The soccer infrastructure in Texas is an unwieldy beast consuming structural plans like the Cookie Monster dropped into a Mrs. Fields convention. The state is roughly the size of France, a country with decades of infrastructural work set into firm ground with the undergirding strength of titanium beams. Texas… does not have that.
The state of Texas boasts four professional teams for an area boasting about 28 million people: FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, San Antonio FC and Rio Grande Valley FC. It’s roughly representative of the three major population centers of the state – DFW, Houston and San Antonio – but the number of clubs itself is notable. Texas, simply put, does not have the ability to drill into its communities to find promising young players with the help of professional clubs and their attendant academies alone.
If you want to provoke a college coach (and God help you if you do), tell them the game is irrelevant as a producer of professional talent. The reason for the ire? It isn’t true.
The men’s college path itself is a desperately imperfect stepstone, but it isn’t without its merits. For the most part, you can carve out maybe somewhere in the vicinity of 10-20 programs, depending on the year and the coaching staff, and identify them as legitimate launch pads for MLS or, as is more rarely the case, somewhere abroad. The facilities are top notch, the fields for the most part are as good (or better) than any in MLS and the coaching rivals any second or third tier. Among the country’s rotation of the best dozen or so programs, the best coaches are MLS ready today.
Every now and then you get the confluence of all those labors and hit the motherlode in a single game: two of the best coaches, a horde of the best players and each of them competing in one of the best environments. Turns out, 2015 was that year in the modern history of college soccer.
This week, the University of Buffalo quietly announced it was dropping four sports in a cost-cutting move that would save the university around $2 million per year. The move slices Buffalo’s DI sports down to the bone, pulling them back to just 16, the bare minimum needed to be considered a Division I school. That $2 million, by the way, represents just 1/16th of the school’s operating athletics budget in 2015-16. For whatever that’s worth.
Those four sports: women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving, baseball and, yes, men’s soccer.
Akron’s Jonathan Lewis was the final addition to the 2017 Generation adidas class just weeks before the draft. In keeping with recent years, the GA haul was trimmed of fat and left mostly with working muscle. There were only six players in the ’17 class, the second fewest in history behind only the 2015 group.
Among them, there was one conspicuous absence. The best striker in college soccer in 2016 – yes, including Abu Danladi – was not in this GA class. Gordon Wild stayed home.
Taken in a yawning vacuum, news of Brian Iloski’s European gallivant this winter perhaps would not be cause for such ground-quaking alarm in SoCal. UCLA, where Iloski’s played as an oftentimes dazzling midfielder, is more or less constantly stocked with youth national teamers. Surely it could survive the year if Iloski fled. Right?
The long, tapered fuse lay invitingly across the table with a cache of explosives on the other end. All it needed was a light.
All weekend the field conditions at BBVA Compass Stadium had vexed the teams who’d arrived just days earlier for the men’s Division I College Cup, soccer’s answer to the Final Four. By the start of June, Houston had been ravaged by a series of floods that sunk the triangle between Dallas, Austin and Houston into a muddy morass. At one point in late May, flash flood warnings covered 183,000 square miles of Texas, roughly the size of Germany and the European lowlands combined.
The knock-on effect for professional soccer in Houston shredded the BBVA Compass Stadium field. The Dash and Dynamo were forced off their flooded practice fields, forcing them onto the main stadium field for training sessions. The Dynamo re-sodded the field in the summer to accommodate, but anyone who’s planted seed knows it takes a growing season to fill in. The result, by the end of the year, was a ravaged playing surface filled in copiously with sand.
It was onto this sand-swept plane of desert the four best teams in men’s college soccer stepped in early December to determine a champion.
The MLS allocation rule set is strange, fundamentally hard to understand and needlessly convoluted. This is not news. But every time something happens to throw that back into the collective face of the league’s fans, it gets a mite harder to stomach.
This time, it’s over a player. A very good player, in fact. His name is Jeremy Ebobisse, and according to the Washington Post, he’s already signed with MLS.
Dom Dwyer’s path to MLS is one of those circuitous only-in-America soccer stories that do not exist without our at times convoluted – if not creative – aisles to the top.
Dwyer was told to all but give up on pro soccer after breaking his foot three times while in academy soccer in England, and he leaped at the prospect of a free degree in the U.S. The ensuing trip took him to Tyler Junior College in the heat-drenched piney flatlands of East Texas, and then to South Florida for a year, where he scored 16 goals in 21 games, and then to the 2012 MLS SuperDraft.
Back in 1997, the U.S. U20 men’s national team was gathered together at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego, all huddled together in a room, when a man strode in and introduced himself.
I’m Sunil Gulati, he said, and we’re starting something new.
