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College soccer must change mindset

College Soccer: The Solution
College Soccer: The Solution
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The strides made are long and the advancement vast. Major League Soccer’s academies are fast improving and expanding, with budgets ballooning. Reserve teams have been reintroduced and their schedules beefed up to facilitate the tricky climb from the academy to the first team.

Yet for all that progress, there are still only 19 MLS teams. There should be 24 by 2020, all eventually with their own academies. Some teams even own the recruitment rights to several states other than their own and can open remote academies as well -- Real Salt Lake, for instance, has a facility in Arizona. But even so, it’s hard to foresee there being an academy in every state, or the league even getting close to it. Which means MLS will simply never cover the entire map.

The US Soccer Development Academy will soon expand to 100 clubs -- including MLS academies -- in the under-14, under-16 and under-18 divisions which operate according to a tightly regulated set of prescribed best practices. But those clubs offer no bridge to the pro game, the way MLS academies can via the homegrown contract. The solution, then, is often the very route the academy system was designed to avoid. College soccer remains an unavoidable way station for a slew of young players on the road to professional soccer.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. College soccer still has many things to offer. There are some good coaches there, and the facilities are the envy of plenty of pro teams. But it has to better equip itself to help ready future professionals -- perhaps suspending the silly pretense that this isn’t the point of elite college sports.

There are issues to address, chief of which is the dearth of quality repetitions. "The down time in college is too much," says US under-20 national team head coach Tab Ramos. "Certainly, there are programs which are doing things right and I think players get a lot out of those programs -- training, playing, the environment itself, scouting, all of those things are in line with a professional environment.

"I think what happens is they just don’t get that for long enough," says Ramos. "You get it for that quick period of time and then you go December through February and it’s inevitably a down time, there’s nothing you can do. That’s just the way the system is set up and I think for a 19 or 20 year old to be not in a competitive environment for three months in the middle of the year and then for three more months in the summertime, it makes it really difficult. I just think it’s not the best scenario."

During the short fall season, when all the necessary elements for proper development are present, the chronic shortage of quality opponents remains problematic. "Even if you go to a very good soccer school that has a good environment,” says Ramos, “most of the games are not that competitive.”

A better synergy with the professional game could offer a solution. Many MLS academy products are simply not ready for a professional contract and opt to go to college instead. But once he gets there, he can still practice with the club but he can no longer play in his MLS club’s reserve team games. During his college’s summer break he can only play for the under-18s, if he’s still eligible, or the amateur under-23 Premier Development League (PDL) team.

"The thing that troubles me most is that these players, they come and they train with us and we organize some games but they can’t play with the pros," says New York Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh. “That’s always been something that’s a little bit of a handicap from my point of view."

If the college soccer spring season of a mere half-dozen games were expanded -- teams currently can’t fly to away games then, either -- and MLS-affiliated college players were allowed to play in the MLS Reserve League during their off-seasons -- on an amateur basis, of course -- it would solve a great many problems. But both of those measures would entail significant rule-changes from the notoriously intransigent NCAA.

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An even bigger rule change would be required to improve the brand of soccer itself. College soccer has few limits on substitutions and allows for the re-entry of players, changing the rhythm of the game entirely. What’s most objectionable is the negative soccer it enables. Chasing the ball is more tiring than keeping it. With an endless supply of subs, you can sit in and chase the ball forever. And many teams do. Consequently, while American soccer is moving towards zippy, possession-oriented soccer, college soccer remains the stubborn holdout, clinging to its “Route 1” roots -- a few programs notably excepted.

"The whole substitution rule makes it difficult to prepare players the right way," says Ramos. "Normally in 90 minutes there’s many things that happen in games and many things that a coach can’t do anything about and that the players have to adjust to and when you’re in an environment of constant substitution, it makes it a different game. And that certainly hurts the player."

University of Connecticut head coach Ray Reid has been a staunch advocate of the rule change but claims to be well outnumbered by his opponents. "My colleagues don’t want to do it because they’re barbaric," he says. "But they need to change the substitution rule. The under-14s and under-16s and under-18s are playing controlled subs now. We’re idiots. We can have a vital piece in that [developmental] wheel if we change the substitutions rule," Reid says. "There’s a definite place [for college soccer.]"

Reid believes the future of college soccer could hang in the balance, as its quirks might cause it to be bounced entirely from the development system. "If the college coaches don’t wake up, they’re going to miss the bus," says Reid. "And you know what? Their egos are so big, they don’t believe it. One guy said a few times, 'How about adapting the world to our game? Why do we have to change?' And this guy is a high-profile coach. They say, 'Ray, we don’t want to hear about the subs.’ I’m like a leper. But college coaches had better wake up. Or 10 years from now you’ll see no American talent here.”

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in FOXSoccer.com’s four-part series on the future of college soccer: No. 1 | No. 2 | No. 3 | No. 4

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