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College Soccer: Is it relevant?

Following the College Cup triumph of the Maryland Terps numerous columns online have been penned attacking the quality and attractiveness of NCAA Soccer. Ives Galarcep had a well written and thoughtful response to these critics in his Soccer by Ives column of Monday. The most galling thing about the criticism the College Cup has received is that much of it are from the same writers who are never willing to objectively analyze the product that Major League Soccer produces on a weekly basis. Perhaps it has become fashionable to blame the shortcomings and failures of MLS on an inadequate college soccer system.

Once you get beyond all the peculiarities of College Soccer, the same types of strange rules that the NASL had and MLS initially had, I find the product to be little different than MLS. Let’s face it: by the standard of a European football fan, MLS borders on unwatchable most of the time. It isn’t simply the quality of play in MLS, but the style of play. I’ve spoken to more than a handful of British ex-pats who have told me they prefer USL to MLS: but this clearly isn’t about quality because USL is not of the same standard as MLS with the exception of two or three clubs (the same clubs that are successful in CONCACAF play.) Their stated preference for USL is based around familiarity with the style of play which resembles British Football far more than MLS’ developing Latinized style. While I watch MLS, I cannot claim to be any more compelled by MLS or USL than I am by NCAA Soccer. All three have their drawbacks and limitations for those who appreciate the sport. MLS is a much more presentable product in how it is marketed and packaged than NCAA Soccer or USL (who promotion is probably worse than your local AAU Basketball league), but when you get beyond the glitz and clever promotion, MLS as I have repeatedly stated is not a consistently quality product.

The tactics in College Soccer resemble more of hybrid of North European (but not British) football and lower tier leagues in Latin America. While the style of play and peculiar rules may not be appealing to many, College Soccer most certainly has its clear benefits to player development in North America. A number of former college soccer players now ply their trade in top European leagues, including Blackburn captain Ryan Nelson (Stanford), Rangers’ Mo Edu (Maryland), Spurs Paul Stalteri (Clemson), Hammarby’s Charlie Davies (Boston College), Standard Liege’s Oguchi Onyewu (Clemson), Aston Villa’s Brad Friedel (UCLA) as well as MLS standouts like Shalrie Joseph (St Johns), Taylor Twellman (Maryland), and three time MLS Cup champion striker Alejandro Moreno (UNC Greensboro).

An interesting suggestion for improving College Soccer appeared this week on Soccerlens. This piece certainly has some very valid points, although knowing the NCAA the way I do I am of the belief that a two semester season will never be permitted. Much like Baseball whose one semester season including practice limits the development of players, Soccer is not given a high emphasis in many ways by the NCAA.

A solution could be for the PDL to develop further its relationship with NCAA Soccer under the auspices of the US Soccer Federation. The NCAAs lack of consistency from sport to sport as the Soccerlens piece discusses is a drawback to College Soccer’s development. Men’s Soccer is only a priority in a handful of athletic departments. The sport plays a fairly prominent role on several mid Atlantic campuses (ACC schools outside of Florida and Georgia in other words) as well as Indiana University, U Conn, SMU, St Johns, UCLA and a few other schools that I have neglected to mention. However, only the ACC actually promotes Men’s Soccer publicly as a major sport in its league, and thus the NCAA as well as individual athletic departments do not place a priority in their clearinghouses on soccer players.

Those who favor a European style development system for football in the United States are barking up the wrong tree. Our peculiar system of developing athletes in this country for very Americanized sports who face little international competition (while Americans like to think of Basketball as big worldwide sport, only in the US do the nation’s top athletes play Basketball: around the rest of the globe a nation’s top athletes generally are footballers or enter other sports unpopular in US media like Rugby, Cricket, or individual sports.) is not suited to football. However the system in this country is never going to be radically changed without significant state (government) support or huge private sector investment. With neither possibility realistically on the horizon an effort must be made by fans of the game in this country as well as the football media to support NCAA Soccer and work to make the changes necessary to develop a more useful model for player development within the constraints of the college system.

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  1. Juan

    December 18, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Good stuff. Hope to have a beer with you and express my side. But in the meantime, check out La Liga Talk about an issue similar to this.

    Peace dude.

  2. MKL

    December 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Great points, Kartik.

    I grew up about 20 minutes from Storrs, Conn., and it was there where I fell in love with the college game. When UConn won the title in ’81, I was hooked for life. Later I attended Rutgers and witnessed first-hand Alexi Lalas’ rise from a walk-on to a Hermann winner.

    NCAA soccer will always have an important role in the sport in America, even with its decidedly un-FIFA approach. The NCAA is hardly the “problem.” Granted, I’m biased, but I’d rather watch a good Division 1 matchup than a regular-season MLS game any time …

    I live in the Chicago area now and coach my young sons’ Saturday morning rec-league teams, and let me tell you, it has been an absolute eye-opener to see that the grass-roots level of soccer out here is not a whole lot more advanced skills-wise compared to what I was exposed to as a kid in the ’70s and early ’80s. Yes, the short-sided 5-on-5 and 7-on-7 games are a big improvement over the 11-on-11 monstrosities I was forced to figure out at an early age. But the vast majority of volunteer coaches I run into on the entry level DID NOT play soccer in elementary school, if at all. The sport’s migration hadn’t taken hold in the Midwest yet. So most guys in their mid-30s and early-40s are still running practices with 30 minutes of stand-in-a-line-and-shoot drills and 30 minutes of free-for-all scrimmage. Ball control and footwork and field vision and creativity remain a low priority unless you pay $1,000+ a season to join your child with a reputable club.

    Concepts like MLS youth academies are a good addition. But fancy clubs and the like with their pricey tuitions are not the only answer. The U.S. Soccer Federation must get on the stick here and brand itself as American visionary and demand that MLS and USL take notice and get their acts together. And unfortunately, Americans must remain patient. What we dream about probably won't happen while Freddy Adu is a young star.

    U.S. Soccer must simply continue to maintain the suburban popularity and tap diligently into the urban and rural areas and continue to focus on the entry level. Only then will the best talent funnel through colleges and then hopefully one day into an efficient North American pro arena, and then onto World Cup glory.

    The future isn’t bleak. We just need to accept that many of us now our 30s will probably be grandpas when the United States wins its first World Cup title. But once we get to that point, it’ll be difficult, almost impossible, to knock us off that summit.

  3. sam

    December 17, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    So, specifically, how can you imagine a formal relationship between PDL and NCAA working?

  4. Jonathan

    December 17, 2008 at 11:50 am

    While you make nuanced points, defending college soccer is still like lipstick on a pig. For that matter, those journalists and online commentators who justify the underwhelming nature of MLS and the USSF are really guilty of putting exquisite lipsticks on pigs.

    No offense Kartik, you're one of the people who don't toe the line when it comes to your views on USSF and MLS. I've noticed that many journalists and commentators give the two free passes. At its worst, one gets the likes of Lalas brothers that take punditry to a new low.

  5. Pingback: Football Parade | College Soccer: Is it relevant?

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