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Fixing College Soccer: How to pull it into harmony with American development

Written by Will Parchman

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College soccer often gets a bad rap, but it can be an unwieldy beast. For all its advantages, it’s been historically slow to adapt, resistant to holistic change and stubbornly brazen when it comes to joining the developmental fray. In the face of a swiftly changing landscape, the question of “adapt or die” takes on vital significance.

Today is for talking points. The idea that men’s college soccer has fallen behind (or, at the very least, is falling behind) is popular, but is it true? Historically, for the most part, yes. That’s created a growing groundswell of support for the eventual abolition of college soccer as a rung in the developmental ladder. Who needs it? Direct jumps from the Development Academy/elite club ranks to the pros are the ultimate ideal. Right?

It may be that years into the future college soccer will be a footnote as a legitimate talent producer. But what a waste it would’ve been. Many top Division I programs have facilities that rival – and in some cases outpace – European academies. There are dozens of entrenched coaching staffs doing marvelous work preparing and teaching players for the next level (though yes, there are, as with any world league, bad apples).

Point being that the framework is there. With the help of a paring knife – right, better make it a machete – college soccer can one day become a real part of the equation. But it’ll take a massive overhaul and the willingness to completely change what we know about college soccer. It will have its adherents and its detractors like anything. But hopefully it’ll move the needle.

An important distinction we have to make off the bat is that many of these rules would require the NCAA to either bend or snap its current structure to fit. We’re living in a world of idealism today. And many of these innovations would require pruning to fit them into niches where they’d be most comfortable. But there’s loose precedent at play with how the NCAA deals in rulebook science differently with its various sports, albeit often haphazardly and blindly. We can harbor pipe dreams that it will come to see men’s soccer in a similarly important light some day.

Here we go. Ways to change college soccer from a standalone necklace into a bonafide link on a wider American developmental chain.

— Allow for loose Development Academy and MLS affiliations among college clubs to encourage freedom of movement from college to the pros. As is, there’s nothing stopping a college player from bolting for a professional opportunity abroad at any point in his college career. Including in the viscera between his purely speculative high school commitment and his first day on campus. MLS needs to incentivize its ladder from the DA to the pros by laying its rickety spokes across the American wastes of the 18-22 age bracket. It does that by flinging open the door.

The point is to turbo-charge the distinction between players in college for the degree/experience/improvement, and obvious professionally inclined players using it as a launchpad or, more starkly, a developmental way station. Players who want to stay through college and use the system as it is currently used can do so. Every player investment is a risk, no matter where you are on the globe. Just as there’s nothing to prevent Tijuana from poaching a prized LA Galaxy academy player, there’s nothing to prevent a player the Galaxy helped to college from staying for four years to get a degree. These are the risks of an open system, and they are present everywhere in the world. It’s time to accept the risks to reap the rewards.

At first, maybe this looks like a college affiliate-to-parent MLS team poach. Eventually, maybe it means a series of smaller scheduled college allocation drafts sprinkled throughout the calendar year to provide windows for MLS to pull top quality players into the fold. And that’s whether they’re with a direct MLS college affiliate or not. Who knows? College coaches won’t like losing a top player in the middle of the season, but at some point there has to be an admission that what’s best for your team’s results queue isn’t necessarily best for the development of the player. But the important bit is that the framework provides so many options to grease the wheels between the Development Academy and professional soccer using the college game. And that’s the idea.

One unfortunate side effect is that under the NCAA’s current amateurism bylaws – which are being challenged, but by sports and players that generate tangible revenue – players can’t move freely between MLS and college once they’ve made the former home. That’ll be hard to circumvent. Ideally an MLS club could send a player back down to its college affiliate after he’d been signed, but for now that looks like a tabled option. Which brings us to our next point.

