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.