College Soccer at Odds with US Goals

This is the first part in a series of columns analyzing the current climate of college soccer—its role in the development of the sport in America, its drawbacks and limitations, and the future of the game amidst a growing trend towards youth professional development.

Part 1: Where does college soccer fit in the landscape of American player development?

You don’t need me to tell you that soccer is a growing sport in the United States. Its rosy future has been prognosticated ad infinitum for years by sports journalists. You could argue that the sport reached its apex this past summer with the stunning performance of the U.S. Men’s National Team in the FIFA Confederations Cup. Nearly four million viewers tuned in to watch the English-language broadcast of the USA-Brazil final, with countless more watching on Spanish-language TV network Univision.

Behind the scenes however, a debate has emerged over the future of youth development in soccer. Look no further than our own senior and youth national teams to see this debate play out.

While Clint Dempsey—the USA’s top goal scorer in the aforementioned tournament—honed his skills in the collegiate game, it was 19-year old Jozy Altidore who turned heads with his performances against Spain and Brazil. Altidore, who eschewed the collegiate system entirely by turning pro at 17, is hailed as an example by many detractors of college soccer that the United States needs to mirror the development set-ups in Europe and South America to compete consistently.

Ten years ago, 72 percent of the US Under-20 (U20) roster for the FIFA Youth World Cup concurrently played ball in college. In 2007 the U.S. U20 roster—featuring senior Harvard striker Andre Akpan—only had five players in college; the rest of the team consisted of professionals. The 2009 Youth World Cup is currently underway, and only 33 percent of the US roster is affiliated with a college squad. What’s caused this rapid shift away from college soccer as the primary feeder to our national teams?

The answer is two-fold. First, the structure of college soccer itself has hampered the development of its players. With its arcane rules and limited play time (colleges typically play 20-25 games through the fall and winter, whereas similarly-aged players in Europe and South America play 10-month, full-length seasons), the average American soccer player isn’t receiving the same level of soccer that his counterparts across the world are.

Secondly, the increased competitiveness and viability of Major League Soccer have placed a greater emphasis on American professional clubs to scout the best possible talent. Recently, that has meant signing foreign youth players from overlooked areas like Africa and developing sophisticated youth development academies.

This development has had a profound impact on the importance of college soccer in the realm of American professional soccer. For years MLS teams added depth by scouring through the college ranks—even the Ivy League has received attention, with several players like Michael Fucito ’08-’09 and Penn alums Danny Cepero and Alex Grendi recently drafted. With the league recently reducing its roster sizes by eliminating its reserve league, college soccer alums have found it increasingly difficult to win roster spots amongst the growing number of young foreign players. (Interestingly enough, the only rookie on the Columbus Crew, the defending league champions, is Ivy product Grendi).

As Harvard students, we’re fortunate enough to have a nationally-ranked squad boasting players with legitimate shots of turning professional. And as college sports fans more generally, we often find reasons to cheer for athletes in other sports like basketball and football specifically because of their previous collegiate attachments (i.e. cheering for North Carolina alums in the NBA and conversely hating any Duke grads).

While some of the top contenders for Rookie of the Year in the MLS include recent college graduates like Chris Pontius and Sam Cronin, the pool of such players is thinning considerably.

One could argue of course, that the NCAA isn’t in the business of producing professional athletes. Indeed, its stated mission is to promote the safety and academic progress of its student-athletes. However, the lines of pre-professional development have been blurred in its relationship with the NFL and NBA (and by extension, the millions of dollars in profits earned through the sweat of college football and basketball players).

I’m not here to argue that the NCAA should be the primary training ground for our future American soccer stars. In fact, the continued development of MLS academies will do more for the sport than college soccer ever could. I am concerned however, that the diminishing competitiveness of collegiate soccer will take away a valuable resource for young soccer players to hone their skills.

Right now, college soccer provides a platform for players who may have been overlooked to showcase their talents. At the very least, it provides a college degree at the end of four years, an often underappreciated aspect of American sport when compared to European professional academies that quickly burn out young adults, leaving them with no career prospects if unable to “make the cut.”

Other external factors aim to significantly reduce the influence of collegiate play in American soccer. In the wake of the US’s international competitiveness, professional management companies such as Traffic Sports have begun to taken a keen interest in American youth. Tony Taylor, a member of the current US U20 roster competing in Egypt, cut his ties with Jacksonville University’s soccer squad to turn pro by signing with Traffic. The advent of third-party companies filling in the void of professional opportunities for American youth may help accelerate the decline of college soccer.

When you’re watching the NCAA basketball tournament, you know you’re watching the best young American basketball players. Similarly, a quick glimpse of your TV on Saturdays will reveal the best young athletes in football. To watch the best young American talent, you may need to turn your eyes to a Hull City (Altidore’s professional team) or an MLS match.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? For the possibility of the USA one day winning a World Cup, absolutely not. For fans of the collegiate game, the communities that support the teams, and the parents who hope their kids can obtain scholarships, the debate is just beginning.

—Staff writer Mauricio A. Cruz can be reached at cruz2@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags