A Few Thoughts on High School and College Soccer

A couple weeks back, the US Soccer Development Academy announced that it would officially switch to the 10-month schedule practiced and recognized by most of the FIFA world for the 2012-2013 season.  This would effectively make the DA a replacement for high school soccer as the switch blocks players from competing in scholastic leagues.  American youth soccer fanatics with internet access have long been haranguing the detriments of the high school system: limited practice each day, multiple games in a week, three month schedule in large swaths of the country, the physicality of play, the lack of proper officiating, uneven application across leagues and states, and the lack of concentrated possession based development in the face of huge gaps in quality between teams.  These bloggers and (let’s call them) “soccer activists” have been making noise telling youth players to skip the high school route for a while now, but until very recently there was no viable alternative.

For the current season the US Soccer Development Academy League (formed in 2009) has 78 participating clubs spread geographically through 10 divisions.  You can see the map and national clustering on the East Coast, in California, and in Texas here.  From US Soccer’s page on the DA program, “The Academy’s programming philosophy of increased training, less total games and more competitive games is based on U.S. Soccer’s Best Practices utilized by the U-17 U.S. National Team Residency program.”  This directly addresses several of the most pressing concerns observers have had about high school soccer.

Today the internet is ablaze with people similarly lambasting the college soccer system, myself included.  But what the general public might not fully understand is that there is not currently an adequate system to accommodate the thousands of NCAA players.  The Development Academy league has grown tremendously since its founding, but only provides access for players up to age 18.  After a player reaches the traditional high school graduation age, what are his options?

Firstly, if the player is a tremendous youth talent such as New England’s Diego Fagundez, he can sign a Homegrown Player deal with MLS.  Secondly, if a player didn’t play with an MLS affiliated youth club like Josh Gatt, he can test his luck in Europe.  For the remaining 99% of American youth players, there aren’t very many other options.  The current system highly favors the collegiate route and there aren’t any competitive leagues that run concurrent with the short NCAA season to offer viable alternatives.

There are however, a series of supplements built around the college process.  Summer leagues like USL’s Premier Development League (PDL) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) are both national amateur leagues that allow college aged players to play in a competitive atmosphere without losing NCAA eligibility.

But clearly there are more athletes involved in the three divisions of NCAA soccer than there are in the PDL and NPSL, which speaks to the fact that there are large numbers of college players who aren’t interested testing the national amateur or semi-professional waters and who probably aren’t looking to make a career out of playing soccer.

There is a very considerable gap between the high school aged Development Academy and the level of play in the MLS Reserve League.  MLS academies send a number of players (anywhere from five to fifteen) off to college each year while retaining their Homegrown Player tags on these prospects.  MLS clubs allow a few slots on their roster in reserve fixtures for “guest players” who are not under contract with the club, but this opportunity can only be extended to a few NCAA players and is usually reserved to senior players the first team is considering signing. Even with the expanded 30-man MLS roster, any given year there are hundreds of college-aged players competing for very few roster spots.

American lower division clubs offer an opportunity to bridge the gap.  United Soccer Leagues (USL) and North American Soccer League (NASL) organizations don’t have training facilities that offer the same development possibilities as MLS clubs, but can provide a level of play that can more adequately stimulate player growth.  We have recently seen US youth international Gale Agbossoumonde sign with the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL for the 2012 season.  Many players who get drafted out of college but don’t impress the coaches enough to earn an MLS contract (like J.C. Banks who was drafted by Toronto FC but released before the start of the season) end up in the lower divisions.  Young MLS players who went through the draft process and hung around the bench or reserve team without improving quick enough to justify through roster spot (like Conor Chinn who was drafted by New York) also wind up in the American lower divisions.  USL or NASL is an option for players who have completed the NCAA system and can’t make it in MLS, but because the scheduling of these leagues is concentrated during the summer this avenue is not a replacement for college soccer.

College soccer is quite clearly not perfect for developing MLS-ready players.  PDL and NPSL are doing their part by offering relatively high quality of play during the summer and putting college aged players in a shop window for USL, NASL, and MLS clubs.  Unfortunately, however, until a comprehensive u21 or u23 program pops up in the United States, similar in structure to the Development Academy, the NCAA is the best available route for young players.  While people on the internet are running around with their heads cut off, yelling about the abomination that is college soccer (its clock counts down!), MLS clubs are learning to work within the existing system by joining the NPSL (Red Bulls, Chicago) or the PDL (Portland, Vancouver, Seattle) and allowing the NCAA to spend its own resources to develop MLS youth prospects.

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4 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on High School and College Soccer

  1. Pingback: Surveying the Soccer Scene: Some More Thoughts on College Aged Players | Doherty Soccer

  2. Very good points – couldn’t agree more.
    When a system tries to go it alone, as the US Collegiate system always has — with its narrow focus and low priority status at large universities — it’s no surprise that countries with far smaller pools of talent produce better and more technical players at U-21 level.
    As for counting the clock down instead of following the laws of the game and counting it up like the rest of the world – nothing better epitomizes American isolationism. Coaches get it – if their team is one up, they will tell their players to go down (clutching an imaginary injury) and stay down in the last ten minutes of a game. The clock continues to count down. What can the other team do about it? The problem for Americans is that their college system has other sports as reference points. It’s not basketball or ice hockey; let’s play the World game.

    • Thanks for reading, man.

      Basketball and football are very profitable for the NCAA, like crazy profitable, and they each have their own evolving role as the step between high school and the professional leagues. Ice hockey is interesting because more than any other major sport it needs the collegiate system. A lot of hockey players in college are actually 22 or even 24 because they go to junior college for a bit first before going to a four-year school. Some players are drafted by NHL teams years before they ever turn pro and they play in junior leagues or finish college first.