— Welcome competition with USL PRO. And I use the word “competition” lightly. Where loose college affiliates can’t sign or pay players, USL PRO sides can operate as professional surrogates. And if a club like the Sounders has several “affiliates,” namely S2 and perhaps college programs like Seattle U and Washington? All the merrier. Most of the world’s best talent producers have upwards of 15-20 lower division affiliates upon which they can shuttle their prospects for incubation. In most cases, the parent club pays the player’s full wage as a stipulation of the affiliation. Luckily, college soccer’s rules require that as a prerequisite. We’re already ahead of the game.

An MLS club may ask why it would want to pay any of its players to go to college, and to that I’d simply say that development is a heck of a drug. The more clubs buy into the system, the more robust and effective it becomes. College soccer can become talent-relevant if those with power want it to be. Further, competition is good. What USL PRO cannot provide, college can, and vice versa. And it may be laying the groundwork for *gasp* some day adopting a promotion and relegation system. Nobody here is advocating that move right now, but the more rungs you can cultivate, the more avenues there are to the highest levels.

This is more of a side note and has less to do with college soccer itself, but attaching training compensation clauses when players are bought is a good way to channel money back down into the system to the academies producing these players. A proper developmental pyramid is far more circular than vertical.

— Adopt the complete FIFA rule kit, full stop. A 10-month schedule to mirror the Development Academy (with which college soccer will be loosely linked), stoppage time, stricter substitution rules, the destruction of overtime/golden goal during regular season games, a clock that counts up and doesn’t include in-game stoppages. And don’t forget to break up college soccer’s arcane limits on training. It would appear the season’s extension into the spring will happen sooner rather than later – think Bundesliga with a winter break – but these are easy rule fixes with which every player in college soccer will be familiar. Like flipping a switch.

— Provide MLS-funded scholarships, either partial, full or both, based on merit with the prospect of a matching program from the individual college based on financial need. As previously mentioned, think of it like a European parent club loaning out a top prospect to an affiliate and covering his wages. If this is done en masse, competition tends to drive innovation. You’ll get more European studs like UCLA’s Leo Stolz and UCSB’s Ludwig Ahl flooding college soccer. And that’s a very good thing for development.

Here’s the thing about money. We’re not solving anything here. We get that much on the floor to start. The conversation surrounding cost elimination is necessary, but it isn’t as currently relevant as some would have you believe. And that’s not because it shouldn’t be relevant, but merely because it’s a lark. Money either exists or it does not. And in American soccer, it does not exist in quantities that would allow it to be spread in wider swaths than it currently is. Simply put, there isn’t enough money to make pay-to-play a non-viable solution. There’s no one to blame but our country’s general and historical lack of interest in the sport.

So what does that mean here? We do what we can. Most (all?) MLS clubs are in the black, but don’t delude yourself into thinking there’s enough cheddar to spread around for everything they’ll need in this department. In Germany, professional clubs and the DFB have spend upwards of 100 million Euros on more than 400 national and regional coaching centers. We can’t do that here. Cost elimination is a noble goal, and it’s one toward which we’ll keep striving. But in the meantime, we have to nibble at the corners. Having MLS (and perhaps U.S. Soccer, which is supposedly running a $60+ million surplus these days) contribute to college-friendly scholarship funds would help immensely.

— Allow college soccer to be a distinct branch on NCAA’s larger tree. As is, college soccer is a completely confederated part of the larger college sports landscape. It’s an afterthought, a six-sided box shoved into a one-dimensional cubby hole. If the NCAA needs models, it need look no further than the concept of a comprehensive sports club, a familiar concept almost everywhere except America.

While the U.S. was busy building top-down authoritarian sports leagues built outward from a single genesis point, world sport looked more like a frantic game of whack-a-mole. The individual organizations came first, and the leagues attempted, quite clumsily at times, to federate them into a single entity. Notable clubs like Lazio, Benfica, Real Betis and France’s ‘Racing’ culture started and still are tributes to successful multi-sport blends. College athletics departments already have the multi-sport setup to consider itself in similar company. Treating college soccer as a distinct entity completely separate from how its other sports are run would help it thrive in a philosophical way we haven’t seen before.

