MLS player source not up to 'speed'

By Paul Gardner

This is the time of year when college soccer meets the pro game and we start to find out, all over again -- it is an annual occurrence -- what we've known for ages anyway.

To wit: There is a massive gap between the caliber -- not to mention the mentality -- of college soccer and the pro game.

The college draftees are now in training camps, trying to impress the coaches who drafted them. Assuming that the MLS coaches know what they're up to, that they had really studied these players before drafting them (an assumption that I, for one, do not accept), then one would expect the big test for the young hopefuls would be in the playing of games, scrimmages and exhibition games.

The physical part of things is not likely to be that important -- except in the boot-camp sense of finding out who's willing to go on torturing his body until he drops, or at least pukes.

Hardly a soccer test. But certainly a way of finding out about attitude. And that is something that coaches, rightfully no doubt, are very concerned about. Well, with college players, they should be, because the atmosphere of college soccer is decidedly different from the pro game. Bruce Arena summed it up back in 1996: "Clearly, it's night and day. The pro game is a lot faster, more technical, more competitive." 

One might have expected things to have changed for the better since then, but I see no sign of that. College soccer has improved somewhat, no doubt, but so has MLS. The gap remains.

Looking again at what Arena had to say, I want to look more closely at one of the points he raised -- his contention that the pro game "is a lot faster" than the college version.

That, one would think is perfectly natural, and something that hardly needs saying. But it sure as hell does get said, repeatedly. From the training camps being held right now comes the annual cry about the speed of the game. David Estrada, working out with the Seattle Sounders, talks of having "to adjust to the speed of the game ...", while Teal Bunbury, with the Kansas City Wizards, says "Everything's a lot faster, a lot quicker."

Well, what exactly is a lot faster? Anyone who has watched college soccer -- not just lately, but going back over decades -- must surely retain an image of a game played at breakneck speed. A game played supersonically by players whose skills are barely sonic. Speed and quite prodigious running in all directions has to be the most noticeable feature of college soccer.

So what comes after supersonic? MLS evidently. But the statements about the increased speed of the pro game are misleading. Bunbury has the measure of the difference: "You've got to start thinking faster."

Right. The game undoubtedly seems to be physically faster to those college players experiencing it for the first time -- but it is the mental aspect that is quicker -- the ability to play the ball more accurately, more thoughtfully and more incisively. There is -- though not enough! -- soccer intelligence and subtlety at work in MLS. Those are qualities that are rarely seen in college soccer. Even if a player has them -- and some clearly do -- the chance to put them into practice in the helter-skelter action around them is minimal.

Year by year, the problem of where to find good young talent -- talent that is ready to start on its teams -- grows for MLS. And year by year we hear Commissioner Don Garber rhapsodizing about all the young talent the USA is producing, and we see him -- on television, no less! -- emceeing that sham a.k.a. the SuperDraft.

So the promising youngsters become draft-dodgers, decamping for Europe to play in Scandinavia, where the soccer may be no better than in MLS, but the pay sure as hell is. And every year the draft fails, doesn't even come close, to producing anyone who faintly resembles a star.

With expansion to 16 teams just around the corner, such players are urgently needed. The only short-term answer for MLS will be to spend money to bring in foreign players -- either bought outright, or on loan.

One hopes that the majority of such players will be promising youngsters, but I imagine there will inevitably be some veteran foreigners among the signings. Too many of those, and MLS will soon be saddled with the same "Elephant's Graveyard" tag that the old NASL was never able to shake off.

The alternative to bringing in more foreign players is to continue relying on the thin, and unreliable, stream of talent from the college game. That, assuredly, will produce a serious drop in the caliber of the MLS game. That is something that the league cannot afford.

13 comments about "MLS player source not up to 'speed'".
  1. Futbol Genio, February 3, 2010 at 9:20 a.m.

    Paul: Nice article on college soccer. Allow me to explain the "speed of play" thing more fully for you.

    The type of college socer players that get drafted are mostly the supremely athletic kids. That is, they are all fast. As a decent fast youth player, many things come easier to you, except one thing: SOCCER THINKING. Pro soccer seems faster to the youth supersonics aka greyhounds, because they are now being made to think like soccer players, and they can't. Look at most European players from the USA and you will see the greyhounds, just not soccer smart greyhounds. Running and hacking seems to even everything out in youth soccer; not so much in the pros, where everyone can run and hack just like the greyhounds. Look at Adu, Edu, Beasley, Onyewu, etc. All athletes, but just not soccer smart. The soccer smart players take more time, and the MLS won't give them the avenue to succeed because a new crop of greyhounds pops through every year. This is the American college soccer conundrum..., GO WATCH THE IVY LEAGUE TO SEE SMART SOCCER GUYS DOING IT THE OLD FASHIONED WAY...LIKE BRAZILIANS!

