By Paul Gardner
A long list of names can be currently found on the U.S. Soccer website. The names are there because of the arrival, on Feb. 5, of National Signing Day. These are teenage players who have made their college choice.
They are players with U17/18 teams from member clubs of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) -- 296 of them from 28 clubs. As the DA has a membership of 79 clubs with U-18 teams, there are presumably plenty more names to come.
So a huge number of this country’s most promising youngsters will be going to college to ... well, to what? To get an education, for a start, and who is going to argue with that? Not I.
But on the soccer front, things are less straightforward. Will playing college soccer help these boys become, or progress as, elite players? Or will it do the opposite and make it lesslikely that they will enter the elite ranks?
I use of the word “elite” because the DA people themselves use it. It crops up five times in the official online Overview of the Development Academy program. The key statement announces that the purpose of the program is “to improve the everyday environment for the elite youth player.” Shortly after that, the purpose is more focused -- the DA is “designed to produce the next generation of National Team players.”
That can only mean senior players for the men’s national team, the one that brings most publicity and sponsorship money. Since amateur players are not to be found on the world’s major national teams, we’re talking about developing pro players.
So here we have a horde of elite youngsters, ostensibly chosen as potential national team pros, being snapped up by the colleges. To slightly re-phrase my earlier question: “Will playing college soccer help these boys become national team players?” The answer is still No. We already know, beyond the possibility of any doubt, that four years of college soccer during the crucial 18-22 years age period is far more likely to retard a boy’s soccer growth than to advance it.
Given the crippling restrictions imposed by the NCAA it can hardly be otherwise. The people at U.S. Soccer who run the DA system are well aware of this, they have to be. In their Overview, they single out, as one of the advantages of the DA program, the use of “FIFA Rules (i.e. no reentry on substitutions ...” Yet the massive Signing Day list tells us that a large proportion of these DA elite players are headed for college where they very much do notapply FIFA rules, and where they very much doallow reentry on substitutions.
Such a blatant contradiction calls for an explanation from the DA, but I doubt that one will be forthcoming. The DA, well-intentioned and well-organized, a genuine attempt to upgrade the caliber of American youth soccer players, has run into the same brick wall that has confronted a series of previous attempts. The brick wall known as college soccer.
The Olympic Development Program, for instance, has been run by U.S. Youth Soccer since 1977. Its aim: “To identify players of the highest caliber on a continuing and consistent basis, which will lead to increased success for the U.S. National Teams in the international arena.” Sound familiar? In fact the similarity between the ODP and the DA mission statements is strong enough to suggest that one of the programs should be declared redundant.
Almost at the end of the DA statement, the word “college” is mentioned for the first, and only, time. It comes under the heading “Player Identification Advantages” and follows a mention of “Showcases.” It says simply “400-500 college coaches.” The ODP statement also contains but one reference to college soccer. It occurs in the very last line, under the heading “Benefits of Participating in ODP”, and reads “Exposure to college coaches.”
So, almost as an afterthought, from both the ODP and the DA comes a delayed and reluctant admission that college soccer -- which is knownto be an utterly inadequate way of producing pro players -- will play an important role in each program.
The value of US Soccer’s Under-17 residency program at Bradenton is similarly weakened by the fact that most of its graduates -- they, too, supposedly future pros -- like those of the DA system go on to play college soccer.
Such is the formidable, unmovable presence of college soccer, that it can be argued that the main success of the ODP, Bradenton -- and now it seems, the Development Academy -- has been to make the job of college recruitment considerably easier.
Only the Generation adidas program (formerly Project 40) can claim success in countering the misleading siren call of the colleges. The GA program manages to keep some boys out of college soccer altogether, while tempting others to quit college early. The alternative on offer is a place on a pro roster, and financial help for education. But the numbers are tiny -- maybe 10 boys a year.
I see no easy, or even feasible, answer to this tangle, barring some huge change in NCAA regulations. I am still hearing buoyant talk from college coaches about the “very real” possibility that, at least in Division I, FIFA rules will be permitted.
I have no wish to belittle the efforts of the coaches who are working to get this to happen. But really, guys, I have been listening to exactly this claim for 40 years -- barren years, for nothing has happened.
It is quite possible that a pepped-up GA is the solution. Having the future stars join pro clubs early, while the big majority, those who aren’t going to make it anyway, play college soccer would be a neat resolution.
Admittedly, 10 future pros a year, even twice that many, sounds a pretty feeble catch, but a look at the stats -- the global stats -- for teenagers who go on to become stars is not encouraging: Figures range from only 5% of those who were originally considered to have the necessary talent, down to as low as 1%.
The idea might work if it were possible to accurately predict which 18-year-olds were certain to make it. But no one can do that, so the idea fails. No soccer organization or sponsor is going to finance a program with such a potentially high failure rate.
A greatly expanded GA program taking in, say, 100 teenagers each year obviously has a much greater chance of producing star players, but again the failure rate will be too high to justify the greatly increased cost. And the reality of maybe 80 young failures who have missed out on a college education is not acceptable.
Like it or not, we end up facing the inevitable truth that the development of pro players must be the responsibility of pro clubs. And those pro clubs must also bear the responsibility of making sure that the youngsters who don’t make it are not simply discarded, but have been provided with at least the means to fashion an alternative life.
This happens to be the situation that the world’s pro clubs are only now facing up to. For the rich clubs, once the decision to make the necessary provisions has been made, financing them will not be a problem. For the less affluent -- and I think we can include the MLS clubs in that category -- the money is simply not there (of the 28 DA clubs that I mentioned above, the ones whose players are headed to college soccer, 11 are directly linked to MLS clubs).
So we see U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer stepping in where they really don’t belong, with programs whose stated aim is to produce pro players. Programs that inevitably fizzle out when the players reach the age of 18. After that age, there is not much choice for most players. The pro clubs offer little by way of opportunities or money. The allure of a college education makes itself felt, and the deficiencies of college soccer loom. The unreconcilable contradictions of National Signing Day arrive.