— Give college clubs autonomy to plan a full spectrum schedule. NCAA teams already take occasional trips abroad for friendly tours through Europe and South America (though, and correct me if I’m wrong, the amount of these you can take are heavily regulated by the NCAA). Killing that regulation and fostering collaboration with U.S. Soccer is the next step. Allow DA clubs to schedule friendlies with college teams. Heck, make a summer cup competition out of it. Make it a showcase. Do it big. Taking the shackles off the schedule-makers allows young developing players to play up in age, a vital component of learning how to play quicker and smarter.

— Create a more rigorous standardized coaching license format. To my knowledge, there’s no one license requirement to manage a college soccer team (though of course you won’t get hired without one). The USSF National B license focuses on “targeting toward coaching players age 16 to the college level,” but the A license allows coaches to delve more into game theory and includes a research paper. In fact, if USSF created some sort of license that went above and beyond the A license, I’d advocate that as the baseline standard. Err on educating the hell out of our coaches. Stuff them so full of formational theory and training rubric that they can hardly walk. Make the teachers the students. Bruce Lee stuff.

To wit, pretty much every college soccer coach worth his salt right now already has his A license, but there needs to be a violent marketing push for all young up-and-coming coaches to be vigorous students of the game. That starts with this basic step. Making good players starts with making good coaches. We need more of them. Narrowing the frame of the door through which they walk will only make the education that much better.

— Do it for the good of the player. And I cannot stress this last point enough. It is the kickstand upon which the entire vehicle rests.

The thing a college administrator, namely someone with a finger on the school’s purse strings, may reasonably ask is what the university gets out of these changes. And that’s a fair line of questioning. They will tax the system, slow growth in the interim while coaching staffs and players acclimate, and they will be met with an inevitable backlash, as will everything that is done of any serious scale in world history. These are fundamentally scary prospects. Nothing is ever certain, and there is a chance that any system will develop arthritis and crumble at the knees. So let’s lay those fears at our feet before we step over them.

But the “what will it do for me” thought process is fundamentally flawed, at least partway. Until now, a gripping fear of ruffling feathers has largely prevented the NCAA from pushing any sort of change in college soccer, and you see where we are. As the scaffolding of a professional apparatus begins to slowly climb into the horizon around the slouched, fractured brick of the old college institution, college soccer risks being cut out of the developmental process entirely. It isn’t so far fetched to imagine the Development Academy one day growing to the point where it has entirely paved over college soccer on its way directly to the pro game. It isn’t that hard to imagine.

And this is where college has to come to its split in the road and choose. Either accept and acquiesce to college soccer’s slow and gradual degradation into glorified intramurals, or decide to be part of the system that is outpacing it. That decision will be made via a series of decisions in the years spreading before us. Given the potential and the infrastructure in place, I hope it opts for the latter path.

That same administrator might ask where all this is going. What’s the end game? That, too, is a fine question. Frustratingly, it’s not one we can answer with certainty. The idea here is to make college soccer as much of a conduit as possible in as many ways as possible by utilizing its unique blend of resources, its inherent residency model and its stable of very good coaches. If we follow that path, we may well be surprised to see the path lead us through the thickets of the forest and into the light of day.

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16 Comments
  • College Soccer Watcher

    Have you ever looked at what MLS players on average make? Players should go to college and get a degree , have the benefits of college comraderie and move on or go directly into MLS – their choice but you have overlooked the large benefits to individuals of having a degree – one that for the majority will make them more money and give them more long-term security than any academy system could. Whats wrong with just having the college soccer atmosphere ?/ Maybe a few make it but like with football it is a very small percentage.

    • philsoc8

      This is what it’s all about. The risk-reward calculation for pursuing pro soccer just doesn’t yield a non-college conclusion unless (a) the player is a total, can’t miss stud, (b) is independently wealthy so can go back to college on his family’s dime, or (c) not at all college-ready economically or financially.

      The long-term reason why the success of MLS is so vital is to help flip the risk-reward balance.

  • College player

    Does this guy think colleges are just gonna let you miss class whenever you feel like it?

