For about a decade -- at least -- not very much has been happening. The regularity of that realization and the implication it carries of a sport cocooned in a sort of self-satisfied coma inevitably means that one might as well face up to the fact that nothing is happening in college soccer.
There is no development taking place. Watching this year’s Stanford-Indiana final was extreme deja vu. Well, what else was to be expected? Stanford, under its amiable English coach Jeremy Gunn, was there for the third year running. As for Indiana, well we have seen a great deal of them in recent years, almost perennial champions under the repeatedly successful Jerry Yeagley. So here they come again, now with Jerry’s son Todd Yeagley running the show.
The game itself was unexceptional. Short on drama, with only occasional interludes of good soccer. Inevitably, short on goals, too. That is even excusable. When did we last see a soccer final -- at any level -- that wasn’t disappointing? (As it happens, I have just watched the World Club Cup final. Gremio and Real Madrid, two of the best teams in the world. Another 1-0 bore). A much more specific criticism of college soccer is that it is a serial offender. Year after year, it gives us the same unimaginative, flat version of the sport.
The main strength of the college game has always been work rate -- hustle. Not a soccer-specific skill. Also not one to be belittled. The soccer skills -- particularly, ease with the ball -- have improved over the years. The ball control of both Stanford and Indiana was always pretty good. Yet it failed to produce a memorable game. Far too many passes going astray, from both teams, which in turn meant that flowing play -- passing, the team game -- never really got going, never could get going.
That has been, for decades now, the frustration of watching college soccer. Could we have slightly less of the charging about, please, and more of a coherent passing game? Apparently not, it doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen this year -- again -- partly because the passing simply wasn’t good enough to supercede the frenzied pace. But also because the game lacked any sort of controlling intelligence.
Again, this is not something where all the blame lies with college soccer. The need is for creative, playmaking, crafty, soccer-savvy midfielders -- and that is the type of player who is not often produced by the American youth development process. Not produced because not wanted? Not wanted because he thinks too much and doesn’t run enough? Holds the ball too much? Over dribbles? Quails at physical play?
Possibly some, even all, of those things. Whatever, they all come down to skills that do not fit easily into the frantic hustle and bustle of the college game.
Until that devotion to work-rate changes, until those other more subtle skills are welcomed, college soccer will never get beyond its present stage of physical fullness.
There are limits to how fast players can run, how long they can keep running, how high they can jump, how hard they can kick a ball, and so on. For decades, the college game has been hovering around the edge of all those limits -- without, apparently, being aware that this is a dead end. There is nowhere to go on the physical fitness scale. Future development can only come with the development of a more sophisticated, more intelligent, more subtle, more nuanced game.
We saw little in the Stanford-Indiana game to suggest that such a shift is taking place. Were these two teams better -- even just looking at the physical aspect -- than the St Louis teams of the 1970s, or of Jerry Yeagley’s more recent versions of Indiana? No, I don’t think so.
From the point of view of playing modern skillful soccer, were they better than, say, Lincoln Phillips’ Howard University or Steve Negoesco’s University of San Francisco teams of the 1970s? Frankly, not as good. Well, both Phillips and Negoesco used foreign players. Right -- but did the American college game, the American coaches, learn nothing from those teams?
One coach who did, of course, was Bruce Arena, who produced in the early 1990s an essentially American college team that transcended what had up till then been the standard overtly physical style. Arena jumped to the pro game, and the leadership in college soccer passed to Jerry Yeagley’s Indiana. A sort of halfway team -- the core of physical hustle was still very much there, but Yeagley took the risk of including key skilled ball-players -- Angelo Di Bernardo, Armando Betancourt, Dema Kovalenko, all of them foreigners. Finally, there arrived a gifted American to fill the role, Brian Maisonneuve.
But the college game’s macho roots die hard. The 2017 final was a clear reminder of that ... and that there is a price to be paid for such reluctance to change. At least two important points were made -- but hardly commented on -- before the game took place. A few days earlier, MLS commissioner Don Garber had delivered his state of the league address. He dealt smoothly with a wide variety of topics from expansion to VAR and on to the woes besetting the Columbus Crew. And, of course, he touched on youth development. But he did not once mention college soccer. More on that shortly.
The other noticeable -- this one, surely, difficult to avoid noticing -- pre-game event was something else we’ve grown used to for the College Cup: a largely empty stadium. There are plenty of soccer fans in Philadelphia, but they are obviously not interested in college soccer. That is not a knock on Philadelphia -- things would be the same wherever the final was played. So we get two small, hardy groups of fans from each college, and we get a mass of empty seats.
No atmosphere really. I feel sad about that ... but this is exactly the same sadness I felt in 1971 when I attended the first attempt to move college soccer off campus and into the big time. The final was played in Miami’s Orange Bowl: vast, impressive, and utterly, almost mockingly, empty.