It was a humble beginning for a program that turns 20 years old next year and is in its second iteration. Those players in 1997 knew it as Project-40, a Nike-sponsored MLS draft workaround that identified a smattering of the country’s best young players and lobbed professional contracts at them. When Gulati told that group of players about it, they were the first outside U.S. Soccer’s think tank to hear.
The first hand that shot up in the room belonged to Brian Dunseth. Before a nine-year MLS career that spanned seven different rosters, Dunseth was a precocious sophomore defender from Cal State Fullerton gearing up for the 1997 U20 World Cup.
Dunseth was ultimately part of the first Project-40 class, which has been Generation adidas since 2005 once Nike dropped out. And in many ways it was an entirely different era.
The offer was hardly glamorous. Dunseth’s MLS paycheck was $776.78 every two weeks, which was barely enough to cover his $1,000 rent. When he arrived in New England in July 1997, team leader Alexi Lalas told Dunseth he was responsible for the balls, the bags, the bibs, the trash, loading and unloading the plane and the bus for road trips, was never to be allowed on the massage table in the training room and, most importantly, was always the first player in the middle in 5v2 drills.
Despite the hardships, Dunseth would’ve made the same decision again. And again. And again.
“It was, I’m getting to play pro soccer,” Dunseth says. “For me, you could’ve said we’ll pay for your food and that’s all we’re going to give you, and I was in.”
The 1997 GA class was, of course, the first in the MLS era. But it also coincided with just the second U20 MNT appearance in a U20 World Cup in eight years, a sweltering mid-summer tournament in Malaysia the U.S. fought through admirably enough under the circumstances. Narrow one-goal losses to Ireland and Ghana proceeded a 1-0 win over China on a 90th minute bolt from Brian West. The U.S. qualified for the knockouts as a third place side and bowed out with a quiet 3-0 capitulation against Uruguay in the Round of 16.
MLS plundered that 1997 U20 World Cup roster with alacrity to cobble together its first two GA classes. Joey DiGiamarino, Esmundo Rodriguez, Carlos Parra – technically the first GA player in MLS history – and Dunseth were all plucked for the first GA class in 1997 (it was called Project-40 under Nike’s banner until adidas took over in 2005, but I’m terming it GA from here out for ease of use). A year later, six more players from that U20 squad were included in the second ever GA class.
In two years, more than half of that 1997 U20 side – the one Gulati first told about the initiative – was folded into the league via the nascent GA program.
The GA initiative was designed for a different era, a different set of players and an entirely different league. The MLS of 1997 was a tremulous skiff, bouncing on the roiling chop in search of young game-changers to steady the uncertainty. As incomplete as the league’s view of its GA candidates is now, it was even blurrier 19 years ago. It wasn’t as if the league’s brand new stable of coaching staffs had enough wherewithal to scout that deeply into college soccer anyway.
GA did its work for a time. It was never meant to catch everyone, but the league was never all that concerned about opening the floodgates to young college players anyway. It was only interested in skimming the top of the pool, or at least one small corner of it. Dozens of the league’s all-time GA college finds – Carlos Bocanegra, Nick Rimando, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey – were plucked in this way.
The league has changed, and frankly so has college soccer. The increasingly irrelevant GA path has not.
Before 2016, GA classes had shrunk for five consecutive years, dwindling from an all-time high of 13 in 2010 to an all-time nadir of five in 2015. Flush with an increasing number of foreign mid-level contracts, primarily from Central and South American players but also from a growing contingent of Homegrowns, MLS front offices increasingly sought out buys in the international transfer market over a college system that fades every so slightly in professional relevance each year.
Part of that is natural, but an equal piece is artificial. MLS has made it terribly difficult and needlessly convoluted for MLS teams to sign college players.
The NBA and NFL both require at least a year of college experience before declaring for their respective drafts, and while MLB accepts high school players, those who’ve entered college have to wait until at least the end of their junior year to dip into the voluminous league draft. Whatever your take on those requirements, each of those leagues represent the global pinnacle of their respective sports. If they do lose players to those rules, they aren’t the ones that matter.
MLS is in an entirely different world. A different galaxy, maybe, even from the one Dunseth and his former U20 teammates occupied. MLS is competing against dozens of leagues that have no such barriers, and college players are more in touch with avenues abroad than ever. Those roadblocks for college players only serve to light the beacons out of the country. Put simply, MLS cannot afford any potential hurdles for players in its back yard. They already have incentive enough to go abroad. Why make the choice easier?
To put it frankly, MLS needs to eliminate the GA initiative entirely. After nearly 20 years, it has outlived its utility. It’s time to open up the draft. To everyone.
“It’s been fascinating to watch how maybe the league has outgrown it in some ways,” Dunseth says. “With the academy structure setup and the infrastructure for individual teams, top to bottom developing their own youth as opposed to kind of going through the college system, I think you kind of see two significant breakdowns. I think it’s the idea of identifying kids from 12 on up and teaching them the philosophical ideas of what the club is about, what formation they’re about, and bringing them through the system and keeping an eye on them.
