By Paul Gardner
As college finals go, Notre Dame's 2-1 win over Maryland was quite a good one. Good, that is, within the limitations of the college game. Whether those limitations are imposed by the NCAA or whether they represent the way that the Division I coaches want things to be, I am no longer certain. It doesn’t matter anyway: The limitations are there, they have been there for decades.
Evidently, the NCAA and the college coaches are quite satisfied because no meaningful move to change things has been made within living memory. Smug satisfaction seeps out of the college game into the real world. Where it meets an increasingly chilly reception.
Viewed from the outside, college soccer has an air of theater to it, an artificial construct where the rules -- rather, the realities -- of regular life do not apply. The rules, in this case, are those of FIFA, which the colleges have steadfastly refused to adopt. But the differences have narrowed over the years, almost imperceptibly, and this is not the problem these days.
The ludicrously short college season has been under criticism for years, but nothing is done about it -- indeed, it seems that under the Byzantine NCAA rules, nothing canbe done. But again, we are not getting to the root of the college problem.
We get nearer to the truth when we compare the realities of life at a pro club with that at college. That comparison is worth pondering. Not in terms of which is “better.” The important thing to realize is just how different the two worlds are. Among the pros, the young players are in serious competition with each other to be one of the relatively few who make it to the top level. They do a lot of training and they play a lot of games. And they come into contact with the pro game -- by talking with, by playing against and alongside, older and far more experienced players. An element that is completely absent from the college game.
At pro clubs, almost anywhere in the world these days, young players will also run into players with totally different backgrounds, players who bring a variety of styles and approaches to the sport.
The gap between the pro scene, with its harsh competition, its varied influences, its non-stop devotion to the sport is planets away from the lotus fields of college soccer. If college soccer has slowly edged away from the all-white, suburban athlete image that it carried into the 21st century, it has not moved nearly far enough.
In theory -- on paper, that is -- there is plenty to be said for the more humanist approach of college soccer. But in competition with the worldwide pro approach to the business of producing star soccer players, it’s a sure-fire loser.
The limitations of college players are by now well enough known -- though far too rarely acknowledged. They are trained to perform and succeed on the college stage, to produce a final just like the one we’ve just seen. As I said, by no means a bad final. The first half, certainly, was nothing to write home about, but that is hardly a fault limited to the college game. Things livened up for a while when the goals were scored -- but on the whole the action was scrappy -- the word is not mine, it was the word used by Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark.
There was more urgency in the second half, and that is the point at which the college game exposes itself. More urgency, but with no sign of heightened skills to match. The game simply got more frantic. All three goals resulted, as seemed inevitable, not from any flowing soccer, but from set plays.
This was college soccer played somewhere near the top of its potential -- competent players, good field discipline -- but for all that, soccer with an empty, almost soul-less feel to it. There has to be more to this sport than hard running and midfield battling and obvious passing.
One player -- for me, one player only -- stood out as a different presence who could bring something unusual, something creative to the field: Maryland’s Tsubasa Endoh. The player with, I suppose, the most exotic background -- he’s from Japan. The MVP award was shared between Notre Dame’s Harrison Shipp and Maryland’s Patrick Mullins, the two players most hyped before the game and both of them Hermann Trophy finalists.
But ... does winning the Hermann mean anything? Mullins was the 2012 winner of the trophy, so the most recent Hermann winner to enter the pros was the 2011 winner, Andrew Wenger from Duke University. A look at Wenger’s two years of pro life reveal just how difficult it is for a college player to make any impact in the pros. In January 2012 Wenger -- he departed Duke after three years -- was at the absolute pinnacle of the college game, the Hermann winner, and then the No. 1 pick (by the Montreal Impact) in the MLS SuperDraft.