For the past 46 years the future of college soccer has looked just like its past. It has settled into being a niche sport of no great consequence. Even so, among the college coaches there are those who insist that things can be changed.
I have been involved, closely or journalistically, with at least three generations of such guys. Admirable, devoted coaches who see college soccer breaking free of NCAA regulations, they see it adhering to FIFA rules, with a springtime calendar, with more scholarships and so on. But it’s difficult not to get cynical -- in over 40 years none of those attempts to significantly change college soccer has ever got off the ground.
So college soccer remains an unsatisfactory hybrid, with one foot still in the youth, or age group game, while the other hovers near the pro game that its amateur regulations strongly disapprove of. College soccer, poor college soccer, tries to move forward, but travels slowly in circles, supposedly improving but without really getting any better.
In what way was this 2017 final better than last year’s, or that of two or five years ago? I cannot think of any obvious improvements. The final was OK, but nothing more. The enthusiasm and the energy of college players is never in doubt, but it is not enough. The vital element of team play, of passing play, of build up -- and what is soccer without all that? -- goes missing. When the goal finally arrived late in overtime, it came as a surprise to everyone, no build up, just a loose ball suddenly slammed into the Indiana net. All over like lightning, an instinctive and instant reaction from Sam Werner -- a momentary flash of good soccer skills.
College soccer is, slowly, proving that it can draw fans -- but these are more supporters of the college, rather than fans of the sport. The run-and-gun version that the colleges offer is just not attractive enough to bring in neutral fans who want to see good soccer. Maybe that’s enough, maybe that is what college soccer should be, and nothing more than that. The problem there is that, through no fault of its own, college soccer has been moved into the position that college football occupies relative to the NFL.
College soccer is supposedly MLS’s chief source of young American talent. Which it is not, and never will be unless some pretty seismic changes envelop it. Do the college coaches know this? They have to. Surely, they will have noticed how Don Garber completely overlooked their sport in his MLS seasonal round up. Even more telling is what Garber did say about young American players - this they must have heard: “More than 250 academy products have signed domestic contracts.”
Yet, a few weeks after that statement and his failure to even mention college soccer, Garber will preside over the MLS SuperDraft -- of mainly college players. MLS likes to make a big deal of this event. It should be ashamed to do so. Because it knows full well that the draft should be re-titled the Pseudo-Draft. It is a marketing event, an attempt to show that MLS lives on the same level as the NFL, and like most marketing occasions, it is utterly shallow, a noisy, glitzy TV show, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing much.
But the worst aspect of the Pseudo-Draft is that it cynically holds out to young players a misleading promise of soccer stardom. Does MLS feel comfortable enrolling these young guys -- there will be nearly 100 of them involved this year -- in this publicity extravaganza?
How can they, when they know that a big majority of the draft picks disappear pretty quickly? A look at the 22 first-round picks from last year tells a melancholy story. The top 10 players started in 83 out of a possible 340 games. Just two players – No. 11 pick, forward Abu Danladi (Minnesota) with 15, and No. 8 pick Julian Gressel (Atlanta) with 24 -- account for nearly one half of those 83 starts. Danladi is from Ghana, Gressel is German. Not typical American products anyway.
That’s the Top 10. For the remaining 12 first-round picks there was little joy. Only 10 games were started, while the average number of minutes on the field for each player was 99 -- barely more than one full game in the entire 34-game season. And there were three more less hopeful rounds to go.
The Pseudo-Draft is surely not designed to mislead young players into believing they are about to become major soccer stars, but that is its effect. Its continuance reflects no credit on MLS, as they annually showcase a system in which they themselves -- correctly, I believe -- have little confidence.
And I can’t help wondering what college soccer gets out of this noisy, brash link proffered by MLS. Is the supposed glamor of the draft a useful recruiting tool for college coaches? I suppose it might be, though I would hope not. Firstly because of the deception that would have to be involved, secondly because college soccer needs to find a genuine raison d’etre and that cannot happen as long as it accepts the role of marketing ploy.
For college soccer this is not a healthy situation. The needed genuineness of the college game has to come from within. I think it can only come from a concerted effort by college coaches to make sure that their game is relevant. At the moment, it really serves no purpose beyond a recreational activity.
Which is a worthy enough aim but not, I think, one that satisfies expectations. One has always sensed that college soccer has great potential. But the promise remains unfulfilled. The sport is not good enough to be a reliable pathway to the pros, nor attractive enough to figure as a major NCAA sport. It badly needs a new dynamism (to get rid of the current dinosaurism) and a monster re-think of what has become known as “college soccer” -- a collective description that has come to sound almost like a rebuke, a mild one that politely hides its many discrepancies.