What College Cup reveals about the college game

By Paul Gardner

Without much hesitation, I'd say that the weekend's Akron vs. North Carolina NCAA Division I semifinal was probably the best college game that I've seen. And that's in nearly 50 years of watching. I put that probably in there, because there are some ifs and buts to be considered. Firstly: I'm using the criteria of college soccer to judge the game -- I'm not comparing it with youth soccer generally, or with, say, the Under-20 World Cup.

If we must have college soccer, then this was as good a display of the strengths it possesses that you could ask for. We got 110 minutes of superb commitment, stamina, effort, speed, athleticism and -- again within the college criteria -- skill. It was exciting, for sure -- but it suffered ultimately in that it couldn't come up with even one goal, and so collapsed into what has to be an anticlimax: the shootout. Not an anticlimax for the winners, Akron, of course. But for everyone else, a let-down, like drawing the "winner" out of a hat.

Akron a worthy winner, nevertheless? Not really. There was nothing to separate these teams, really and it came down to one blown shot by Jordan Graye. As so often in the accursed shootout, it was a player who had played very well in the real game who made the fatal mistake.

But I think I'd probably be writing a very similar opinion had North Carolina won. Yes, for me, Carolina was the better team -- that is, it played the more attractive soccer. But it couldn't score -- so Akron nipped in and whisked away the prize.

Akron coach Caleb Porter played at Indiana University. And no doubt he learned a good deal about coaching from Jerry Yeagley. Which is why Akron plays like Indiana. With one notable difference; Yeagley usually managed to find a playmaker. Often they were foreign players -- Angelo Di Bernardo, Armando Betancourt and Aleksey Korol -- but Brian Maisonneuve was a good American example.

Porter has no playmaker, no organizing mastermind to vary the pace and to upset the predictability. Indeed, one might even wonder whether a playmaker could survive this frantic pace. North Carolina has Michael Farfan, but we saw nothing like the best of him as he was caught up in the pell-mell activity, almost compelled by the insistent rhythm of the game to quick-fire first-time passes.

At that particular game, Akron is better. Its passing was, on the whole, quick and crisp and accurate. With one drawback. It was almost always predictable. Nine times out of 10 you would have little difficulty predicting where the next Akron pass would be going. That may not make defending against them easy, but it makes it more straightforward.

In the final, Virginia certainly made it look pretty standard stuff, defending stoutly for 110 minutes, barely allowing Akron a clear shot on goal. At the other end of the field, Virginia also found it impossible to score.

So the brainless "defense wins championships" mantra yet again showed its threadbareness. In the end it came down to scoring goals, even though they were fake shootout goals -- and the 2009 College Cup closed, after 220 minutes of scoreless soccer, with another shootout. And once again the losing team's outstanding player became the goat. Blair Gavin had the miss this time, crucial and cruel, that doomed Akron.

The same question -- did Virginia deserve this win? Again -- not really. Akron did enough to win, but its luck ran out in the semi. If anything, the trophy should be split down the middle.

Then again, maybe Virginia does deserve it on the grounds that it was the only team out of the four that actually won a game -- its semi, when it beat Wake Forest, 2-1, in overtime. But the final game was as even as you can get. The shootout decided against Akron this time, so Virginia is the champion. Neither deservedly nor undeservedly - that is the sort of judgment-defying limbo that the shootout spawns.

To return to an overall look at college soccer. The pluses are all those largely physical qualities that I mentioned earlier on. And they are impressive. But they are not enough. College soccer simply has to find a way to start playing a more thoughtful, much more skillful game. If, that is, it is going to produce pro players for MLS.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber should be concerned at what he sees here. Because it is deceiving. The colleges are still producing plenty of average-to-good defenders and midfielders. Very few top level-forwards, and no creative midfielders. It's been that way for as long as I can remember. Working on the possibly already fictional notion that the colleges will supply the American base of MLS teams, this does not bode well for the future of MLS as a league that needs to play entertaining soccer.

But ... maybe we're seeing the first glimmer of a change in attitude here, for, just maybe, the presence of Michael Farfan on North Carolina and Jonathan Villanueva on Virginia offers a shimmer of hope that the colleges are, years later than they should have been, interested in recruiting Latino players -- by which I mean particularly the creative midfielders and forwards.

This blind spot has marred the college record for decades. On these four finalist teams, there were over twice as many African-Americans as Hispanics. Given that American blacks do not play soccer in significant numbers, but Latin Americans very definitely do, that needs some explaining. How the colleges and their coaches explain it, I do not know. But someone ought to tell us what is going on.


7 comments about "What College Cup reveals about the college game".
  1. David Hardt, December 14, 2009 at 10:46 a.m.

    Crazy idea but here goes. I agree the quality of play was the best I have seen in a long time. Since many, I know not all, of the major college conferences do not fully support men's soccer ( what is the big ten now, the big six?), and some are mix-match MCC, how about this for a men's college soccer format. Take the top ten programs, put them in a conference. They play nine games and they have the freedom to do tournaments or what ever for the rest of their games. Quality play week in and out. Might even get more TV time. A second tier for the next 10 and so on. Promotion and relegation for the top and bottom two in each grouping. That way an up and coming school could move up and a fading program could move down to find its level. This would pit the best against the best week in and week out. "Lesser" schools would still have quality competition week in and week out and the bottom teams and top teams in all conferences, groupings, would have something to play for until the bitter end. OH well, one can only dream.

