Every year, the critics of Division I men's college soccer circle and swoop, citing the short schedule, limited budgets and liberal substitution rules as impossible impediments to attaining a professional career.
I always think, "Why don't they throw in such distractions as attending classes, studying for exams, and graduating as well, or for that matter, living in apartment complexes with roommates and swimming pools and women and other unnecessary diversions?"
Some players, such as ex-Virginia Tech and current Chicago forward Patrick Nyarko, actually finish up their classwork before reporting to their MLS teams. Does this set back their professional development somewhat? Yes. Next question.
Nyarko did leave school a year early and can get back to his studies if and when he wishes, which in the case of a serious injury or a pro career that doesn't pan out might be an invaluable opportunity.
College life is about life, not just sports. It's about self-criticism and responsibility and dedication and being on your own much of the time, all of which pertain to success in any profession, not just professional sports.
I'm reminded of this every time, and it happens plenty of times, a college product like Chris Rolfe steps up and outshines a star-studded opponent. Landon Donovan, Bruce Arena, David Beckhamand the glamorous Galaxy entourage were on hand Thursday night at Toyota Park, and all the undersized (5-foot-8, 145 pounds) and underappreciated (third-round pick, No. 29) kid from the University of Dayton did was score two goals. The battle of Beckham vs. Cuauhtemoc Blanco generated most of the pre-game hype, yet the clean feet and quick mind of Rolfe decided the match, 3-1 to the Fire.
Since being drafted in 2005, he's scored 27 goals in 91 regular-season games. Not a brilliant strike rate, by any means, but not bad.
I'm also reminded of the college connection when Bakary Soumare, from Mali by way of New York and UVa, and Gonzalo Segares (Costa Rica/Virginia Commonwealth) excel in the Fire back line. (Nyarko was born in Ghana.)
Heck, the man himself, Ryan Nelsen, the Kiwi captain of Blackburn the past few seasons, years ago stated flat-out that playing for Stanford helped him acclimate to America and attract notice from MLS, which readied him for the Premier League.
Several weeks ago, the day before D.C. United lost to San Jose, head coach Tom Soehnand assistants Mark Simpson and Chad Ashtonwere on hand in Berkeley to watch SMU play California. No future Ryan Nelsens stood out but the coaches know their observations of this game and many others will be valuable come next January at the MLS SuperDraft. Otherwise why bother?
Could Clint Dempsey have jumped straight out of East Texas to the EPL? Maybe, but just as likely, the maturation process he experienced with New England needed a kick-start at Furman, which during his stint was roiled by a tragic car crash that killed teammate Gray Griffin and injured three other teammates.
That's an extreme case of hardship, and not an experience anyone would want. Yet the college game, and the environment, is ideally suited for some players, be they native-born of foreign. There's pressure to improve and get results, yes, but it's nothing like a harsher, tougher pro environment in which other players will flourish. And balancing college life with playing soccer for a few years is hardly a bad way to live.
MLS is nearing a crossroads with its player development programs, as teams comply with the mandate to field U-15/16 and U-17/18 teams. Discussions are underway to revamp the reserve league or drop it in favor of something else, perhaps a competitive schedule against USL-1 and USL-2 teams. It entices players to leave college early, but rarely offers anybody but the first-round draft picks a reasonable salary. This needs to be addressed; players shouldn't be punished for sticking to their college commitment. Perhaps MLS needs another player designation that receives roster protection, that of a four-year college player who deserves to earn more than a high school dropout who can kick a ball.
Rolfe faces a regular battle to keep his place in the lineup and one of his rivals will be Nyarko, who reported to the team in June and suffered an MCL sprain in August that has sidelined him. By drafting well, teams like the Fire can fill out the roster with affordable talent and also increase competition for spots throughout the lineup. Maybe the superstars can relax a bit in training, knowing their place in the lineup is secure, but no one else can.
No matter where MLS coaches are tonight, they or somebody on their staff will be watching when Maryland plays Wake Forest, for on the field are sure to be players who can be useful in MLS. The list of players those schools have sent to the pros, and specifically MLS, is far too long to enumerate, but the Revs alone count Taylor Twellman (Terps) and Michael Parkhurst, Wells Thompson and Pat Phelan (Deacs). Any questions?
When Rolfe came out of the match with six minutes to play, Stephen King replaced him. A year ago, King was playing for Maryland. This year, in 17 games he's scored two goals, and much of the time has looked the part of a capable pro, not a runty rookie.
Until that pipeline runs dry, carping about the colleges should cease.