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Getting it right with college products
by Ridge Mahoney, April 13th, 2009 7PM
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Why is it that so often slew of pundits and experts decry the shallow pool of talent available in the MLS SuperDraft and express astonishment during the season at how well those players selected have performed?

There are myriad reasons, but foremost among them is that a coach looks for untapped potential as much as poise and polish, for what a player can be, whereas fans and reporters and others tend to look at what's on display straight-up.

Claims from MLS coaches that the available pool of players for 2009 would offer teams plenty of options to improve their rosters fell on many deaf ears, so ignorance surely plays a role. And, of course, after the SuperDraft just about coach claims he hit the lottery, so those post-draft proclamations have to be discounted as well.

Scanning the lineups this season one runs across quite a few domestic newcomers popping up. Whether the class of 2009 turns out to be a bumper crop remains to be seen, but early indications are extremely positive. The prospect of playing pro soccer, be it in MLS or abroad, and a reduction of roster spots from 28 to 24 -- along with stricter economic conditions -- seems to be driving a higher level of competence at both ends. More teams are finding better players.

Plucking players from the top college programs, such as Wake Forest, Indiana and Maryland, hardly takes the acumen of an 'A' coaching license. But more than a few pro coaches have told me they also look for players on less-successful teams in competitive conferences. Many of them are required to perform multiple tasks for their college teams, whereas in demanding yet simplified roles with a pro club their strengths can be maximized.

Still, of course, they must sharpen their touches and skills and instincts, and adjust to faster, rougher, more physical play. But a good college player can also be a good pro, while not every college superstar will excel or even make the grade. And it can take much longer for a talented trickster like Mehdi Ballouchy to find his feet in MLS, whereas a solid defender like Darrius Barnes (Duke/New England) or heady midfielder like Sam Cronin (Wake Forest/Toronto FC) can step right in and get the job done.

Barnes and Cronin squared off a few times in the ACC. Wake is among the top teams in the country, yet Duke has sent Barnes and Michael Videira (via Scotland) to the Revs, and Mike Grella to Europe in the past two years. Coaches look for players who can tough it out and produce against the best teams.

With or without No. 1 pick Steve Zakuani, the University of Akron isn't likely to reach the final four. Yet the rookie has drawn upon his English upbringing and college success to play a role in Seattle's impressive start.

It wouldn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that an attack-heavy lineup of Dwayne De Rosario, Amado Guevera and Rohan Ricketts would take an extra dose of stabilizing in addition to that provided by TFC veteran Carl Robinson. Yet Cronin has done enough playing wide as well as in the middle to further complicate the selection decisions for Coach John Carver.

And in the nets, where rookies rarely excel, Stefan Frei - a product of a good but hardly famous program at UC Berkeley -- is in a neck-and-neck battle with Canadian international Greg Sutton for the starting job. Frei's development has been accelerated by his time with U.S. national youth teams, yet attacker Chris Pontius (UC Santa Barbara) has gone straight into the starting lineup at D.C. United without any such experience.

The final piece of the domestic development puzzle is how many creative slots are filled not by international players but by homegrown products like Pontius and Ballouchy, who is now with Colorado. As the league expands, teams will have greater incentive to offer players like Grella more competitive contracts, and find hidden gems such as Pontius, guys who can, as the coaches like to say, "change the game."

Critics of the college game lament its overall quality and how it stifles a player's development, and no doubt a short season and rudimentary level of play aren't ideal training grounds for potential pros. Yet just as vital is how efficiently MLS teams scout and evaluate and draft to get what they need, and if the class of 2009 turns out not to be an exception but instead what teams and coaches and fans -- and even pundits -- can expect every year, the league will have taken another critical step in its development.


  1. Harmon Barnard
    commented on: April 13, 2009 at 7:38 p.m.
    Ridge It looks like you and Paul Gardner don't agree on the subject of college soccer players that come into MLS. I tend to agree more with your take on the subject. Harmon Barnard Wheaton, IL
  1. Patrick Nash
    commented on: April 14, 2009 at 8:58 a.m.
    Ridge: Here is my prediction. Steve Zakuani will win Rookie of the Year and Akron will go to the Final Four.
  1. David Hardt
    commented on: April 15, 2009 at 9:13 a.m.
    It must be hard to be a quality player and have to play in College soccer in the US. As a dad, I have experienced my first year of watching many college soccer games, (freshmen son) and we used to call high school soccer boot ball, now college soccer is called brute ball, the same as high school with a football mentality. I don't see college as a breeding ground for "quality" soccer players. How can you with just 9.9 total scholarships. Get a few talented players and then surround them with muscle bound midfielders and defenders. You can't string 5 passes together, at least without a foul called or worst, should have been called.

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