Why college soccer isn't going away as a path to MLS
Supporters of professional soccer have a long history of beating up the college game. It’s too fast and too physical; the season is too short, and it doesn’t even abide by all the international laws of the game. Fair enough.
But people who think college soccer and the college draft is completely outdated as an MLS feeder aren't paying attention.
The college game remains relevant for a number of reasons – some perhaps less obvious than others. Let’s start with the obvious:
We can probably all agree that college soccer remains viable as a way for young men and women who love the game to keep playing at a high level past high school, even if they aren’t on the fast track to a professional contract.
Beyond that, it remains a valuable mechanism for stocking MLS rosters. Yes, it has become less impactful, diminished by other personnel acquisition tools, especially the ongoing initiative to develop and sign more Homegrown Players. Still, teams continue to benefit from the draft.
The league’s best defenses right now, at Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas, were built around the draft. Those teams’ starting center backs, Matt Besler, Ike Opara, Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman, were all stars in college who entered the league through the draft.
While it’s true that all four were selected between 2009 and 2013, in a period of far fewer homegrown signings and before other helpful roster-building tools, like General Allocation Money (GAM) and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), teams continue to reap draft-day rewards. Best case in point: 2015 No. 1 pick Cyle Larin.
Orlando City’s outstanding striker has been everything anyone could have hoped for, scoring 38 goals in 72 appearances. His potential sale would bring a windfall for the league and the Lions, whether that happens now or later. Khiry Shelton, Fatai Alashe, Matt Polster, Tim Parker, Axel Sjoberg were all selected shortly after Larin and are all now regular MLS contributors.
A year later, Jack Harrison, Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Brandon Vincent were the first four selected; it’s hard to look at any of those guys and not like what you see. The draft’s impact on MLS rosters may continue to decline, but those names and a scattering of others demonstrate its ongoing relevance.
But there is something else we rarely talk about with college soccer (and by extension, the draft), an element that makes it preferable to the homegrown route in some ways:
If a 21 or 22-year old homegrown signing washes out – and that certainly happens – he probably doesn't have much more than a small savings to fall back on. A college draft pick who doesn't stick around in the professional game may have a college degree (or be closer to it, at least). From a human being standpoint, it's a necessary option. We just rarely get around to talking about that because we focus so intensely on player development.
At some point, we all are invested in the people development business, so we should never wander too far from that critical watchtower.
Many of us grew up around British soccer. Tutored by coaches from England, Scotland or Ireland while studiously watching the Premier League, the game from the British Isles set our standards. So it’s interesting to see more players there eschewing the old models of player development and growth, choosing the American college route instead. This story from the Telegraph says a growing number of “released British academy players are rejecting a life in the lower leagues for a shot in MLS via college soccer. Players such as Sporting KC’s Dom Dwyer and Real Salt Lake’s Luke Mulholland serve as inspiration to an ambitious generation with an American dream.”
In other words, more 18- or 19-year-old English prospects are choosing an American college education. If they keep developing physically, tactically, emotionally and in level of skill – and let’s face it, some young men and women develop later than others – they may find themselves on an MLS roster via the draft.
NBC Sports commentator Robbie Earle once talked to me about the value of the college system as opposed to the system from which he graduated, in England, with those limited options for players who fall short professionally. This was back when his son, Otis Earle, was drafted by FC Dallas in 2015.
The younger Earle didn’t make it in MLS, released after one year by FCD. He doesn’t have a professional soccer career, but he does have a degree from the University of California Riverside.
College soccer isn’t necessarily a better option for promising players, but it certainly is a different one – one that has its merits.