    • Will Parchman

      The only added strain on class schedule is making the sked stretch into the spring, but in all honesty that’s the least controversial idea on here (i.e. it has administrative backing and it’s only a matter of time). The games schedule won’t be legitimately heavier. There may be 3-4 more games per year, tops, if even that. The point is to approximate a pro-level training schedule by keeping players fresh year-round. Stretch it out with a lengthy break around the holidays.

      Patrick Mullins recently talked about this with New England. For four years he’d been going hard for three months and then trying to stay in game shape for the other nine. It takes a toll when your first pro season stretches into the dog days of summer. Why do you think guys like Shipp and Mullins faded so hard by the end of the summer?

  • bob

    Robert Morris University now doles out $20k “athletic” scholorships to top video gamers. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/06/video-game-scholarship-varsity-sport_n_5940898.html

    My question here is, top video gamers are pros that get paid by folks like Riot Games etc…College soccer has to recognize this and change their ways

  • SRD

    While Will makes many good points I did not see a mention of the primary reason an athlete attends college- education.
    Many college athletes in many sports dream of turning pro, but a very small percentage attain this goal. Yet if the athlete uses the opportunity afforded by being able to play sports in college they can achieve so much more than they could have without sports. Look at a typical top tier D1 football team. How many of those athletes would have attended college without football?
    I am not too familiar with the boy’s academy side (my soccer player is a girl), but my question is, what does an academy player who gives up college to try for the pros through academy get if they do not make it? What does a washed out soccer player in his late 20’s/early 30’s, no college education do for a living? Or what if they experience a career ending injury prior to striking it big? On the flip side, a college player who never plays a minute again after graduation at least has a degree.
    Maybe a good comparison would be NCAA baseball which seems to have a live and let live attitude with pro baseball. College coaches understand that some of their best players may be lost each year to the pros. Pros view the better college teams as a semi farm system that complements their minor leagues. There does not seem to be consternation among the pros that college baseball permits metal bats and other differences.
    I do find some of the rule differences between college and pro soccer annoying such as the clock. On the other hand I do like the overtime rule and the substitutions. This is college, not pro. Let players develop. They don’t do so by sitting on the bench. Ten months schedule?? Seriously?? You do know they have classes to attend. As it is most college coaches steer players toward easier classes during the regular season. The off season is usually filled with workouts, then there is the shortened spring season.
    But I guess my bottom line is that I agree with one of your statements. The athletes should come first. While programs should try to develop the players they should also provide them with a good education, something they can use long after they hang up their soccer boots.

  • Jeff Thompson

    Great discussion but never going to happen! First of all, college athletics, with the exception of Football(American) and Men’s Basketball, is all about the academic portion of the equation. The landscape of Olympic(Minor) sports will be always remain focus on academics first, sports participation second.

    The next HUGH issue to consider when you are looking at ALL of the ideas concerning college soccer(yes, even the extend season) is Gender Equity! It just isn’t going to happen for Men’s soccer only. Rightfully so…. Do we really expect University Presidents, Boards/Regents and Faculty to support sweeping changes in a NON-revenue sport? I think not! Sorry to bust the bubble.

  • The two most basic fixes, and the two that seem the easiest, are adopting the FIFA rule book (why is this not already done?!) and extending the season. Just these two changes will vastly iprove the quality of the experience and the developmental value of college soccer. Couldn’t agree more with the author here.
    The next thing that needs to happen is to get the NCAA to allow training schedules that fit the needs of the sport. The NCAA really does not like this idea. At all. But if we spread out the competition schedule, increased training time won’t be a big burden. It’s the travel to games (and even the prep for home games) that are the real time killers.
    And we could get creative. Add a futsal season for the winter. Track has both indoor track and outdoor track as separate NCAA seasons/sports. And there is also cross country. When I was in school, my season lasted from before the first day of classes until after the last exam, from XC pre-season training to NCAA outdoor championships. I survived just fine academically under this schedule, soccer players could do the same.
    As to the movement of players back and forth among MLS, DA, and college teams, that seems completely unworkable. And I don’t know why that would even be desireable. Let the kids be on the college team. Let them have some affiliation if you want with a DA team or a pro team, but they can’t be on that roster in any formal way while still on a college roster. This is not a bad thing. As many have already said, the primary objective of college is education. No reason that playing competitive soccer (and doing that in a way that may result in professional opporunities) has to be incompatible with education, but let’s not treat college soccer like it is just another league from that players might jump to and from as it serves their athletic needs. That just makes no sense. College soccer is an extrracurricular activity for undergraduates, potentially a very well organized and well run extracurricular activity, but it is not and need not be a professional minor league. We don’t need to make college soccer into a minor league system, we just need to make it work better than it does now.