  2. Dominic Herbert, December 14, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    I like Patrick's idea in his post about a tiered structure that gets out of the conference format used for football, basketball, etc. Most of us think that feeding MLS clubs with top talent from the NCAA is important, making college soccer kind of a quasi-farm club system. SO WHAT IF WE FORMALIZE A FARM TEAM APPROACH? Set up a system where pro teams bid for the rights to draft NCAA players. It would send revenue to the schools for their soccer programs, so they aren't just subsidized from football and basketball revenues. MLS clubs could then accept their own transfer fees if another club, MLS or International, wants to bid for the rights to a player that they have at one of their "farm" schools. It also incents college programs to develop players who can play at the next level.

    OK, on the Hispanic piece that was mentioned, I don't know the stats, but I wonder if a lower % of Hispanic players attend college, or attend college at the schools that have big soccer programs? Might be. So, my second idea, if there are minority players who after high school are just dropping the sport, or playing semi-pro club ball, what if college teams could play, say, a group of U-23 club teams, in an annual tournament, expanding the exposure of promising players to pro scouts, some of whom aren't in college? I would definitely want to go see such a tournament.

  3. Richard Broad, December 14, 2009 at 1:36 p.m.

    For years I have read, with varying degrees of interest, enjoyment, and amusement, Paul Gardner's provocative thoughts on soccer. Whereas I don't always agree with Paul (and seriously doubt there is anyone who does), I welcome his opinions, which invariably generate much necessry reflection. Paul's predisposition toward Hispanic players is well-known and documented, and certainly their creativity adds an important element to the game. However, I find something a bit disconcerting in the last paragraph where Paul implies that there was a preponderance, or at the least, a disproportionate number, of blacks in the final. Frankly, while attending the College Cup, this thought never even crossed my mind and since it now does, my response is "Great" We should welcome all ethnic and racial groups into the sport, especially those individuals with athletic ability. If this country is to continue to improve in soccer, on all levels, we need the same kind of talented athletes who have, until recently, only played soccer in their early years, if at all, and then focused on the sports with higher visibility in this country. Comments about the numbers of blacks as opposed to Hispanics, or any groups for that matter, are counter-productive, if not quite inappropriate.

  4. Clayton Berling, December 15, 2009 at 2:26 a.m.

    I've been watching these collegiate games for some 40 years now, both male and female. I'm convinced that the problems we see in lack of development, which has been a long time critique by Paul Gardner, are essentially because of the liberal substitution rules. It is true that players can play faster and harder, but also does not seem to develop the kind of
    vision needed to become more accurate in their play. Even a slight lowering of the pace necessitated by 90 minutes of play gives a fraction of time to make smarter decisions. I've discussed at length with a number of coaches and I understand the need to play many players as part of their scholastic philosophy, but this leaves us in this poor position.

  5. philip Tiewater, December 15, 2009 at 9:12 a.m.

    I also enjoy the thought provoking columns of Gardner. In this case I agree with the thesis but not the assumption that the NCAA is supposed to be a farm system for the MLS. Definitely not. The college game is not about development. It is about winning. The top prospects and the MLS (and the national team) are better served if the young players are playing in a minor league development program, here or overseas. With 9.9 scholarships to spread over 22-25 players each team has to play a lot of players with little chance or desire to play professionally. College is for education not for player development. The only college sports (basketball and football) that act like a farm system are really revenue producing activities for the college and not about player development. (baseball does not count because they still send the collegiate players to their farm system)

  6. Matthew Martin, December 15, 2009 at 9:53 a.m.

    I think the message is being lost ! Yes, athletes are often chosen over more skilled, more technical players, but don't punish the more athletic players simply because we need to bring in more skill. Simply look at bringing in more skilled players- and if that means more Latinos then by all means do so! And, as there is a bias towards athletes and against diminutive skilled players, of which the Latino football community produces many, then work to correct it without setting yourself against black players. So while I hope the rhetoric calms down in terms of one racial group VERSUS another I agree that more skill is better and I agree that the Hispanic community is under-represented in our colleges and all the way to our National Team!
    I think the USMNT will only take the next BIG step forward when it is able to incorporate players like Torres more fully, but he has to have other players to play with! It is not Bob Bradley's fault that the culture of American sports supports athleticism over skill, but I think Richards point is not spoken out of a lack of knowledge about the plight of the skilled latino player, but rather illustrates the fact that Richard is color blind: a commendable attribute! Trust me, he believes in technical play! Davide Pizarro, the diminutive Chilean who starts in the center of AS Roma and before that Udinese has long bucked the trend of big strong centermids and yet he works well with the tough guys around him. I too look forward to seeing more play like that in our colleges but it can't be framed as black vs hispanic. Think of it as developing a more technical culture - one that fosters a team that can actually hold a 2-0 lead vs Brazil!

  7. Jim Jeffrey, December 15, 2009 at 10:38 a.m.

    Why would college coaches be concerned about developing players for the MLS? Unless the college is going to own the player's rights their only concern should be putting together the best team of student/athletes regardless of ethnicity. Eliminate college soccer from the discussion of developing mls/nat team players at all, and look at the problem from that view. How can the MLS/USL/NASL incorporate skillful players (regardless of race) into the talent stream? Couldn't that be the role of the USL/NASL?

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