College Soccer: A game in search of definition

Is college soccer ever  going to wake up to the reality of the outside (soccer) world? The question poses itself acutely every year when the Division I final gives us an instructive look at what is happening on the college fields.

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.

16 comments about "College Soccer: A game in search of definition".
  1. Terry Lynch, December 17, 2017 at 9:22 a.m.

    Gardner's essay is overly long and overly boring too, just like the college game.  I couldn't get to the end of either.

  2. frank schoon replied, December 17, 2017 at 12:32 p.m.

    Yes, it was a little long but it was needed to be said, Thanks Paul. If you can sit through watching Stanford-Indiana game, you can read PG's piece. What PG didn't mention or forgot to tie in is the poor, uninspiring play of the college game to the DEVELOPMENTAL SOCCER ACADEMIES. Lets face it, all these college players from both teams were highly recruited, having going through the training development of the soccer academies,  some have played on the National teams of their age group and not to mention all of them play for the best teams in their area, meaning they probably had good coaches( using the term loosely). WE HAVE TO QUESTION  THE LOUSY TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT PROCEDURES OF THE SOCCER ACADEMIES, where so much is money is spend on. Like Jerry Seinfeld use to say in his comedic routing " Who are these people ?" who are responsible and train at these Academic Developmental Academies. My guess it's just another Joe Blow with a coaching license who worked his way up. 

    You can't blame the college players for  they represent the END PRODUCT of all the training from Developmental Academies along with being trained by cerified Licensed Coaches certified of the USSF.  SEE NEXT POST


  3. frank schoon replied, December 17, 2017 at 12:35 p.m.

    Like PG states we need to PRODUCE crafty, skillful, tricky with a ball, excellent 1v1 creative players, for obviously these will also be type of players that will bring crowds to the college game.

    But to produce these types of players ,we need to CREATE A STYLE of soccer that calls for creative players. That style of soccer is ATTACKING STYLE. That implies don't play 5-3-2 but a simple 4-3-3 with WINGERS. That doesn't mean you cant' play 4-4-2 or 5-3-2 or 3-5-2,but only to be used in emergency situations due to injuries. Next , DEFENSIVE COACHES SHOULD NOT BE USED IN THE DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES OF THE PLAYERS. Defensive coaches ,those who have a defensive backround, are not conducive to producing CREATIVE players. PERIOD!! Defensive coaches don't have a creative mentality, but one that destruct, stop, eliminate, organize, alll of which is the last thing a creative youth needs to listen too. This reminds me of a statement made by ERNST HAPPEL, considered by Johan Cruyff one of the greates coaches ever, stated about coaches with a defensive backround, " How can you learn the game from a defensive coach, who had spend his life chasing the heels of attackers!" 

    In sum the only way to create skillful players is for us to change the style of play that calls for more creative  individualism. That ofcourse means new training procedures, more PICKUP soccer, stessed and nutured by the USSF, bringing in the right people who can teach the deeper insights of creativity, instead of some Joe Blow with a USSF license and Wiel Coerver laying in the back seat of his car.

  4. Kent James, December 17, 2017 at 9:40 a.m.

    While the essay is long, it speaks the truth.  I played, coached and refereed college soccer, and enjoyed almost every minute of that.  Before the professionalization of youth clubs, college soccer was the only place you could get good players, nice facilities, and good coaches (other than the ethnic adult leagues, which catered to very specialized audiences).  But PG is right.  The game has progressed in that many colleges do have better crowds, but that's about it.  And a final in front of a tiny crowd is embarrassing.  Not sure what the answer is; having the final at one of the participating colleges would get a better crowd, but a December final in Indiana might be dicey weatherwise. A split season (with the final in May) would solve most problems, but would require colleges allowing that.  I guess in the meantime, college soccer will remain what it is; a good outlet for good players who will probably never be pros.

  5. Wooden Ships, December 17, 2017 at 1:36 p.m.

    I’m not optimistic Paul, how could we be? Another fraud of the game perpetuated by the USSF and the vast majority of college coaches themselves. I coached at the university level myself. I can give credit to about 10% of all college coaches that approach the game as you believe it should be. For the game that is the most difficult to master we continue to put out a product that is continuing to unimpress the other sports and the student bodies. 

