won’t have much of an education to fall back on. But for any country that’s won a World Cup, that’s been the toll exacted. Broken dreams and incomplete educations are the collateral damage of national sporting dominance. The stories you hear are of those whose names are now sold on the backs of jerseys. The tales of the untold thousands whose careers stranded somewhere between prospect and professional are unknown.
“That’s what US Soccer has done,” argues Georgetown University head coach Brian Wiese. “They say, ‘We need to develop a national team that’s going to win a World Cup. Of those thousands of kids [in the academy system], we’re just looking for a couple that are going to be difference-makers.’ So they don’t care about the 99 percent of this mass of people. All they’re focused on is the next Clint Dempsey — how do we produce that next special player and get maybe enough of them that we can start winning World Cups? The whole reason for this unbelievable infrastructure is just for a couple of people to come through.”
But that’s rather a tough sell in a country as developed and highly-educated as the United States. Especially when soccer here is an upper-middle class sport and neither the most glamorous of occupations or one which makes very many American players financially secure. In this regard, soccer materializes as the knight in shining armor, a means to both the ends of a life in soccer and a productive one out of it.
Perhaps a grand bargain can be struck wherein college soccer presents a kind of humane option for the prospects that aren’t surefire, if any such thing exists in professional sports. One that doesn’t pull young men out of contention from having good careers should they fail at soccer, eliminating the zero-sum equation. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t discard the other 99 percent of kids,” says Wiese. “A small percentage will still end up being pros but the huge percentage of those kids will be absorbed by the college system and we’ll filter out some others that will come through.”
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the system, I think it works terrifically well,” says Wiese. “The success of the United States is going to be based on the symbiosis of these two things.” This you can quarrel about, certainly, but when you give the matter some thought you’re liable to conclude that a compromise between the academy and college track is probably the best option for American soccer.
That’s partially because the academy route is highly inefficient. There are more than 800 college soccer programs across the three divisions. With rosters typically made up of 25 players or so, that makes for some 20,000 places for soccer players in college, a self-sufficient addition to the professional clubs’ youth structure that no other country can match. Certainly, college soccer does a better job of unearthing the real talent than the professional game does. There are few opportunities in the pros and many in college. Comprising such a vast base, anybody with a modicum of talent will get a 4-year tryout of sorts. It’s an extended opportunity to earn a shot at the next level that you’d never get in the pros. If you can’t hack it over 4 years, you were never going to make it.
“For me the system is better than Europe,” says Wiese. “Because Europe doesn’t have that sort of in-between, late-developer place. Because if you’re not ready by 16, 17, maybe 18, if you haven’t quite shown it yet, you’re done, it’s over. Whereas we have this nice intermediate step with college soccer with unbelievable funding, facilities and better and better coaching and players that you’re playing with.”
Like in so many things, American exceptionalism plays its part. The rest of the world does things differently — they only have the academy route. But if college soccer has its problems and deficiencies, removing it from the equation would nevertheless be a terrible waste. “The colleges have fantastic resources and if they disappeared, where would the weight of the developing players be found?” says University of Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark. “They would suddenly disappear.”
Major League Soccer acknowledges this. “It’s not only healthy but it’s absolutely a critical part of our growth that we address this very important transition area for players between youth and professional soccer and we believe the best way to address that is the way it’s addressed throughout the world,” says MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin. “For us that’s the optimal way of identifying, training and developing players.”
“But I don’t think it necessarily follows that college soccer still doesn’t play a role,” says Durbin. “They just have significant numbers playing. So there’s a very big advantage for us for keeping those kids playing at the numbers at which they’re playing.”
Plug the holes and reframe the debate, and college could be an asset, rather than a leakage of talent, by virtue of its sheer size, the factor by which it multiplies the talent pool. “I think the great thing is – and what people have to start realizing – is our system has so many avenues that we create because of how we’re built that we all are helping each other,” says Wiese. “Whether we like it or not college soccer is getting better, the academy systems are getting better, the MLS teams are getting better and everybody is benefiting with a higher and higher level of product. I really think that the end goal of winning a World Cup, that’s all going to be because we have all these systems in place and growing together.”
The college game needs fixing. But so, perhaps, does our assessment of it — to see it more as opportunity than liability. What makes us different might also be what sets us apart.
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in FOXSoccer.com’s four-part series on the future of college soccer: No. 1 | No. 2 | No. 3 | No. 4