    • Sorry, the one exception I would make to the adoption of the FIFA rule book would be to liberalize the subsitution rules. But that’s it. And I could live with it if we didn’t – so long as the number of subs per game was more like 6 (as in friendlies) rather than 3.

  • jc

    College soccer is not the MLS minor league. It is for STUDENT/athletes. College soccer is what it is – intent is for 98% these players who will never be a professional player to be part of a team, represent their school and get an education that will prepare them for a career.

    • Will Parchman

      And in a practical sense, nothing would change for those players who want to use the system as it is used now. There’s still plenty of opportunity for those players under these changes. This is just making provision for those players who do want to use it as a launchpad.

  • Boss Man

    College Soccer is not College football or basketball. Because the MLS isnt the NBA or NFL. The MLS is what it is, a nice little league for Americans and washed up Europeans and South Americans. If we are using the MLS as a feeder program for the National Team we will never get over the hump internationally. Yeah, we made it to the round of 16, but look at the group stage. Germany is head and shoulders better than us, Portugal tied us because of a lack of game awareness, and we basically had to hold Ghana off. Belgium worked us over. We basically tried to just hold the other teams all 4 games. Sooner or later working hard on the field and playing tough just isnt going to cut it. We need talent to in, and we arent developing that talent. Klinsmann is right, we need our best players in Europe playing against the best in the world if we want to compete in 2018 and 2022. Not the MLS. College soccer isnt the problem, its grooming and developing the talent we already have.

    • Jason Adams

      While I agree that MLS is not at a level now to supply us with a team capable of winning the World Cup, I disagree that it never will be. The level is rising every year along with the popularity of the sport in this country.

  • BJ Pheasant

    Each sport needs to be put into the proper developmental spectrum for the 18-22 age range. That is treating each sport equally and does not mean treating them the same. College football fits well. Basketball and soccer do not fit as well. There have been some proposals at the D1 level to help soccer fit in developmentally. I also wrote a paper on the topic, which may add some ideas to the discussion. https://www.academia.edu/7751520/Making_College_Soccer_a_Relevant_Developmental_Force

  • Angry Elf

    Radical ideas : No athletic scholarship to foreign players. They can attend, they can play. If they are good academic students, they can get financial help for their academic prowess. If we are using college soccer as a bridge to the MLS and eventually the National team, why do we want to build a US college team with foreign players at the expense of our home grown players. Are the foreign players better ? Possibly. But, personally (and thats all this is) I have no interest in having foreign players take spots of US players, on my dime . So UVA says good bye Pablo Aguilar (unless he wants to pay for school. And who wouldn’t if they could afford it , UVA is a great school.) UCLA says good bye to Leo Stolz, Felix Vobejda,Larry Ndjock, etc. Why do we want to give them money to play here.? It makes no sense. We ultimately want to improve as players and as a soccer playing country. The NCAA and college soccer are probably the largest impediment to the improvement of US soccer. We are set up to fail as a soccer nation. However, the theory of second place is pretty good. The boys that competed in the final yesterday will still walk away with a degree from a top University. Win or lose. You cant say that in any other country. All are welcome to attend and play, we just don’t have to pay for them

    • fatman

      I had many teammates in college from foreign countries. They were great. Great athletes, great people, great teammates. We all got better for having them around. This idea is not well informed, and it is shortsighted – counter to the very purpose it’s author is promoting, the development of the game in this country.

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