  6. Philip Carragher, December 17, 2017 at 3:01 p.m.

    As a parent of a student/athlete who has just completed playing college soccer at both the D1 and D3 levels, I find this article to be not just accurate but also important for understanding some aspects of the college soccer experience. D1 soccer tends to be fast and physical at the expense of a visually pleasing, flowing game; I believe this is at least one reason why attendance at college matches is low. It lacks symmetry and rhythm. College soccer serves well those that use it as a vehicle for getting into college and maybe even a better college that they would have otherwise. Playing four years of college soccer and graduating with a degree helps enormously with the job search. Employers love graduate/athletes. Scholarships are dicey for multiple reasons. Find a coach that believes in developing you as an adult, study, graduate, thank your parents for attending all your games, and consider D3 so you can study abroad while on your parents' dime.

  7. R2 Dad, December 17, 2017 at 5:50 p.m.

    "Where are the skill players in college?", Paul asks. You might also ask that of high school, for you will get the same answers/excuses. My kid's public highschool coach prefers big/tall/fast/burly players. Several freshmen, good on the ball and skilled, were told "they weren't big enough". There is enough blame to go around: 1) the rules--non-standard, do not follow FIFA. 2) the coaches, who are unashamed to play troglodyte, knuck-dragging kickball. 3) referees, who are in general not the highest ranking but are available in the middle of the afternoon. 4) school administrators--who hire the lame coaches but don't know anything about the sport so can't ask appropriate questions. 5) parents--transient supporters who will only be around 4 years. 

    In summary, youth school soccer needs a tactical nuke, a nutron bomb to facilitate the reorganization of the sport to acheive national goals while still providing kids the opportunity to develop and play at their schools. This is, apparently too much to ask because PG has counted off 40 years of zero progress.

  8. Ben Myers, December 17, 2017 at 8:30 p.m.

    Equally difficult to fathom are the 50 fiefdoms that run high school soccer in this country.  Many coaches are often teachers with zero background in the game, so they get their kids fit and encourage them to kick and run.  In some states, the governing high school sports body has the referees use hand signals to explain the type of foul.  Nonsense.  What difference does it make to the coach and fans what type of foul it was, and which coaches and fans are going to memorize all the soccer referee hand signals anyway?  A well-respected club soccer coach in my area, when questioned about coaching high school players in the spring after 80 to 90 days of fall high school play, commented that the first half of his club season was spent getting players to unlearn the bad habits acquired during the high school season.  Coach training, education and playing experience remain the biggest issues confronting high school, college and even club soccer in this country. 

  9. James Madison, December 17, 2017 at 9:15 p.m.

    Astonishing to expedt that college graduates will step immediately onto the MLS field.  A more relevant comparison would be to ask how many of the draftees were placed on USL teams and the extent to which they played at that level.  If PG were to look also at the college women's game and compare it to the women's professional league and, even to the women's national team, he would find a more favorable comparison.

  10. Ric Fonseca, December 17, 2017 at 9:22 p.m.

    Well I suppose I can say that "hope springs eternal," an eternity that I've been waiting for since my years at a university in the Oakland/SF Bay area and I must admit that while his essay is a bit long in the tooth, PG says it like it is. He is correct about the powerhouses of the very early '70', but he forgot San Jose State, UCLA, and the other smaller universities that did field a team way before the "partitioning" of the NCAA into Divisions I, II and III.  But I digress yet I must say that PG failed to point out that the biggest culprit in the lack of development of the college game is not the player or coach themselves, but the extremely high rate of sport micromanagement and refusal to have the college teams adhere to say, FIFA LoG, and these culprits are the very Athletic directors that are active members of that monolithic "august body" the NCAA.
    PG should've mentioned the final that was played in December, 1970, St. Louis University vs UCLA (St. Louis prevailed 1-0) in Edwarsville, ILLinois in a bitterly cold day, the referees, - they used the dual system - were attired in knickers, with striped shorts and a cap, and anything close to being called using FIFA LOTG, was as far fetched as one could get. Or the games later played three years later- as he mentions in Miami, in a just about empty stadium. I know I was there with the UCLA team, an "international student" varsity soccer team.  any attempt to get the NCAA to change the Rules of Competition to align with FIFA were ferociously defended by the AD's that sa as controlling members of the "Soccer committee," not many - well, maybe one or two, were soccer people, rather they were usually former american football or baseball coaches/players, etc., and so then as PG says, the college game still wallows, e.g. the time keeper doesn't even follow the progressive time keeping, i.e. counting the expired time played, instead use a regressive countdown, even counting off the remaining ten seconds in the respective half, or free substitution. 
    Yes, this is one of the times I agree with PG,, and what he said in his long essay, I bet will not go very far from the pages of this augut soccer daily, SA. Will it reach the eyes of the NCAA or even thoe folks at MLS? Perhaps, but I doubt it, because while change is always inevitable, only and unless we have more soccer-knowledgeable folks in the NCAA, the status quo of college game will remain the same.  So I close with this: who or how will PG's comments be read by more of us who give a damn?   

