An inside look at college soccer recruiting

An inside look at college soccer recruiting
by J.R. Eskilson
February 5, 2014

The road. The hotels. The portable chairs on the sideline.

The life of a college soccer coach while on the recruiting trail is far from glorious, but it can shape the future of a program.

Landing the top prospect in the class can be a huge step for any program, but it is not that simple. There is scholarship money to balance and positional needs to fulfill all while keeping an eye on what the competition is doing.

Sounds like a balancing act with flaming chainsaws and at many times it is with the NCAA rulebook also tossed into the act.

The process of how the coaches sort through piles of player profiles to pick a class of only a handful of players is often a mystery but a few college coaches were kind enough to shed some light on the process.

Michigan is on the verge of landing the best recruiting class in the history of the program. The Wolverines have only had a Division I program for 14 years, but the Big Ten giants are quickly making up for lost ground. With a trio of youth national team stars heading to Ann Arbor this fall, the Michigan class is the envy of many in the land.

“As a new staff, we had to sit down and very carefully go over the guys that we had and recognize our needs,” Michigan assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Tommy McMenemy told about assembling this recruiting class. “We worked hard and got out of the road.”

McMenemy and head coach Chaka Daley are in their third seasons with Michigan. With limited history for the soccer program, McMenemy said that the staff really sells potential recruits on the school.

“We certainly relied heavily on the academic reputation and athletic history overall,” he said. “When [the recruits] see the facilities, they see we are ambitious. When you put that together, it is a place where any player would want to be.”

Now that Michigan is after the best in the nation, the Wolverines have to worry about professional contracts as much as other programs recruiting the same players. McMenemy, who lost recruit Matt Miazga to a professional contract with the New York Red Bulls in 2013, said he does not let that factor into his approach.

“I don’t think you can approach with that in mind. You try to develop the relationship with the player,” McMenemy said. “The landscape is changing and that is a good thing for soccer in this country.”

Two-time national finalist Duke remains in hunt of its first College Cup crown. Part of the Blue Devils’ success has come in recruiting where the ACC program has continually assembled some of the best classes in the country.

“We start with a fairly wide range,” Duke assistant coach Billy Lesesne told about the recruiting process. “The academic one is the first filter. The admission office has to take a look and say if it is someone you can recruit. We lose some people right off the bat.”

Lesesne added that Duke with roughly start with a pool of 30 players before it starts to zero in on targets. The average recruiting class will end around seven players. He explained that sometimes it is a position issue for why some players drop out from the pool.

He added that Duke’s approach to recruiting is in part looking at what positions they need to fill as well as the best available talent for that class.

“That’s generally how we do it,” Lesesne said. “There are specific needs that we have to fill – for example at the back and up front.”

The recruiting for girls starts at a much younger age, which makes it even more difficult on the coaches.

“The age issue is the most difficult part of recruiting,” Lesesne said. “You are trying to project where this player will be in two years. You are trying to project maturity in so many ways. It makes it very difficult.”

Part of the advice that head coach Robbie Church and the staff give players is to look at other campuses before committing to Duke. They want the players to really have time to access options and believe they are making the right choice with Duke.

Marquette has compiled a few strong recruiting classes in a row on the way to reaching new highs for the Big East program.

“We are looking for specific needs,” Marquette assistant coach Steve Bode told about his program’s recruiting process. “As head coach Louis Bennett likes to say, we are spear fishing rather than fishing with a net.”

Bode said that Marquette has specific needs, but he wants to be in the mix with any exceptional talent from the local (Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago) areas.

“We probably aren’t going to be at the youth national team from year to year, but if there is a player that is a need for us, we will go after them.”

The spear fishing approach has worked for Marquette as the Golden Eagles landed U.S. U18 MNT forward Coco Navarro in 2013. This year’s recruiting class looks to be bringing in another big fish as well.

“I think I’ve had really good mentors in the recruiting process,” Bode said about his approach to recruiting the best players. “Five and a half years with Marquette and I’ve learned the ropes from different people. I’ve been fortunate.”

Bode also talked about how men’s soccer is the second biggest sport for many universities in the Big East and that recruits definitely take notice of the attention that the sports gets on campus. He also spoke about the quality of the player that is coming out of club soccer now.

“The game is evolving in the U.S.,” Bode said. “It is a different player that is coming out in the youth level. We have a very specific way we want to play and because of that more players coming out are drawn to Marquette.”

The Marquette approach means the coaching staff can really focus on specific players and target those players when they attend events.

“If we go to Sarasota [the Development Academy Showcase in Florida], we identify between 15-20 players,” Bode said. “We are looking for mostly 2015s and 2016s and then solidifying the 2014 class. Once we have that group, we break it down. You get a feel for how much interest that’s kids have and then we start honing in on those players.”

Penn State is another women’s program that is knocking on the door of glory. The Nittany Lions reached the title game in 2012 but came up just short. The perennial Big Ten powerhouse continues to reload and restock its roster with the best talent in the nation every year.

“The process begins with our staff identifying the best players from around country without any real consideration given to particular positions,” Penn State assistant coach Tim Wassell told “From there, we look at what players will be in our program when the recruit would be joining us to establish our positionally for a given class.”

Wassell also highlighted a player’s versatility as a key factor in the search. As the coach pointed out, Penn State switched to a 3-5-2 in 2012 on the way to College Cup, which is a “prime example of this versatility at play.”

The success of the Nittany Lions has put the school in the conversation with all of the best programs in the nation.

“We are uniquely positioned at Penn State to offer a tremendous experience to prospective student athletes from every perspective,” Wassell said. “We are ranked as one of the top universities in the world with one of the best academic support models in the country, train and play on some of the nicest fields in country and have a coaching staff that has unparalleled experience at the high levels of the sport.”

Even with all those bells and whistles, there are still the hurdles of women’s college soccer with early recruitment, but Wassell highlighted getting to know the player as the hardest part.

“The biggest challenge for us is making sure that we develop a relationship with the recruit and understand what they are looking for in a college program to ensure our values align,” Wassell said. “So much of our success is a product of our team culture and it is imperative that the recruit will value the environment we have built and contribute positively to the development of the culture.”

Marquette, Michigan, Duke, and Penn State, as well as some of the other programs with highly regarded recruiting classes, all head into 2014 with promising prospects thanks to the behind the scenes work of the assistant coaches that put together the recruiting classes for this fall.

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