Development Academy players hit college roadblock

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 less likely 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 not apply FIFA rules, and where they very much do allow 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 known to 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.
23 comments about "Development Academy players hit college roadblock".
  1. Bill Johnson, February 10, 2014 at 6:32 p.m.

    On the other hand , DA is a pipe dream, most kids want to get an education because odds are slim they will be pro. Pro clubs must develop talent like in rest of the world. The rest of teh good palyers can have a life

  2. Kent Pothast, February 10, 2014 at 6:51 p.m.

    There may be other examples but I must point out that a number of pro players have come out of the University of Portland. Some finished college (a goalie named Keller) but some where encouraged to (and did) turn pro before graduating at the staffs encouragement. Steve Cherundalo comes to mind. Clive Charles and his successors always had the players' best interests at heart.

  3. John Soares, February 10, 2014 at 7:01 p.m.

    Good points all around...few solutions. One area, different rules. MLS needs to work with NCAA (even more so) to narrow the gap. The job will become easier as MLS becomes a bigger factor financially and opportunity wise, can you say NFL, NBA. For now considering the VERY few opportunities these kids have to ever make it professionally and the fact that of those only the very best will make earn more money than they would with a college education. My opinion/advice would be "GO TO COLLEGE"! One last point; A lot is said about professional club's "Academies" world wide but as good as they are or may be and even though they can choose from "the best of the best" prospects. In fact only a few make it BIG. The rest are sent home with nothing but unfulfilled dreams and often unfulfilled promises, to say nothing of, NO education. So "Young Man/Woman Go To College".

  4. Matt Ralph, February 10, 2014 at 7:44 p.m.

    While I agree that college soccer could benefit from a few rule changes, saying that it's hindering development because there are more substitutions in a game seems a narrow-minded view, particularly when elite players in college so often play the full 90-plus minutes. Also, why no mention of Homegrown Player contracts? (Of the 13 HGP contracts signed by MLS clubs so far this year, 11 are from the college ranks and 6 were players with eligibility remaining).

    Until MLS is able to build its own development league for 18-22 year olds - and why would they considering the infrastructure they aren't paying for now on college campuses nationwide? - it's going to remain a good option for young players who aren't offered contracts when they are 16 or 17. It might even be argued that the combination of college and PDL in the summer is preferable to rotting in the depth chart of a professional team.

  5. Duncan Scott replied, November 6, 2015 at 2:33 p.m.

    I completely disagree. Yes, many players play the full 90, but it only takes a few subs in and out to rest a marking player to negate the skilled player, especially in the midfield. If you take a player out and he can't come back in, that completely changes the game.

  6. BJ Genovese, February 10, 2014 at 8:21 p.m.

    The problem is that in other countries... If just one of those players is a great one... than the development fee picked up can fund your development program for quite some time. We can develop kids here. Its the agenda that is the problem right now and most of those agendas are resume building for coaches. And winning makes a coach smell like a rose.

  7. Jogo Bonito, February 11, 2014 at 7:22 a.m.

    As always, well written, thoughtful stuff from PG. Mentioning College Soccer in a conversation about player development with US Soccer and pro coaches is like suggesting they play with a sweeper. It's grossly out-of-style. It would require them to think seriously about something that might get them laughed at while sitting at the"cool kids table" in the lunch room. But seriously, it would be nice if the NCAA would just expand their season to Fall and Spring and adopt FIfA rues. That alone would solve a ton of problems. College soccer isn't going away - and it shouldn't. It could be the best option for late-bloomers and solid, 2nd level players that may or may not make a living playing pro ball. US Soccer needs to put heavy pressure on the NCAA to finally change.

  8. Bruce Gowan, February 11, 2014 at 7:39 a.m.

    The High School grads are going to college to secure a better financial future for themselves. I you want them to play soccer as a pro then give them a contract with a multi-million $$ signing bonus right out of High School. Here in the US, Baseball does that for hot prospects. Professional Soccer clubs all over the world do it to get their developmental players. It is all about money. US soccer (Nat teams and MLS) want to get their players for free with parents paying for the development or the players working for very low pay in semi-pro leagues. To the critics of the current situation then "put your money where your mouth is".