  2. Gregory Weiss, February 3, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    My brother is a 22 yo professional soccer player (Nate Weiss) who just signed with FK Jelgava in Latvia. I haven't spoke to him explicitly about this matter, but he bypassed the MLS combine and draft for a number of reasons. He played 2 years at NC State but felt that the college game, even in the ACC, was not helping him progress as he wanted and so he eventually followed a friend to Europe to get his career started. After a couple of fits and starts, he landed with Longford Town in the Irish Second division. He then looked to come back to the US but MLS did not give him a chance.

    First off, they never courted him at all. The MLS does not have the resources or the reach to identify and contact players who are qualified to bring talent into their league. They hope that the players come to them. My brother contacted the Colorado team but they had too many players in camp already and dissuaded him from coming to train with them. So, he went back overseas. He is living in a country where he doesn't speak the language because he knows that the soccer will be "fast" and serious and he really wants to make this a career. MLS promises ESPN coverage, but they wanted Nate to prove himself to them and they never recruited him in any manner. And this is a player who went far in Olympic Development programs as a youth and was already playing in Europe. You'd think they would have heard of him and would take him seriously.

    Alejandro Bedoya, a friend and teammate of my brother's from club soccer days, currently plays in Sweden instead of the US. I'm sure most MLS teams would love to have a shot at him, but they need to start selling themselves to the young athlete. In almost no other sport do American players seriously consider international markets so recruiting players to play is anathema to American sports. MLS needs not only to sell itself to the public but to the young athlete. I hope going forward that they make more of an effort to do so as I'd love to see the quality of the soccer in the MLS improve.

  3. Joe Hosack, February 3, 2010 at 11:22 a.m.

    Why would you expect the College experience here to produce the same result as the Club systems in Europe? When the college teams have "fans" with money the product will change. MLS is doing well to look where ever it needs to look to produce its finest product. It gets better every five years and the fact that they (MLS) are now sending more players to Europe
    is proof.

  4. James Froehlich, February 3, 2010 at 11:50 a.m.

    As usual a very insightful article. Unfortunately, these insights seem to be continually ignored by the major college soccer coaches. In order to make some progress in finally changing the college soccer scene, I would like to see more light being shed on the smaller colleges. Having watched many of their players over the years, it seems to me that MLS needs to broaden its recruiting net to focus on these smaller schools who are more likly to have greater numbers of Hispanic and ethnic players.
    Joe Hosack-- I would respectfully disagree with your analysis of the reason for MLS's improvement. MLS is getting better because of the influx of foreign players, African and Hispanic who by themselves are raising the skill level of MLS. And through their example are raising the skill levels of US players. Also, many(admittedly not all) of the players from the US now playing in Europe have bypassed US colleges and the MLS so I don't believe that they can be used as examples of how well the MLS is progressing --- with one exception, the Chicago Fire who has made it a priority to continuously bring in Hispanic players. In fact, Frank Klopas was just featured in an article by Rene Romano of Fox Sports Spanish section praising Klopas's for continuing to bring skilled Hispanic players into the Fire roster.

  5. Bruce Gowan, February 3, 2010 at 11:55 a.m.

    Gardner did not need to write another article that explained what we all already knew. The college soccer system does not prepare players for professional play. The major reason is that it was not intended to. College is a non-revenue sport where some but not all of the players are getting their tuition paid. Some of USA's gifted athletes chose other money sports long before they were ready for college. Some of USA's gifted soccer players either could not get into college or don't chose to go to college.

    So MLS is dissapointed in the college players they draft. Well, the soccer players are dissapointed that MLS is only looking at college players to sign. MLS is trying to live on the cheap by looking at colleges to produce the players they need. Part of the solution would be for MLS to start a minor league program begining with the youth club system. There is some action taking place with results yet to be seen. Another part of the solution would be for MLS to put more money into scouting here in the US. It looks like the MLS thinks that only the ACC and only D1 schools with winning records have all of the good players. The soccer people know that is not true. There are some excellent players in the other college division. There are also some good players playing in non-professional leagues.

    MLS should get a clue from Baseball. World wide scouting, signing prospects out of high school into minor leagues for development and looking at college players. The problem is that Baseball has money and MLS has none.