“That’s versus now I think kind of identifying late bloomers, so to speak, through the college draft. I think it does have a place, but I think in the near future we’re going to see less and less of Generation adidas. I think we’re going to start to see it die out as a true barometer of the league’s growth.”
In August of 2014, Ludwig Ahl arrived in Charleston, S.C. hours before UC Santa Barbara’s season opener against the College of Charleston. Ahl landed softly in American soccer, a little known 20-year-old Swedish freshman bundled off from AIK Stockholm’s club setup. All of 5-foot-6, Ahl hit college soccer like a careening freight train, scoring four times and assisting on four goals that year despite joining the team in a new country literally the day the 2014 college season began.
Given the rapidity of his arrival, he became the totem for the college soccer most never see.
Ahl was a frank revelation, a diminutive attacking midfielder who could carve statues of marble from midfields of splintered rock. But the system was not set up to serve players like him. He of course had no MLS Homegrown attachment, and after his freshman year MLS only took five GA players for the ensuing draft. It’s doubtful MLS HQ even knew who Ahl was.
It ultimately didn’t matter. Ahl left after one season of college soccer, whisked back to his home country to sign a pro deal with Nykoping (which, ironically, is the current home for former Columbus Crew midfielder Romain Gall). MLS created an absurdly narrow passageway for talented young college players like Ahl, so it’s no surprise that the lion’s share of his cohorts leave before they’re ever even identified.
Nothing about college soccer is ideal. But make no mistake, its reputation has been largely founded on the narrow sliver of players MLS presents to you, not necessarily on the players who are actually there. Ahl is merely one of many, a whisper barely heard. Ghanaian sophomore Geoffrey Acheampong, who just signed for Bastia in France, was on the same college team.
MLS had long leaned on the premise that college players who declare for the draft and then weren’t drafted would have forfeited their NCAA eligibility. As Brooke Tunstall reported in 2014, that isn’t true. Players in sports other than football and basketball have a do-over, essentially, allowing them to go undrafted once and still return to college soccer afterward provided they don’t hire an agent.
The excuses, it would seem, stem purely from MLS’s side of the fence.
I think one reason why MLS refuses to open up the draft is because it’d be a clerical challenge for a benefit they are likely unprepared to embrace. The draft is only four rounds, and throwing an indeterminate amount of players of wildly variable talent into the pool for selection could flood the system. Would teams even know the scads of new players they’d be selecting from? College soccer is an enormous beast. Is MLS administratively prepared to make all of college soccer’s thousands of players draft eligible overnight? As is, not even all seniors are immediately eligible for the draft. There’s a back room selection process that is still opaque in the public purview to this day.
But if MLS is wedded to the near-term notion of a draft – something it should ultimately take pains to dismantle – the league needs to make the latter rounds relevant again. And it cannot do that via a meager selection of underclassmen and junior GA players coupled with seniors who weren’t good enough for a GA deal in the first place. That’s not to say seniors aren’t worthy of MLS. But that is to say that signing promising 18 and 19 and 20-year old college players is far more palatable than 22 and 23-year olds. Those few years are, believe it or not, wildly important, given that they get the requisite playing time.
As is, more than 90 percent of picks in the third and fourth rounds – and especially the fourth – are purely academic now. Few (if any) will still be with the club that drafted them after a year, let alone playing for the first team. A player approaching his mid-20’s should, ideally, be ready to go out of the box. Indeed, there were 20 picks in the fourth and final round of the 2016 draft. Five of them were passes. If all 15 of the players taken that round reach 500 career combined MLS minutes, color me shocked.
And it isn’t as though the draft is all that large. There are only 80 picks. If that isn’t enough of a message that clubs don’t value the draft’s depth, well, then MLS isn’t listening.
There is no “fix” here, because college soccer itself isn’t good enough to fix anything on its own. But there is the matter of simply making everything better by removing the barriers for young college players to join MLS other than through a contrived system that outlived its utility more than a decade ago. Because as we’ve established, MLS cannot afford to close doors.
Eddie Gaven’s MLS career began like none before it and few since. Drafted by the MetroStars in 2003 directly out of the U17 Bradenton residency, Gaven became – at the time – the youngest ever MLS player (Freddy Adu surpassed him a year later). He debuted in June and scored his first goal three weeks later.
Gaven spent the decade in MLS, primarily as the soul of the Columbus Crew for seven years. Then, in 2013, he shocked the league. At the ripe age of 27, he was stepping away from soccer.
At the time, the Crew likened Gaven’s early retirement to Barry Sanders, which is a fine piece of hyperbole but does claw at the general sentiment of the thing. Why was Gaven retiring so soon? He didn’t give the organization any specific reasons, leaving that part of the equation open-ended.