  9. BJ Genovese, February 11, 2014 at 9:38 a.m.

    Many more players could play over seas but they wont even take a look because of rules they have in place. You cant even play in England/Europe unless you have played 75 percent for your national team or you have dual citizenship or EU passport. Good luck making the national team. Also we need to be able to pick up development fees like they do overseas.

  10. Futbol Genio, February 11, 2014 at 12:48 p.m.

    Sorry to say, but a young American player CANNOT make any money pursuing an MLS dream, and their parents certainly have to spend a lot of money fighting for one. In the end, most Am soccer dreams become very personal nightmares, and Rejection for a young player is devastating. The deck is sooo stacked against young Am players!

    With the MLS sucking up players from South & Central Am at reduced wage rates, there are NO SLOTS open for most promising Am college players, let alone, talented U-18 players. 10 GA slots make for no movement in this regard. The other US pro leagues pay young players close to parents have to supplement income.

    Watching the top boy's youth soccer programs over the past ten years shows that college soccer is where most of these players should go. It is not about their soccer talent, it is about their wage earning opportunities. They have no choice...

    Parents paying for countless coach's looksie tournaments & European excursions present more questions than answers. European youth soccer has its own problems, and basis education is one of them.

    For young Am players, giving up college for MLS's half-hearted promise of consideration is not fair to them. College application deadlines require commitment, and waiting on "just one more tournament or tryout" ends up being ludicrous.

    Our family went through all of this stuff, including Youth National Championships, ODP Championships, DA, College Championships, MLS Combines, pro rosters, etc. Luckily, hiding from reality was not something our family did. We faced it all, with a tremendously productive player, and watched as he came to realistic conclusions... no one can afford to play pro soccer for free.

    I will say that what the DA has become is a tremendous recruiting tool for college coaches. It is the "new" ODP concept, with many more coaches getting the opportunity to sell their prospects to Division 1 colleges. Not even DA coaches can get Am players into MLS in any #s...sorry.

  11. Bruce Gowan, February 11, 2014 at 5:09 p.m.

    Well said Futbol Genio. You gave this discussion its best point. I would also add that unlike other countries the US soccer players come from a middle and upper class economic background. Because of this background they have a vision of success other than playing soccer for low wages. A college degree is part of that vision.

  12. Bertel Dejoie, February 11, 2014 at 5:30 p.m.

    You are absolutely correct in your assessment. Many can poke holes through exceptions to the rule but professional soccer in the USA has a long way to go. U18 players in the US are not that far off their counterparts abroad. The fact that once youth soccer is over, there is no place for players to go to continue to improve is appalling. In addition, a European or South American player can continue to go to school and continue to train in systems designed to get the best out of you. The current system forces players at 18 to make a career choice much earlier than players abroad. How can US players compete against players from abroad who are training 11 months out of the year with excellent coaches and our players are training July to October and a little in the spring and expect to compete. Therefore we cannot, though easy targets, blame the Colleges and MLS teams who are just working within the system set up. Again, Mr. Gardner is correct in his assessment but the fault lies with the USSF as it is their job to build the pathway where one does not exist. This is the people's game for over 6 billion people on earth and in the US it is for the wealthy both professional and otherwise. Sadly, The closed system currently employed by the MLS, the DA and the GA will not improve the situation for the foreseeable future.

  13. BJ Genovese, February 11, 2014 at 10:28 p.m.

    Wow, very sobering. Thank you for your 1st person perspective on the situation futbol genio. I wish I could email your response to every academy and pay to play club out there. We are bowing out of sending our son to Dallas Cup. Too much damn money for the hype.

  14. R2 Dad, February 12, 2014 at 12:38 a.m.

    We always wonder why the children of immigrants do so well relative to kids in the general population. It's the dual nationality that allows them to progress after U18 and play in Europe, rather than some immigrant work ethic or old world cultural advantage. What is it going to take for NCAA to adjust the rules to accommodate the world game instead of the U12 rules they use now?

