College Soccer: Caught in No Man’s Land

by JDCam 07.13.15

With football in the United States hitting its zenith in popularity in recent years the debate surrounding the relevance of college football has continued to intensify. While MLS continues to grow its brand and star power, the debate occupying the national scene is focused on how the United States will increase its international success and strengthen its domestic league in the face of the financial and competitive obstacles raised by a saturated US sports scene and the pinnacle of footballing competition continuing to be grounded in European leagues.

Before taking a look at some fundamental flaws of the college system in the United States, let’s start with a little context. The success of the USMNT at the 2014 World Cup has continued to spark interest in an ever-expanding MLS. Currently, Major League Soccer is competing to be the third most attended sport in the United States (behind NFL and MLB), in spite of having clubs whose home stadiums barely meet the league average in attendance. Here are some eye-popping attendance numbers indicative of just how mainstream MLS has become:

MLS: 16,675/game (2010 season)
NHL: 16,985/game (2009-2010 season)
NBA: 17,149/game (2009-2010 season)

The MLS has been unfairly criticized as a feeder league for higher level European competition. While many talented US players play overseas, it could be argued that all European leagues are feeder patterns for the EPL, La Liga and Bundesliga; the only difference being the geographical distance of the United States from Europe, which simply exaggerates the effect.

Few would argue that MLS struggles to attract and sustain the most elite footballing talent. Many however, go too far in their criticism that high profile designated player signings are akin to cushy part-time retirement jobs for the likes of Villa, Kaka and Lampard. Call it what you will, having players of that caliber playing throughout the United States is a huge draw, even if they are not at their prime, and remains a reality that MLS couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago.

Still the circular argument asks the question; what will it take for the USMNT to ‘break through’ at the World Cup? Aside from a slightly unrealistic level of expectation, this question needs to be re-framed. What people are really asking is; how and when is the United States going to produce mega-stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? (Neither of whom incidentally, has won the World Cup).

This brings us to the college game in the United States. NCAA football is perhaps the most chronically under-resourced men’s sport played at the collegiate level. There are simply not enough scholarships available to maintain a consistently elite level of competition (under 10 per D1 school for the men’s game compared to almost 15 per D1 school in the women’s game). While many have criticized the rules of the college games (greater amount of substitutions) as promoting a more physical game I don’t see that as a problem. Rather, shortened playing time combined with all too brief seasons does not set players up for the rigors of a full European season, or even the MLS workload.

Typically, players who make it to the level of the USMNT have had some college experience. Most who played a full-slate of four years however, are fringe players and several more relevant players at the national level did not play in college at all (Howard, Bradley, Altidore etc.). The missing link in the US evolutionary football chain is a full financial commitment to the academy system that has served European football so well.

The MLS may never attract the biggest names from world soccer at the peak of their playing prowess. Instead, the US system needs to commit itself to player academies. Take the example of EPL club Southampton, a team in the brink of liquidation in 2010. Beginning with Theo Walcott, and continuing with players like Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, and Rickie Lambert, the Saints investment in their youth programming has produced a steady stream of talent that has propelled them back to EPL significance and, through transfer fees, given them long-term financial viability.

Looking at the English national team continues to highlight the success of academy raised players. Despite the fact that the Three Lions are in a transitional period, their dedication to fostering home grown talent will pay dividends long term. If MLS clubs can channel their increasing financial clout into academies that identify and nurture talent from a younger age with a degree of player protection (so the uber-talented cannot be poached by European leagues), the quality of the men’s game in the US can continue to grow. If the MLS continues to be a feeder league to its more prestigious European cousins, at least protect the financial stability of the domestic game in doing so. College offers excellent opportunities to would be student athletes, but the next world super-talent will not be playing at a D1 school near you anytime soon.