The knock-out stage of the 2018 World Cup started today, and boy was it a cracker of a match, with France downing Argentina by the score of 4-3. While the eyes of the world are upon Russia, fans of the United States Men’s National Team, U.S. soccer in general, or NCAA collegiate soccer are at a crossroads.
After the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, many U.S. pundits, former players, and candidates for the then-vacant position of President of U.S. Soccer (now filled by Carlos Cordeiro), chimed in on what was “wrong” with the state of soccer in the United States.
One of the perceiving shortcomings was the U.S. structure of bringing players through the college system. The criticism, so the argument goes, was that players were losing some of the critical, 18-21 development years, languishing in the college ranks.
On the other hand, countries more established in the soccer hierarchy, were developing these players in clubs during the years such players would otherwise be at university.
Kylian Mbappe, who just scored two goals in France’s 4-3 victory a few hours ago, is 19 and ½ years of age. He’ll be 20 in December. If he were born in the U.S., would he be playing for an internationally renowned club (he currently plays for Paris San Germain)? Or would he be getting ready to play in his junior year at oh, I don’t know, . . . Stanford or Virginia?
This tension has manifested itself in a new way, as described in great detail by Tisha Thompson in her recent E:60 article on ESPN. I highly recommend reading the entire article, but I’ll highlight the intriguing parts for me as a fan of soccer in general as well as the college game.
As youth players come through the U.S. system, one of the possible goals is playing collegiate soccer. Professional soccer may also be an option. In the past, a significant portion of the best players (especially women but a lot of the men too) would opt for at least a season or two of college soccer.
Today, however, international clubs are attempting to harvest the U.S. market at an earlier age. The United States’ domestic league, MLS, is similarly seeking young, home-grown talent.
As such, potential college recruits are being wooed away from college soccer. Soccer, for the most part is a yearly pursuit and requires fitness at all times. Although sometimes two games are played within a week, it is preferable to played one per week, to prevent injury. This is how most of the major professional leagues are run worldwide, with this season lasting August to May, with some leagues taking a winter break.
This is where these pro clubs use the college system against it. “Why would you go play a condensed 25 game schedule in college over 12 weeks in the Fall, risking injury due fatigue and lack of rest, only to have a spring with zero competitive games and infrequent training? You could get hurt in the fall, due to overuse, or you could get hurt in the spring, due to not being match fit. Instead, take some money to play professionally, but you are only playing 45 games from August to May, you are always fit, and you have a lesser chance of injury.” Sounds like a damn good argument to me.
And the college game in the U.S. is losing a lot of players because of this argument.
To be able to compete with development of players in the lower divisions of the professional ranks, many college coaches believe that the NCAA should make soccer, both men’s and women’s, a year-round schedule. Better fitness year-round. Less chance of injury. Constantly honing skills in game situations. Not only that, teams wouldn’t be playing for the NCAA Championship in frigid December (NOT soccer weather) but instead during the warmth of May. Oh, also change the clock rules (no time counting down instead of us and please do away stopping the clock for injury) to comport with the international game.
This change would effectively eliminate the “negative recruiting” by the professional clubs. Remember, every player who buys this sales pitch and signs a deal does not go on to be the next Christian Pulisic or Mallory Pugh. Many of them do not pan out and do not have an education upon which to fall back.
It seems like an open-and-shut case right? Extend the season, make it year-long, and make it less condensed. Less injuries. Less competition from the pros. Everybody involved in NCAA soccer benefits, right? Wrong. Some universities and coaches think “tradition” and “fear of change” are more important than the well-being and health not only of the players themselves, but of the viability of the soccer in college. “That’s how it has always been,” they say. But the world of soccer, especially the world of soccer in the United States, is changing. The NCAA either has to evolve or be left behind. Right now it is burying it’s head in the sand.
I am just scratching the surface on this topic. If this interests you, I implore you to read Tisha Thompson’s piece on ESPN.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the knock-out stages of the World Cup.
Oh . . . and UCLA soccer is less than two months away. :)