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Static College Game A Worry for Expanding MLS
by Paul Gardner, December 15th, 2008 7AM
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As an event that should be of compelling interest, the college final four has ceased to engage me for a number of years. Mainly because the soccer itself is not that brilliant. It would be unfair to blame this entirely on the college sport -- after all, when was the last time we had superb finals at any level of the sport, right up to the World Cup?

It seems that the modern version of soccer is incapable of showing itself to advantage when the stakes are high. But the college final remains a highly significant event in the U.S. soccer calendar, not for what it is, but for what it tells us about the future of the pro sport in this country.

It is an event that should be -- surely is -- very closely watched and analyzed by MLS. I don't mean only the MLS coaches who scout the players. I mean Commissioner Don Garber and the other decision-makers -- the investors, I guess -- who run the pro sport in this country.

Because -- for the immediate future -- it is from the college sport that the majority of MLS players will come. This is a situation that will change, but the current reality is that MLS is relying heavily on college talent.

So the caliber of college play, and of its players, is a matter of absolutely crucial interest to MLS. There can be little doubt that most of the better players in this year's final four will take a shot at playing pro -- possibly by venturing overseas, but most likely by entering the MLS SuperDraft.

The SuperDraft. Hardly -- the name is already an indication that things are not what they should be, a name employed to hype something that is anything but super.

The most recent -- January 2008 -- draft reveals all. Fifty-three college players (plus three of high-school age) were drafted. How many "made it"? Depends what we mean by "made it" of course. But I think a "super" draft ought to be distributing players who can claim, and hold, a starting spot. I'll be conservative, and say that just half of the first-round choices ought to come in that category: seven players, then. In fact, only one player -- Sean Franklin of the Galaxy, the No. 4 pick -- did that, starting in 26 of the Galaxy's 30 regular season games. No one else came close -- eight players had between 10 and 12 starts.

On that evidence there is no immediate help to be acquired with a draft pick. This is important, because the eyes of a pro coach are on what his first team does now. They must be -- his job depends on current success, not future promise.

Now, admittedly, it could be that MLS coaches are not very good at recognizing college talent, or at exploiting it. I think there is an element of that involved, but the main problem lies elsewhere, with the college game itself.

This year's final four teams gave us nothing different from what we've come to expect. Oodles of energy, commitment, running, courage, and, yes, of skill. An impressive list, but a deficient one, nevertheless.

Missing from that list is the key ingredient of creativity. I'm using that word in its widest possible sense -- to include the use of a soccer brain, one that instantly analyses all situations and produces, instantly, an appropriate response. A brain that thinks the sport with razor sharpness and quickness.

This, oddly enough, is almost the opposite of what college soccer repeatedly gives us, year after year, which is a game of quite extraordinary physical quickness, but containing far too little brainpower.

Of this year's three games, only one featured a protracted period of coherent team play, of thoughtful, skillful attacking soccer. That came from North Carolina, during the first half of its semifinal against Wake Forest. It was excellent, flowing, soccer and it got its proper reward with a great goal. But beyond that purple passage, these three games were notable mostly for athletic endeavor and fighting spirit.

The less said about St. John's woeful performance the better, but surely both Wake Forest and Maryland must have played better soccer than this during the regular season? I would think so. In which case, maybe their mediocre form in Frisco can indeed be blamed on "big occasion" nerves. Possibly -- but even if that is so, it does nothing to alter the bleak picture for MLS. It cannot change the poor "success rate" of college players at the pro level.

The player who came closest to playing a creative role in these finals was unquestionably Maryland's Graham Zusi. He also scored both of Maryland's winning goals, and great goals they were. If he enters the draft, I imagine he will be a first-round pick. But his chances of a starting place on an MLS team are not good. And remember, he's 22 years old, an age at which he could already be -- really, should be -- an established pro. Compare his situation with that of North Carolina's freshman Billy Schuler, a player who repeatedly caught my eye because he was always trying to use skill and originality, and rarely lost his poise in the soccer maelstrom that surrounded him. Schuler moves and thinks like a real player, he looks like a soccer player. By my reckoning, he has a pro career beckoning. But, logically enough, it awaits him in the pros, not in a continued allegiance to the inadequacies of the college game.

Schuler, then, has to answer the cruel question that confronts all of America's promising soccer teenagers: College or pro? It is the same question that the MLS guys must answer: do we get our future players from the colleges, or from some sort of pro development scheme?

As expansion looms, as more young payers will be needed, that is the critical question, not only for MLS but for all the promising young Billy Schulers.

  1. Christopher Osmond
    commented on: December 15, 2008 at 9:41 a.m.
    What certainly would help all that "hustle and bustle" in the college game is to go to FIFA rules. Why are we allowing adults to play with subsitution rules? It makes absolutely no sense to me. And, I have never heard a good reason or who makes this ridiculus desicion. Chris Osmond West Seneca, NY

  1. commented on: December 15, 2008 at 10:48 a.m.
    Excellent points, Paul. Attacking in the final 1/3 is one of our weakest areas overall in American soccer. Creativity is often stifled when you penetrate the midfield and start to realize that everyone is closing you down. I think Zusi was capable of more but didn't have the support from his front two to see runs in and behind the two centre backs. Overall, your questions do stir up the pot as to how to cultivate talent and encourage more free-flowing football at all levels of the sport, particularly at the D1 and MLS platforms. Well said.
  1. Jeff Alger
    commented on: December 15, 2008 at 2:19 p.m.
    Real attacking creativity is learned in the crucial 18-22 age range. In the rest of the world, this is still considered a phase of youth development. Clubs receive transfer fees for developing players in this age range, should they "make it." Colleges are no better off if a given player becomes a successful professional than if he does not, so the entire emphasis is to win, now, today, with the players you've got. Not patiently groom them to become the professionals of tomorrow with a vision of the game as it will be in 5-10 seconds, not as it is now.
  1. Paul Bryant
    commented on: December 15, 2008 at 9:28 p.m.
    I agree with Mr. Gardner in that the one bright moment during the tournament was in the firs half of the Wake Forest -North Carolina semi-final game. It's ironic that as I am writing this reply, the pole question on Fox Soccer Channel's Fox Football Fone In is "Can college soccer produce professional players?" Here are a couple deficiencies with the college game: 1. The season is too short. A regular season of 18 games is less than half of what most players are used to coming from high level club soccer. It's unfortunate that player's don't play competitively for several months after the season ends. A full spring season would not be out of order. 2. Coaching. If you want to improve college soccer, improve the instruction. As a previous reply stated, coaches are judged on their record not their playing style. Professional coaches coach professional players. 3. Implement FIFA rules for college soccer.

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