  6. Joe Hosack, February 3, 2010 at 12:40 p.m.

    James Froehlich we are in agreement - MLS teams are looking everywhere (my point). Just ask Peter Nowak where he recently returned from...........

  7. Thomas Hosier, February 3, 2010 at 12:41 p.m.

    Gardner's article is quite interesting. It is also strange that European coaches are courting players from the USA, while coaches in the USA are courting players from Europe. If young players from the USA are good enough to play in Europe why are they not good enough to play in the USA. I am also intrigued by concept of "speed" vs soccer saavy speed. It seems to me coaches in the USA place way too much emphasis on speed rather than technical skills and a players soccer IQ. This seems particularly true at the youth level appartently trickles up to the college level.

  8. Bobby Bribiesca, February 3, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.

    Yes, we need scouts to watch the inner city leagues. The talent is here in the good USA. There are many outlaw leagues in Dallas, Chicago, LA.. that have players with technical and physical ability to play at the pro level. These players know what it takes to buy a pair of copa shoes. They have the mental toughness to compete! Lets give them a chance. Bring your try-outs to them and show them that your are interested in their play and culture. Make the connection and you will get great players!

  9. David Hardt, February 4, 2010 at 8:10 a.m.

    Clearly we need strong second third and even fourth level leagues under the MLS to develop younger adult SOCCER players. High school in the US is boot ball, college is Brute ball, the same as high school with bigger stronger players. Wining is job 1 in college, coaches live or die by it. So it is "how to win the next game" that gets attention, not player development. What did a college get for having one of its players drafted. Zero. If the players were signed and transfer fees applied, there would be more interest in developing than winning, and I mean in lower leagues not college.

  10. Daniel Oleary, February 4, 2010 at 7:57 p.m.

    Why should college soccer players get drafted and play in the MLS for wages below poverty level? Where is the incentive ? Most players drafted make $30,000 or less. Pay them a decent living wage and you will get more quality players.

  11. paul akame, June 11, 2010 at 6:50 a.m.

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  12. Nathan Dean, June 18, 2010 at 5:27 a.m.

    I just discovered your site and this article, and I agree with most of the comments. However, there are 2 main problems, as I see it.
    1. MLS has no money, because MLS has no huge sponsorship deals and no big TV deals, because MLS doesn't have a large enough fan base to attract those deals. Sure there are a TON of Soccer fans in the US, but, what clubs do they follow? I follow Chelsea FC, and have since the early 1990's. MLS is a very young league. I'm 35yo and grew up in Houston, TX. During my lifetime, there have been at least 4 different incarnations of Houston Dynamo/Dynamos, in different leagues: USL 1983-1984, Independent 1985, Lone Star Soccer Alliance 1987-1991, MLS 2005(originally the first San Jose Earthquakes franchise). Houston also had other Soccer teams, but I really don't want to get into the indoor leagues at all!:( My point is that, in the rest of the world, kids grew up following their local FC or the FC their parents grew up following, and they played in youth leagues organized by and through those clubs. Here we grew up following "Major" sports teams, i.e. NFL, MLB, NBA, and we played youth soccer in mostly locally or, at best, regionally organized leagues, with no connection to any other leagues. While the USSF has made vast improvements the structure of the youth system, it is still nowhere close to the youth systems in Europe, Asia, or South America. The best things that have happened for US Soccer have been the internet and European soccer leagues on TV. At least my kids can see what top level soccer is supposed to look like. I did not have that chance growing up. The longer MLS can stick, the more the fan base will grow. MLS owners need to be willing to invest in their own youth teams. Now the USSF is never going to be as free as the FA and allow clubs to sign youth players to contracts at 14 or 15 years old, but an MLS owned youth league for college age players would be a good first step.
    2. This is short, and it is taken directly from the wikipedia page for "United States soccer pyramid". Until this is fixed, MLS cannot complain about the quality of their players.
    "Major League Soccer has a fixed number of teams (currently 16), with no merit-based promotion possible from the USL First Division, which is run by a completely separate entity, the United Soccer Leagues (USL).

    The USL manages two professional leagues, the USL First and Second Divisions, which currently comprise the second and third tiers of American soccer. As of 2008 there is no merit-based promotion and relegation between the USL First and USL Second divisions, and although a promotion system has been established, it has largely been unused."
    Sorry for my rant, but I love soccer! Sad thing is that in 7th grade, I quit soccer and started baseball. Soccer just wasn't fun for me anymore. As a 13yo, 6'1" CB, there is no way to tackle 5'2" forwards and not get booked. Everytime. Luckily, I could pitch!

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