MLS Player Development: Is College the Way to Go?

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or the buzzards returning to Hinckley, so it is also that in mid-December every year America's soccer writers rise up as one and denounce the state of NCAA soccer.

A cynic might suggest that the prime motivating factor is that this is the slow time of year for soccer in the US and taking intercollegiate soccer out back of the woodshed for a good whacking is a cheap and easy way to fill a page, sort of like the annual "Preseason Predictions" column, only with even less in the way of actual value.

In truth, another reason is that even hard core US fans take virtually no notice of the NCAA version of the game until the College Cup Finals, but the point is the same: virtually no one gives a damn about it until BUZZ CARRICK STARTS TRACKING THE GEN A CLASS, signaling the journalistic countdown to the Superdraft which annually culminates in one more automatic column when 200 bloggers bang out mock drafts.

This year's pro-forma NCAA Bashing began with RIDGE MAHONEY AT SOCERAMERICA and SOME GUY AT SOCCERLENS and soon reached it's annual nadir with THIS PIECE at something called "La Liga Talk" from a guy who seems to feel that the real problem is that "Hispanic Media" ignores college soccer.

Of course, they pretty much ignore MLS as well, but that's another discussion.

I'm not normally a Ridge Mahoney basher, but I'm not sure what his main complaint is beyond the fact that he feels the GenA program somehow "punishes" players who stay in school and that college players ought to be able to play in a sort of summer league watched over by MLS coaches. (A group if guys who I thought were already occupied during those months, but apparently they have a lot of free time)

The Soccerlens piece is long - if you read every word you're a better man than I - but among other things he'd like to see an increase in scholarships and a true two-season, Fall-and-Spring schedule.

Both of which will happen around the same time that we start finding pigs nesting in oak trees.

While I'm not blind to the irony - at best - of poking other guys with a sharp stick for writing college soccer pieces by writing one myself, I do have a succinct and professional response to the legion of people who annually clamor for the NCAA to "fix" college soccer:

Stuff a sock in it.

Let's start with the obvious, which apparently isn't so obvious to some people:

American Collges and Universities don't see preparing young men for professional soccer careers to be their primary mission.

Now we can all have a good chuckle over marginally literate football players who slide through school taking courses like Underwater Basket Weaving 101, but the fact of the matter is that the Poobahs of NCAA sports have stretched things as far as they're going to with the "Spring Practice" deal.

They feel that, at least occasionally, athletes ought to focus on school. It helps keep up the whole "student athlete" facade. One season and some out-of-season activities they can claim are sort of informal screwing around are as far as they're ever going to go.

As for more scholarships, let's start with getting colleges to stop dropping programs.

I'm not about to open the whole Title IX can of crap here, so I'll just say this: to add more male soccer scholarships would mean adding more female scholarships in some sport or other, and they're having enough trouble filling the ones they have. Too many universities are already forced to go out and recruit women for things they've never done before, like rowing or field hockey.

Unless you can figure out how to either a) repeal Title IX or b) exempt football from the Title IX equation (which they should do but won't), you're simply wasting your time.

Those basic facts aside, the numbers simply don't support changing much of anything:

Last year there were 4398 Seniors playing NCAA soccer.

MLS drafted 76. Of those, I doubt if a third of them ever made a roster of any kind.
That's roughly 25 players.

And asking the NCAA to do bend the rules into pretzels for 25 athletes a year is simply a waste of time.

Plus, with the elimination of the reserve league, the cutting of developmental rosters (where most of the drafted seniors ended up) by more than half and the canceling of the Supplemental draft (where more than half the graduating seniors were drafted), we may be talking less than half of that number.

Bottom line, the jobs simply aren't there for these guys.

Still, I think there's a bigger problem here, and it's this:

These players aren't that good to begin with.

For years now, I've been listening to people complaining that college soccer is a lousy way to develop top professional players. I couldn't agree more.

What people never seem to get down to is specifics: who are these players who would be so much better if they hadn't gone to college? Name them for me. Show me the guys who would have been world class stars, but whose careers were tragically stunted by four years at Enormous State.

In short, forget college soccer. It is what it is, and waiting until the age of 22 or 23 to begin a professional soccer career is not going to get you to the top.

Most importantly though, I have a news flash for those of you who haven't noticed: USSF and MLS are conspiring to cut college soccer out of the loop.

For high talent, high potential teenage players, there is the new academy system. There's Bradenton. There's Friedel's place. Both of them are free, as are some of the MLS youth programs (RedBulls and Crew are two that come to mind).

The point is not to get the clowns in Mission Kansas (edit: or Indianapolis or wherever) to suddenly take a keen interest in helping intercollegiate soccer programs train promising young soccer players. Rather, the point is that we're working at diverting those players away from college soccer altogether or, if they start down that path but show themselves to have exceptional talent, to offer them a GenA deal and get them the hell out.

If some players with high level potential turn down the MLS Academy systems and/or decline a GenA deal because they'd rather get a degree, well, that's their choice. We're talking about what, 10 players nationwide? 20?

This isn't East Germany circa 1970. We can't force young soccer players to take a particular path, one which we decide is best for their development. All we can do is develop alternatives.

The problem 10 years ago was that college soccer was all there was and these kidshad no choice. That's just not the case any more.

If you want to campaign for something, start a petition to MLS to get them to change some of the ludicrous academy rules, like the one which says you can only keep one player product from your system every three years, a rule which makes it very, very tough on teams to bring kids in, for fear that someone better will come along and they'll have to let him go.

Forget college soccer. It is what it is and it's not likely to change. It's not because the NCAA doesn't care about soccer - though of course they don't.

Rather it's that, increasingly, the NCAA is irrelevant..