Imagine picking your college during your sophomore year of high school - nearly three years before enrollment time. Such is the path more and more young soccer players are taking.
High school students generally choose their college during their senior year. But for various reasons, particularly the rise of women's college soccer, it's become increasingly prevalent for young soccer players barely into their teens to make verbal commitments to college coaches offering them scholarship money.
"I have a 15-year-old son and I'll tell you what, he can hardly decide what shoes he's going to put on, let alone where he should go to college," says Lesle Gallimore, who has coached the University of Washington's women's team for 15 years.
Gallimore says within the last decade, as the number of NCAA Division I women's programs has risen to more than 300, she first saw high school juniors making college commitments, then top college programs began welcoming commitments from sophomores. Gallimore says she wouldn't be surprised if high school freshman are starting to commit.
"It just doesn't make sense," Gallimore says. "It's risky for everyone. Risky for the coaches. Risky for the kids. It cannot be that great for the sport. It cannot be that great for the kids socially, physically, emotionally to be put in a position where they feel to get a scholarship they have to make a decision that early."
Anson Dorrance, coach of 19-time NCAA Division I champion North Carolina, doesn't see the downside. And he says it's not the college coaches applying the pressure.
"The girls are pressuring us to make decisions on them early," he says. "They're not really being recruited. They're recruiting the colleges younger and younger. If a quality player is interested in your school and you really feel like this player has the potential to help you, you'd be crazy not to encourage that kid."
Others believe the early-commitment trend is also being driven by the college coaches. Tad Bobak is the U.S. U-15 girls national team coach and director of one of the nation's top girls clubs, the So Cal Blues.
"Because there are so many colleges, and female soccer in this country is in a state where there are only a certain number of players out there who can make a big difference, obviously these college teams want to get a jump on getting them," Bobak says. "There's a lot of drive by these colleges to get that edge."
Avi Stopper, the president of the CaptainU.com, a college recruiting software company, says the majority of college coaches he's talked to say early commitments are a "bad thing" but believe they have no option but accept them or lose out on talent.
"The conventional wisdom is it started with a couple of really top programs, and as go those teams, so go others," Stopper says. "Now it's no longer just the top programs that handpick kids off the youth national teams, but lots of programs are finding kids more in the middle of the pack and asking them for early verbal commitments."
For parents who spend thousands of dollars a year on their daughter's youth soccer, a scholarship offer at age 15 can be difficult to turn down.
"They might be dipping into what would be their college funds and are clamoring for a scholarship," says Cal coach Neil McGuire. "It definitely works in both ways and may be somewhat of a vicious cycle. College coaches are getting paid more and more and are under pressure to be successful, so they want to make sure they get the best talent available."
That can mean offering scholarship money before a rival does. And women's coaches, thanks to Title IX, come armed with scholarships. Division I programs are permitted 14 full-rides - compared to 9.9 for men's programs.
It would seem risky to bank on a player who is still two or three years away from stepping on a college field, but it is less so on the women's side than the men's.
"As opposed to the boys, girls mature physically a lot younger so you pretty much have an idea of what they're going to be like in college a lot younger than the boys," says Dorrance. "With a boy, there's a huge physical maturation process between his freshman year of high school to his senior year."
Also, because there are one hundred fewer men's Division I programs than women's programs, and a larger pool of elite boys players, the early-commitment trend is far more prevalent on the women's side.
The NCAA prohibits college coaches from initiating conversations with a prospect until after her junior year. Nor may the college programs invite prospects on official campus visits until their senior year. So the youth club coaches become the link between the college coach and the player.
"The monster it's also created is the club coach as agent," says Gallimore. "Or the parent as agent. We can't call the kids, we can't talk to the kid, but we can certainly speak with their club coaches and talk to them about their players."
Without violating any NCAA rules, a youth coach can encourage a player to make an unofficial visit to campus, where regardless of age the college coach can talk to the player, and make an offer.
"A lot of these club coaches are making good money," says Gallimore, "and I'm not saying they're bad people, but they're under a lot of pressure to make sure the kids they're being paid to coach get scholarships."
High school seniors are allowed to visit up to five colleges on trips paid for by the college, but if they wish to visit before their senior year, they must pay their own way. "Now kids are burdening the expense of the visits," says Gallimore. "Well, not every kid has money. I think in soccer in America we turned it into the rich who can afford to do all these things get richer and get the scholarships."
Stopper stresses that it is beneficial for players to make early contact with college coaches and research their options, but he doesn't recommend they commit early. The problem is that as more players commit early, others perceive that the available scholarships are being snatched away.
"Say you have a top youth team and the best player on that team commits to College X," Stopper says. "It creates a bit of a panic and within weeks or a couple months you'll see that everyone has committed. And while that first person may have taken their sweet time and made a well thought-out decision, the others might be inclined to take the first offer that presents itself. This leads inevitably to high transfer rates and a lot of frustration down the line."
Early commitments aren't binding, but both parties risk their reputations by backing out. The many college coaches who aren't comfortable committing to players two or three years before they join the team admit they don't see a solution.
"There's a lot of people who can say it's working out fine and it ends up OK for the majority of kids," Gallimore says. "But I don't think the story is told about the ones it doesn't work out for and I don't think it's gone on long enough for us to truly appreciate the downside of it."
Morgan Brian is a 16-year-old Georgia product who played for the USA in the 2008 U-17 Women's World Cup. She's aimed at playing college soccer since she was 8 years old, but has resisted committing early to a program.
"I've started the process," says Brian, who is entering her junior year of high school. "I'm not going to rush my decision because I'm going to be there for four years. A lot of coaches have told me if a college wants you bad enough, they'll wait for you. My parents have told me not to rush and enjoy your high school while it lasts without that pressure."
As captain of the current U-17 national team, Brian has more leverage than most.
(This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)