  15. Steve McSteve, February 12, 2014 at 12:45 a.m.

    This column is needlessly pessimistic as well as ill informed.

    For one, the number of development academy teenagers turning pro is much higher than just 10 Generation Adidas player. MLS teams sign dozens of homegrown player signings every year as well. And an increasing number of Development Academy teams are affiliated with an MLS team (like the Michigan Wolves with the Columbus Crew) which means that many kids that don't live in MLS markets still have a chance to sign homegrown contracts.

    One shouldn't just assume that because many Development Academy players are going to college that it's a bad thing. Most of those players will never be pro soccer players, so college soccer is a good consolation prize. It's also a good place for overlooked players to prove their worth.

    Regardless, an increasing percentage of elite prospects are bypassing college and signing directly with MLS. And with the USL Pro partnership, they'll have more opportunities for playing time.

    Really, Paul, your complaints are wearing a bit thin. I'm not sure why you have embraced a misanthropic view of American soccer, but it is awful tiresome.

  16. s@cc@r f@n, February 12, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.

    As far as playing games, most high level players in college PLAY from late August to November 20 games, (more if the reach playoffs); Spring ball 6 games (and if they go overseas another 4, allowed - I think - once every 4 years by NCAA); PDL goes from May to mid July 14 games. So high level players are exposed to two sets of coaches and 40+ games (20 college, 6 Spring, 14 PDL) and more if they reach NCAA or PDL playoffs. This is on top of spring conditioning work which starts in January and goes through April; players going to PDL train on so when they start mid May they are ready to compete. All toll, not counting the indoor pick up games and other diversions, they are working pretty solidly from January to November with at least 40 games.
    English Premier League teams play 38 matches going from August to May.
    The real question is whether playing in a Division 2 or 3 team in Europe is superior to playing at a high level Division 1 team in the U.S. It is not like the athletes are not playing year round, or not playing a lot of games. U23 PDL attracts most of the high level collegiate players and those associated with MLS teams get some good scrimmage experience as well.
    I agree with Steve that the MLS clubs are increasingly taking their homegrowns out of college, Generation Adidas is adding a few, and the colleges are maturing another set of players. I think the college system allows a lot of players to continue and get an education (and some to mature and make the MLS) vs continue and just play on a lower division team and get nothing. Even in Europe my guess it takes many thousands of players (our clubs) to get to several thousands (our DA) feeding into hundreds of lower division clubs (our colleges, PDL, home growns and Generation players) to get to their Premier League (our MLS).
    The real breakthrough will come when the MLS pays a living wage to players beyond 1-7 or 10 of the draft ($35k for past the first round won't cut it) and potential high level players at ages 8-12 are identified and get intense SKILLS coaching before they develop the bad habits that last a lifetime.

  17. Jim Bauman, February 13, 2014 at 7:03 p.m.

    I find it quite interesting that there have been no comments about the abysmal level of college coaching. Change all the NCAA rules you want but if long-ball Billy is still holdiing the coach's whistle college soccer will be a detour at best or more likely a dead end. MLS needs to elimiinate the farce that college soccer is a prep for the pro game as college is in basketball and football. The US is alone in its reliance on educational institutions to develop its professional soccer players. MLS and US Soccer need to eliminate the pretense and concentrate on a college-less development system. Oh, and please don't waste my time and yours by naming some of our TOP players that came through the college "system". Face it -- we don't have any world class players nor have we ever had any!! I love Mike B but let's be honest, he couldn't maintain his position on a mediocre plus Italian team.

  18. Gary Parsons, February 17, 2014 at 9:47 a.m.

    Once again, Paul Gardner shoots his gun but misses the target. The answer is for MLS to sign more players when they graduate from HS and provide the pro development system.

  19. vs 9101, July 2, 2014 at 7:41 a.m.

