NCAA: "What We Need is Less Soccer"

The inimitable Lisa Eisenmenger, who can be comfortably listed among the top handful of soccer writers in the US and if she's not on your "must read" list then shame on you, delivers a bombshell this morning. The NCAA, taking a few moments away from their vital, society-salvaging mission of tracking down and punishing players who get free tattoos, has decided that Spring soccer is a menace that they can no longer condone.

This decision, which may take effect as early as next year, will also apply to volleyball, women’s lacrosse, field hockey, softball and cross country.

Purportedly, they feel that those sports are causing serious academic harm to their players, despite the fact that those same athletic teams routinely rank at or near the top of every survey of academic achievement among college athletes.

Meanwhile, most schools have locker rooms full of basketball and football players who can't spell "cat" if you spot them the C and the A. No word on what's being done to boost their academic performance, although I'm betting that hookers and coke will be involved.

Ironically, it was not so long ago that Spring practice and more-or-less informal intercollegiate competition was seen as the saving grace of NCAA Division I soccer.

With the establishment of MLS reserve sides, not to mention increased professional opportunities overseas for American-born players, it became obvious to even the most casual observer that training a couple hours a day for three or four months a year under a college coach was leaving soccer players who elected to go to college at a whopping disadvantage professionally.

At age 22 when it was time to compete for paying jobs with guys who had spent the previous four years working 12 months a year, six or seven days a week, in a professional environment, they simply weren't good enough.

Increasingly, choosing college was seen as a good way to toss away your professional potential in return for a college degree that was seen as being of questionable market value. There's just no way for a player in his early 20's to make up that four years he lost chasing tail and killing kegs.

Of course the biggest draw has always been the illusory - and increasingly elusive - dream harbored in the beating hearts of all American parents, the "athletic scholarship", which a lowly league like MLS could hardly compete against with it's glowing promise of living seven to an apartment on $14,000 a year.

But that short college season, coupled with strict NCAA rules against off-season "contact days" with coaches, was a high hurdle even for the most scholarship-smitten suburban Moms and Dads to overcome if they had any hope of one day seeing little Johnny Rocketleg suiting up professionally or playing for the national team.

The promise of Spring games was one of the best counter arguments since along with the advent of the PDL which, although of decidedly uneven caliber, at least kept the guys out on a pitch someplace working against reasonably equivalent talent.

You could almost convince yourself that going to college wasn't a terrible idea if your ultimate goal was to sit in a hotel ballroom someplace and hear an MLS Vice President mispronounce your name and hand you a scarf from a team in Canada someplace.

It was always baloney, and everybody knew it. Hence the Nike Pro40/adidas GenA program whose sole mission is to pry Johnny out of that frat house where he spends five months a year scarfing McGangbangs while playing Call of Duty 12 hours a day on a sofa that smells like ass and Doritos instead of running gassers and working on defending corner kicks.

As Eisenmenger notes:

"Overall, the recommendation appears a misguided attempt to improve academic performance by targeting the wrong sports, sports with academically high-performing students instead of sports like football and basketball, which have a long history of academic violations. Reduced training will limit Division 1 soccer players’ ability to play the pro game and discourage good players and students from attending college, which allows them to contribute to society after their playing career is over."

Now some might say there's cause for celebration here, since this may very well mean that more extremely high-potential players opt for the MLS Academy/Homegrown player route, but it's not entirely that simple.

The very best of the best always have options, and as MLS/GenA contracts have become more appealing a number of kids who might otherwise be suiting up for Maryland, UCLA or Akron have opted instead to give life as a pro a shot.

But it's the next tier, the late bloomers and the kids who aren't ready for prime time but who might be given enough time and hard work under good coaching, that we could easily lose.

Up until now, college has probably been the best option for a lot of those guys. Study, work your ass off and maybe you can crash your way into the combine and onto a roster after graduation.

But with the new ruling, the program for those kids is taking a step backwards. Not only are they not in the right environment for professional development but they won't be getting as much work or as many games as before and, perhaps as bad, when PDL season comes around they won't be ready to go.

Ad that's to say nothing of promising coaches like Akron's Caleb Porter, who could have half the jobs in MLS, right now, today, with a phone call.

Fortunately, MLS in 2011 isn't MLS in 1998, when jobs were few, options were fewer and the opportunities were so limited that it took a real leap of faith to forgo college for a hot at the pros.

In the long run, a lot will depend on whether MLS can seize this opportunity to - well, to shut the NCAA out of the market for the players who matter.