      Soccer is just a different sport. We can’t continue to be a country of late bloomers. It’s great that Clint Dempsey was able to achieve his high school yearbook goal of playing soccer professionally, but what if there was an affordable academy style program closer to where he lived. Or a player like Brad Davis, who has been tearing up MLS for a few years now, will never get a shot at the national team because he developed late and there isn’t any potential for a future career with the nats.

      We need young and developing players to get the ball on their foot more often so we can have world class players at age 20 and 21, instead of 25 or 29. But I think that the Development Academy and the new u13/14 age division will go a long way towards that goal.

  3. I absolutely agree with your comments. as a soccer coach, I am involved both in the NPSL (with a top team) and with a NCAA Div 3 with another very good squad.

    A few years ago, I moved back to Europe and one of the reasons was I was very upset with the US isolationism as you call it. The fact the game is called “soccer” here rather than football, even though its rules, the Laws of the Game, were formally written in 1863 nine years before the rules of “American Football”, is but a little sample of how many Americans have tried to “improve” the game of football—With poor results.

    It is true that the game has progressed enormously in the past few years: I noticed much better players, tactics, refereeing and parents’ behaviour than back in 2006, when I went back home. It is my personal opinion that the game has improved “even though” and not “thanks to” many people around it.

    I will not claim every coach and administrator is bad or detrimental to the game; on the contrary. I will not pretend I know how the game goes all around the US, because my coaching experience has brought me mainly around the East Coast and the Mid West. But my personal experience as a High School Assistant & GK Coach in both the boys and girls programs, a few years ago, left me very disappointed. The coaching was poor in many if not most cases; the parents were pressing hard for their children’s playing time; and the rules….Well, the rules. Why not adopting the same rules as everywhere else in the world? Do some people, many who never played the game at the professional level, really believe they can improve what the experts in the rest of the world do?

    As anecdotical evidence, I remember having this conversation with an adult about my age about how many Americans changed the rules of soccer. I came up with an example. “Imagine”, I said, “that me, from a country where almost no one plays baseball (Italy), try to teach you, an American, how to play baseball better than you do. How would you react?”. He answered, “I’d laugh”. Then, I added, “That’s exactly how I, and many other European coaches feel when people without experience and qualifications try to teach us how to improve soccer”.

    Really, some people have not perspective. Not long ago, a “soccer mom” told me “Even if I never played soccer, I’ve been around enough club and high school games to understand soccer”. Really? Shame that, besides having played up to a semiprofessional level and in general for most of my life since I was old enough to kick a ball, I spent money in coaching education.

    Last season, I had the (bad) surprise to discover that, even though the level of playing had improved drammaticaly, I’d dare to say, in this part of the country, the NCAA for instance has taken one step back, using now the high school rules rather than the rules of the professional game.

    Another thing that annoys me quite a lot, is the substitution system. This is also related to the fact that soccer is still (if we do not included the Latino Leagues), a middle to high class business, contrary, once more, to what happens in most other countries. The equation is quite simple: every kid pays to play, therefore he or she has the right to play, not the duty to do his/her best to be part of the team. Thus, good and bad players share a similar amount of time, albeit a few exceptions here and there. Now, I’m not saying a 10 years old has to be in the bench for the whole match: I’m referring to 16s and older youth players. Even at the college level, I wouldn’t allow more than three definitive substitutions per match. In this case, as it happens in the most soccer developed countries in the world, even the coaching during the game reachs higher level: as a coach, if you messed up your starting XI, and if you do the wrong substitutions, you pay the price. I’ve seen private college coaches, with excess of good players thanks to their excess of money, doing lots of substitutions just to keep everybody fresh and happy. Tactics? Strategy? The player reading the game? No way.

    During my MSc in Psychology of Sport & Exercise, I read a very good paper which title, If I remember correctly, is “We thought the whole world was watching, but they weren’t: the superbowl, another American solipsism”. In it, the authors (Americans) discuss how many people in this country live their lives believing and acting like the US were the “world”. This, unfortunately happened with soccer, but the tendency now is reverting, I think; thanks to the some very good coaches born in the US and others with deep roots here. And thank you to the young players, the lads and gals who went along with excellent, good and poor coaching, learning their lessons as they grew up. it is very refreshing, for me, that young players now think almost exactly as I did a few years ago as a coach.

    I would, if I could, change the following:

    Apply the Laws of the Game, including the substitutions, for every match from U16 (maybe U15?) and older. I think this, and a reduction of costs, will cause more Latino players to join the mainstream leagues at least here in the Mid West, also reducing the distances (more local good level teams, less distances to travel.

    Stop the idea that a coach starts with the youngest players and as he improves he coaches older players. This has a negative effect in the players development, because the “coach” or parent, in many cases not only cannot teach the technical skills, but there’s a tendency to overcoach. In many cases, with younger players, the best is to organise a couple of games, then small side matches, checking every player is safe, has plenty of fluids, and lots of fun!

    Organise a simpler system of substitution for younger players. In Italy, for instance, the rules for the U11s are: the duration of the match is three periods of twenty minutes each. A player cannot be subbed during the first period, unless is injured or sick. All players who have not taken part in the first twenty-minute period must paly the whole second period, and cannot be substituted unless injured or sick. During the final twenty minutes third, any player can be substituted.

    In sum, rather than looking inside their brains, the powers to be that control the leagues across the US should look at the countries that produce the best footballers: Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, the Nehterlands, France, and follow their examples.

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