    As pointed out earlier, Academy system is the new ODP, this is based on personal experience with my kid for a year after which I decided not to pursue the academy since there is limited prospects for an academy player. There are various issues with the current system and some of these are as follows:

    - The money involved and the time spent driving in this vast country for this unique concept of "travel soccer" . The time is better utilized elsewhere. Do you want your kid to practice with the ball 10 hours a week or spend 10 hours in the car? In elite academies around the world, they stay put and practice with limited travel.

    - Other than the MLS academies, most are pay to play and geared towards college soccer, not professional soccer. Even the success percentage of MLS Acedemies is very low. In other countries, students go to college for studying , not for playing soccer. There the top talent get paid a lot , not so in the US.

    - About the low quality of college soccer coaching, look no further for the kick and run mentality in US and lower level English soccer. If you watch a D1 college game, you will be lucky to see five passes in a row. Case in point, Belgium, a country the size of Ohio was completely dominating the US. If a kid plays college soccer, the odds are very high that he is going to fall out behind European and Latin American kids in the world stage because of poor coaching.

    - In other countries, talented eighteen year olds are paid a lot to sign up for a professional club, in US there is no such path with MLS importing low wage African players.

    IMHO, if you think your kid is top technical talent, take him to Europe and stay away from Youth Academy and college soccer. Otherwise, is it better off pursuing something else.

  20. peter mcginn, July 3, 2014 at 2:09 a.m.

    Yes that may all be true but 1% are good enough to play in Euro academies in the meantime the DA is a good thing as it provides a place for serious players to play and it gives the 1% a structured place to hopefully get better. Most go to college and play college soccer and that is not so bad is it. The great players will get picked up by Euro squads, the really good guys who want to be part of the mls and be poor pros can do that for a few years and the just good players can play d1 -d2 and the journeymen who still love the game go play d3. What is so bad about that..It's all good.

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  22. Duncan Scott, November 6, 2015 at 2:31 p.m.

    They need to change the college rules to FIFA's rules, at least for substitutions anyway. The skill players that the U.S. is lacking is a result of being able to throw player after player at a skill player and sub them when they get tired. If the subs were limited, the skill player would shine more easily and the skilled teams would win more often. That would also reward the coaches backing that style of play and player. Frankly, this would fix HS and club soccer as well but that will never happen of course due to parental opposition. I actually think if that were the rule, the Development Academy might never have been necessary. Oh, and my thoughts on DA... it fits some players and some Academies are good, but far too many players are in it. My son opted not to go Academy for a variety of reasons (although I wanted him to), and now that he is a recruited athlete he has played against kids from the Academies. Some are incredible of course, but many are really not that good. This is particularly true of Academies from some parts of the country. My feeling when the DA formed was that US Soccer should limit it to MLS teams and maybe some top USL teams. If a DA has no tie to a professional team, I don't see the same incentive to develop the individual that you see abroad that makes their system work. Of course, that means some people will have no Academy even within a long driving distance but that is the case now for some... and in other sports in the U.S., if you want to get to the highest level your family may actually have to move. This is common in ice skating, gymnastics, and swimming. If you live no where near an MLS team, yes, your kid might have to move with your family to be nearer. That is a choice.

  23. Buk Rogers, December 3, 2015 at 7:43 a.m.

    I don't have a problem with the DA and ODP program prepping players for college recruitment, but I do have a problem with US college soccer not being able to develop players for a professional career in the sport the same way universities develop student athletes with "go pro" potential in other sports.

    What would be revolutionary globally (and a uniquely American system) is if the Development Academies would subsidize (wholly or partially) a players college tuition. Even committing to fund tuition for an associates degree would be an improvement over the skimpy merrit based scholarship dollars awarded to (some) D1-2 players now and with less hope of going pro than athletes playing football/basketball.

    If the schools won't raise funding for soccer to match the scholarship allocations that football and basketball programs receive,  exclusive MLS sponsored (for profit) DA programs could step in and fill the gap. DAs shouldn't be run by the USSF, since they have a small budget and can't deliver fully on their stated mission. Professional academies can work in the US, just as they have in the rest of the world.

    Pleaae, find the holes.

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