Even within the last few days, I’ve mentioned how college soccer isn’t a relevant pipeline to the United States Men’s National Team, so the title of this post certainly comes across as hypocritical. However, I think the issue is that it should, but structurally some things need to change to make that happen.
This isn’t how other countries do it
The United States doesn’t have the footballing history of the European or South American giants, who don’t have an NCAA-like athletic atmosphere. Thus, the reasoning goes, we’re somehow doing something wrong by even having college soccer, and somehow that’s the reason why our nation seems to have trouble developing talent in the same ways that nations with more history do.
I call bullshit.
Each country has its own culture – sporting and otherwise – and that should contribute to the character of the national team. The United States has a system of college athletics (whether the wannabe copycats like it or not), and that should be an important piece of the fabric of what our team is. Like South American nations have kids playing in the street and joga bonito, like the Germans have their famed academies that ultimately lead into the machine-like Die Mannschaft national team, so too should American culture be an important piece of our national team being what it is.
Having college football and college basketball hasn’t prevented our athletes in those sports being among the most accomplished in the world, and nor should that be the case on the soccer field.
An attitude of “we have to do it the way other countries do in order to be successful” (looking at you, pro-rel zealots) is one of the huge problems with soccer culture in our country.
So how should college soccer help the national teams?
First and foremost, let’s not kid ourselves: college soccer is not for everyone. Christian Pulisic’s development if he had gone to, say, Penn State would have been greatly diminished than having headed to Dortmund at age 16 (something his Players’ Tribune letter mentions being a path unavailable to most young Americans, to be fair).
However – and this is true of essentially every aspect of the NCAA, unfortunately, and why the governing body of college athletics is due for major reform – there is a strong need for the NCAA to stop viewing itself as adversarial to professional athletics. That’s not to say paying college players should be allowed (though it’s something I increasingly believe, it’s not germane to this conversation), but rather seeing oneself as a path to the pros. The concept of “most of us go pro in something other than sports” will probably always be true, and perhaps it is indeed something to be proud of. That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to be ashamed when players outside of football, basketball, and hockey (and to a certain extent baseball) do have the talent and desire to go pro in sports, or to have an adversarial relationship or attitude toward professional athletics.
College coaches as assets to US Soccer
There are very few kids who make it to college without being recognized as potential national team prospects… who then blossom at least enough to be viable members of the player pool. It does happen, however, and with a stronger relationship between the national federation and the coaches of the NCAA, there can be mutual benefit to helping unearth some of these players and give them recommendation for national team (or youth national team) consideration.
College coaches also form an enormous pool of scouts. They have to recruit their talent from the high school ranks, and – as is the case in many sports – begin their scouting and evaluation process at a much younger age. Recruiting and evaluating are a lifeblood of college programs in any sport, and these guys are experienced at it. A Stronger relationship between college coaches and the under-staffed, over-worked US Soccer scouting personnel helps both parties (though US Soccer would likely need to incentivized the college coaches, since a prospect’s increased profile by being on the national radar would make for a tougher recruiting job for that coach).
College coaches are also a large pool of developers of talent. That’s certainly true of the 17-22 players on their teams, but through summer camps, their scouting process, and more, they also work with younger players (part of what ties into the above), and US Soccer needs to recognize that this is an asset and take advantage of it. A dearth of high-quality coaches is one of the problems with development in our country, and having hundreds of full-time coaches – albeit whose pupils are mostly at an age beyond the initial development stage where prospects are recognized for national team or professional opportunities – helps in a major way. The more people who can make a career out of coaching without being members of the pay-to-play system, the better. US Soccer needs to support these coaches as developers.
This is something that D-1 men’s coaches have already advocated for: changing the NCAA season. The concept is to change from a Fall-only schedule to a less condensed Fall and Spring format, with an extended Winter break. I couldn’t be more strongly in favor of this as a way to improve college soccer (at least at the D-1 men’s level), to improve student-athlete welfare, and to make college soccer both more popular and more effective as a developmental tool for the national team and professional leagues.
Pushing the start of the season back just a bit allows for better academic acclimation while making for less missed time with PDL teams over the Summer, and playing fewer games in the Fall (over approximately the same amount of calendar time) reduces injury, missed class time, and more. Take a break from competition between mid-November and March – I would also advocate for some trophy games and tournaments at the end of the Fall season – and have another couple months, including conference and NCAA Tournaments, wrapping up around May – my primary adjustment to the coaches’ proposal – for players to rejoin their PDL squads.
Extending the season while only adding a few more competition dates allows the coaches to be focused on developing skills, rather than simply getting ready to play the next game, and allows the players to develop with a greater proportion of practice time to competition time (while also allowing them to get skill development year-round when you take into account the PDL season). On top of it all, the stress on the academic side of things would actually be reduced.