College soccer is to American soccer what newspapers are to today's media. Fewer people are paying attention to it, top talent is being drained, and critics are lined up to shovel on the dirt.
Half of the 30 players in camp vying for 23 slots on the USA's World Cup roster, as shown in this compelling study of class and ethnicity at the blog Pitch Invasion, went to college but left early. Nine players -- including cornerstone players Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley -- didn't go at all.
And yet the college game persists, catering both to late bloomers and prospects who placed an emphasis on education. A handful of schools have produced a steady stream of MLS players. UCLA has 19 former players currently in MLS, Maryland 13, Wake Forest 12, Indiana 12 and North Carolina 11, according to Rick Lawes, the league's ace stat man.
Colorado's Wells Thompson, one of those Wake Forest alums on MLS rosters, describes an idyllic environment -- the main season in the fall, games in spring, playing with different teammates in the PDL summer league, then coming back to campus to play pickup games and take a class or two before the fall. Those extra classes help players graduate in December of their senior years so they can be ready for the MLS preseason in February.
"We'll be prepared to go to the league," Thompson says.
The backlash against college soccer stems from a couple of fundamental problems with the game as the NCAA defines it. Scholarships are among the toughest to get in any sport, with only 9.9 available for each Division I men's team. Women's teams are allowed 14 scholarships, giving a bit of ammunition to would-be Title IX reformers.
The scholarship numbers also limit the player pool. Partial scholarships may not be enough of an incentive for needy kids to go to college. Instead, the pool of players is more likely to live up to the clumsy stereotypes of American soccer as a game for wealthy suburbanites.
The NCAA also has loose substitution rules, a departure from the standard rules of allowing only a few substitutions through the game. A talented player can find waves of tough guys taking turns hacking at his ankles. Some of them find it difficult to lose these habits upon making the pro ranks, giving MLS a sad reputation as a "physical" league rather than a skillful one.
But as long as MLS remains "physical," a tag reinforced by some coaches' tendency to recruit foreign players who can match the Americans foul-for-foul, the college game is good preparation.
"I didn't come from a very physical style of soccer," Colorado forward and Harvard grad Andre Akpan says. "That was something I got used to in college soccer."
Akpan is part of a disappearing group of players who excel in international youth play -- in his case, a stellar run with the U.S. Under-20 team in 2007 -- and spend four years in college. Many of those players are tempted by -- if not pushed toward -- the pro ranks of MLS or Europe.
"I think everybody kind of knew that I wanted to stick it through," Akpan says. "There's always going to be people that talk and say what is he doing wasting his time there, but that's their decision."
More typical than Akpan are players that floated under the radar in their youth careers and developed into elite players in their college years. Clyde Simms, now the cornerstone of D.C. United's midfield, wasn't even thinking of post-college career until his coach at East Carolina pushed him toward a tryout with the Richmond Kickers, then playing in U.S. soccer's second professional tier.
Simms' talent wasn't truly discovered until an accident of labor negotiations. On the eve of a World Cup qualifier in 2005, the U.S. national team was at an impasse with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Not willing to forfeit a game and risk all sorts of Armageddon, U.S. Soccer called in a replacement team. When the labor dispute was resolved and the regular players came back into camp, Simms was asked to stick around. He signed with D.C. United shortly thereafter.
"I don't know if I would've been here if it wasn't for that strike," Simms says.
He says the regular players never begrudged his decision to come into camp as a replacement.
"The guys were great," Simms says. "All you need is that opportunity, and they understood that."
U.S. soccer pundits often wonder if there's a Lionel Messi lurking somewhere on an American street. That's a worthwhile search. But more likely is that there's another Clyde Simms or Wells Thompson lurking in high school, waiting for that opportunity.
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