NCAA Soccer a dead end for MLS talent, by Paul Gardner.
So we now have the Beckham Rule. MLS has decided that its sport needs livening up, it needs a buzz of superstar excitement, it needs some better players. Each team will be allowed to sign one player outside the league's miserly salary cap restrictions. And David Beckham gets his name on the rule because he is the prime — and no doubt the most expensive — example of a player who could bring in both publicity and soccer skill.
The move is to be praised. MLS is trying to move with the times, it is willing to alter its rigid single-entity structure as circumstances dictate. It is also aware that the current level of play in MLS is no more than adequate. Better, more imaginative, more exciting players are urgently needed.
Which brings us to a highly public secret that bedevils the sport in this country: the role of college soccer. While college sport feeds a regular supply of basketball and football stars into the pros, it does very little for pro soccer.
Quite the opposite in fact. What needs to be said is that college soccer is the biggest obstacle to progress in the area of developing future pro players. Everyone, apart from a few college diehards, knows this to be the truth. But it is a truth that is rarely spelled out.
The reasoning has always been that this is the American way — the laudable scheme of using athletic ability to acquire an education. It works for football and basketball, sports that flourish within the college structure as crypto-professional activities. Soccer operates at a much lower level — it is a nonrevenue sport by the NCAA's classification. Its season is short, its level of play is weak, ditto its attendances.
This is a scenario that is unlikely to produce top players. And it does not. The reason that the Beckham rule is necessary is that the college products who fill most of the playing spots on MLS teams are simply not top-class pro material.
I need to stress again that this state of affairs is well known to everyone.
When MLS started in 1996, it quickly introduced a program called Project-40. The idea was to identify the 40 best young players in the country and have them train with MLS clubs while giving them scholarship money for an education. In short, the idea was to keep them out of college soccer.
But such is the stigma of offering any criticism of the college system that the real aim of Project-40 was never stated. It was, in fact, repeatedly denied. Project-40, we were told, was merely an alternative to college soccer.
Understandably, no one wanted to be seen as anti-education.
One coach who was not fooled by any of this guff was Bruce Arena, the most successful college coach of his era. After he joined the pros, Arena spoke out on the difference between college and pro soccer: "Clearly, it's night and day."
The huge gap remains. Those who argue that the college game is improving are deluding themselves. A recent telecast of a game between Duke and Wake Forest (currently the no. 1 and no. 2 ranked teams in the country) presented little beyond the banality of hectic, highspeed physical effort. That is college soccer. It is first and foremost about hustle. There is rarely any time or space in the college game for soccer brains to mature, for pure soccer skills to develop.
To imagine that playing for four years in that ambience can produce soccer superstars is patently absurd. So MLS is forced to continue its efforts to reduce the influence of the college game. Two weeks ago it came up with another youth development scheme, one that requires all its teams to create teams in up to five age groups, from under-14 to under-20.
Yet even in this scheme, devised by pro clubs to produce pro players, college soccer intrudes. MLS feels obliged to stress that these will be amateur programs, and that they "will not jeopardize a player's NCAA eligibility."
At every turn, as America tries to catch up with the rest of the world in grooming soccer stars, its efforts are confounded by the college game. The Olympic Development Program, started by the United States Soccer Federation in 1977, was intended as a nationwide scheme to identify and train potential young national team players (the "Olympic" of the title is a ploy deemed necessary to ensure cooperation from high school and — yes, college — authorities). But the program was very quickly dominated by college coaches, and has now become not much more than a glorified recruiting tool for the college game.
Another ambitious scheme was launched by the USSF in 1999. Thirty or so of the top high school players, aged 15 and 16, were gathered into a residency program in Bradenton, Fla., there to receive concentrated soccer training (and, obviously, to continue their high school education). This is an elite and expensive program (it costs the USSF over $2 million a year), and one that is of questionable value.
Yes, the program did produce two of the best American players, Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan. Or did it? Were these not exceptional players who were going to be extraordinary anyway? Perhaps the most important thing about both players is that they did not play college soccer. But that is not the case for the majority of the Bradenton graduates. Most of them go on to college rather than entering the pro game. The lure of an education is too great, and these costly, elite-trained youths end up in the developmental dead-end of the college game.
Without some drastic changes in its structure, college soccer will never serve as a source of stars for the pro game. It needs a considerably longer season, for a start. A bigger problem is that it is nothing more than an extension of youth soccer, an age-group affair where developing players are deprived of the essential experience of playing with, and against, much more experienced pro players.
All of which would not matter if soccer were not an international sport. Because the foreigners do it better. Their 22-year-olds are already veterans.
But an American player, coming out of college soccer at that age, is an innocent. Worse, the college game, because of its overtly physical nature, produces pitifully few creative players — the very type of player that MLS needs to add excitement and buzz to its play.
For the foreseeable future, MLS will no doubt continue the largely ceremonial procedure of its annual draft — in which there will be an increasing tendency to draft high school players. But at the same time, MLS will have to continue its various and devious plans for ensuring that the best young players are kept out of college soccer.
Paul Gardner. The Sun. New York.
Posted on 25 Jan 2007 by coachgianni