By Paul Gardner
This is the time of year when college soccer meets the pro game and we start to find out, all over again -- it is an annual occurrence -- what we've known for ages anyway.
To wit: There is a massive gap between the caliber -- not to mention the mentality -- of college soccer and the pro game.
The college draftees are now in training camps, trying to impress the coaches who drafted them. Assuming that the MLS coaches know what they're up to, that they had really studied these players before drafting them (an assumption that I, for one, do not accept), then one would expect the big test for the young hopefuls would be in the playing of games, scrimmages and exhibition games.
The physical part of things is not likely to be that important -- except in the boot-camp sense of finding out who's willing to go on torturing his body until he drops, or at least pukes.
Hardly a soccer test. But certainly a way of finding out about attitude. And that is something that coaches, rightfully no doubt, are very concerned about. Well, with college players, they should be, because the atmosphere of college soccer is decidedly different from the pro game. Bruce Arena summed it up back in 1996: "Clearly, it's night and day. The pro game is a lot faster, more technical, more competitive."
One might have expected things to have changed for the better since then, but I see no sign of that. College soccer has improved somewhat, no doubt, but so has MLS. The gap remains.
Looking again at what Arena had to say, I want to look more closely at one of the points he raised -- his contention that the pro game "is a lot faster" than the college version.
That, one would think is perfectly natural, and something that hardly needs saying. But it sure as hell does get said, repeatedly. From the training camps being held right now comes the annual cry about the speed of the game. David Estrada, working out with the Seattle Sounders, talks of having "to adjust to the speed of the game ...", while Teal Bunbury, with the Kansas City Wizards, says "Everything's a lot faster, a lot quicker."
Well, whatexactly is a lot faster? Anyone who has watched college soccer -- not just lately, but going back over decades -- must surely retain an image of a game played at breakneck speed. A game played supersonically by players whose skills are barely sonic. Speed and quite prodigious running in all directions has to be the most noticeable feature of college soccer.
So what comes after supersonic? MLS evidently. But the statements about the increased speed of the pro game are misleading. Bunbury has the measure of the difference: "You've got to start thinking faster."
Right. The game undoubtedly seems to be physically faster to those college players experiencing it for the first time -- but it is the mental aspect that is quicker -- the ability to play the ball more accurately, more thoughtfully and more incisively. There is -- though not enough! -- soccer intelligence and subtlety at work in MLS. Those are qualities that are rarely seen in college soccer. Even if a player has them -- and some clearly do -- the chance to put them into practice in the helter-skelter action around them is minimal.
Year by year, the problem of where to find good young talent -- talent that is ready to start on its teams -- grows for MLS. And year by year we hear Commissioner Don Garber rhapsodizing about all the young talent the USA is producing, and we see him -- on television, no less! -- emceeing that sham a.k.a. the SuperDraft.
So the promising youngsters become draft-dodgers, decamping for Europe to play in Scandinavia, where the soccer may be no better than in MLS, but the pay sure as hell is. And every year the draft fails, doesn't even come close, to producing anyone who faintly resembles a star.
With expansion to 16 teams just around the corner, such players are urgently needed. The only short-term answer for MLS will be to spend money to bring in foreign players -- either bought outright, or on loan.
One hopes that the majority of such players will be promising youngsters, but I imagine there will inevitably be some veteran foreigners among the signings. Too many of those, and MLS will soon be saddled with the same "Elephant's Graveyard" tag that the old NASL was never able to shake off.
The alternative to bringing in more foreign players is to continue relying on the thin, and unreliable, stream of talent from the college game. That, assuredly, will produce a serious drop in the caliber of the MLS game. That is something that the league cannot afford.