Since then . . . well, to put it charitably, not very much. In 2012 Wenger played in 23 Impact games, but started only 7, scoring 4 goals. This year, the stats were 24 games, 8 starts and 1 goal. The stats are hardly impressive, but the truly sad part of the Wenger story -- the story of 2011's top college player -- was to watch him in action, which I did as frequently as possible. A player simply out of his depth, clearly not ready for pro action. And at age 23, he’s left it late to start learning the intricacies of the pro game. Certainly not those of a goalscoring forward, which was his strength in his final college year. Before that he had been a central defender.
In fact, the history of Hermann Trophy winners over the years is not impressive. Remember Marcus Tracy? Joe Lapira? Jason Garey? All recent Hermann winners, all candidates for the where-are-they-now column.
In a very real sense, college soccer and the pro game in this country misled those players, assuring them that the way to success is through college, and then, via the MLS so-called SuperDraft, to a pro club.
Back in the early 1990s, maybe. Then we got Alexi Lalas, Brad Friedel and Claudio Reyna as successive Hermann winners. But we’ve moved on since then. The better players may well not even go to college these days, while MLS standards have been moving up.
It does seem that MLS has finally taken notice. The hint -- it was not much more than that -- that Don Garber dropped in his State of the League message this year, that the colleges might consider some changes, was still highly significant, as it marked the first time a soccer leader had dared to criticize the college game.
Garber knows, better than most, what the problem is. Because he is repeatedly having to praise the colleges for supplying all these great players. We shall, I’ve no doubt, hear another of Garber’s paeans to college soccer when the SuperDraft rolls around next month. But this one will ring even more hollow than the previous versions. Because Garber knows the SuperDraft -- really a college draft -- is shriveling before his eyes as the talent level declines, and he has now already let the cat out of the bag with his hint that all is not well.
But the truth can no longer be hidden or talked around or simply ignored. The gap between the college game and the real game in the USA is widening. The unreality of college soccer, its fake theater, is now unmistakably exposed.
The new yardstick -- though it is one that should have first appeared at least a decade ago -- is the extent to which the USSF, at last, is beginning to embrace Hispanic players. The younger U.S. national teams are now showing a pronounced tilt toward Hispanics.
Of the 20 field players on Tab Ramos’s latest under-20 roster, 9 are Hispanics. Hugo Perez, on his under-15 roster, has 12 Hispanics among the 16 field players.
There will be those who know no better than to attribute those totals to the fact that the two coaches involved are both themselves Hispanics. Very well then, how about the under-17 team and its decidedly non-Hispanic coach, Richie Williams. In April, Williams’s team -- that included 6 Hispanics -- became the first U.S. team ever to fail to qualify for the U-17 World Cup.
Just last week we got a look at Williams’s revamped team -- in which 10 of the 18 field players are Hispanic. The team beat England 5-1, and Brazil 4-1.
Garber may want to compare those figures with what goes on in the college game. In particular: How many Hispanic players did we see in the Notre Dame-Maryland final? Including all the subs -- none. Not a single one.
How canthere be that big a gap between the college game and the real game? Well, I repeat, it no longer matters why. The gap is undeniably there, it is getting larger, and it is plain that the college people -- whether that be the NCAA or the athletic directors or the college coaches -- have no interest whatever in changing anything.
I have great respect for the two coaches involved in this year’s final -- Bobby Clark, a wonderful gentleman, so intriguing to listen to, and Sasho Cirovski, who showed great sportsmanship with his words of praise to Clark after the game.
But both Clark and Cirovski have to know that they are living in an unreal, dream world. And in propagating their fanciful Latino-free soccer, they have lost touch with the American game.
MLS commissioner Don Garber has only to make the comparison, to look at the college rosters, and then at those of the USSF’s youth teams. And he will know where his league should be looking for future talent.
He may then want to look a little closer at the Hispanic names on the U-17 team. He will find that two of them are already committed to foreign clubs. For the moment, that’s it -- just two players. But it is a stat that suggests that MLS -- though well ahead of the colleges in this area -- has yet to fully accept the contribution to be made by Hispanic players.