  11. Wooden Ships replied, December 18, 2017 at 9:46 a.m.

    Good stuff Ric and I agree with your frustration. There are several us that contribute in these posts that can relate to those earlier days. And, while we have millions more that play today, our quality has not significantly increased. My criticism toward the coaches themselves and the USSF could have also included the former NSCAA (now UCA). Your observation about non soccer administrators is very true. But, I feel the aforementioned groups have. Even basically impotent, to the level of complicity, in organizing, galvanizing and demanding change to align with FIFA. Lump high school in there too. Gone are the days, mostly, where arguing/lobbying on behalf of the sport could cost you your position and your players opportunity. 

  12. frank schoon replied, December 18, 2017 at 10:51 a.m.

    RIC, I remember San Jose State, we played them in the semi-finals of the NCAA Championship in Atlanta in '68. I remember their right wing that played opposite me, i think his name was Mannie. Good player, he played in the Real Madrid youth..He played like Gento"the jet".
    Ships, you're right the technique has not improved vertically, the only improvement is horizontal, more skilled players but not better...

  13. beautiful game, December 17, 2017 at 9:31 p.m.

    Paul's comment on college soccer, ..."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".  Paul couldn't be more right. For reasons expressed in his lengthy condemnation, I have stopped watching college soccer over a decade ago. I tend to gravitate to the high school state play-offs where sometimes a young player's performance catches my eye while in my gut deep down hoping that his coaches don't harness his/her potential.

  14. frank schoon, December 18, 2017 at 11:33 a.m.

    Guys, maybe it is me for I don't know much about the Organizational side of things since  I tend to focus more on what is going on the field. In a nutshell, I don't see why we blame the high school and college coaches, the Athletic Directors and the Organizational aspects like Ric stated. Granted I agree what  Ships states about the 90% of the college coaches, I agree what R2 Dad states about the quality of the high school coaches,etc. My first job as a high school coach was in the mid 70's, when the athletic directors were either former football or baseball players/coaches and  showed no love for soccer. As a varsity coach I was given a $250 budget to buy balls and uniforms....go figure that one. But even though I had no support or organization, my players came from the Annandale Boys club, travel system that were decent players and we had a good team. One of my kids, Giva,  ended up training, Mia Hamm. In other words, regardless of the AD, poor monetary support, and poor organization, as well an anti soccer sphere, we  played good soccer . Worse , since I wasn't a Fairfax county teacher ,for they were eligible to coach at the time, I would have to ask permission from the opposing coach to be coach my team from the sidelines otherwise I would have to sit in the stands. 
    You can't blame the high school or college coach for bad soccer, instead you blame the Club system, in this case the DEVELOPMENTAL ACADEMIES for producing a bad product. The high school coaches don't develop the kids, he just creates a team made up from the players that have been trained and developed for all of those years by the club system. This goes for the college coaches as well. Give me 11 Brazilian kids and a bad college coach , for example, I will guarantee you that you will still see good soccer for the players know how to play the game. 
    What is difficult to realize is what R2 and some other states about the quality of the high school coaches, a criticims one would hear back in the 70's but today after almost 50 year most hs coaches should have played the game.

  15. Wooden Ships replied, December 18, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.

    Frank, I’m blaming the coaches for not insisting that we have two semester seasons, a center that isn’t allowed to add stoppage, to recruit players (whenever and wherever possible) with possession skills, to rid the insulting countdown announcement, etc., etc. In other words adhere to the game that’s played by every other country. We have tons of “soccer” people that have sold out and that includes the turfites. Yes, it’s hard to have players develop the quality touch if they don’t have it in the early years, but if coaches don’t demand these changes and touch immersion, then why would non soccer people (traditional sport administrators) care about change. They already don’t respect the sport. 

  16. frank schoon, December 18, 2017 at 2:34 p.m.

    Ships, 2 semesters of soccer? Don't forget they are going to college to learn and getting a degree.
    That is asking a lot of their time. The  athletic student should have at least one semester to be a serious college student. They can still play soccer perhaps joining an amateur team for sundays or as a team play in a league.
    As far as synchronizing with FIFA and the way it is played everywhere in the world, sure, ofcourse, I agree. And this astroturf has to got to go ,it is just bad. I don't know who is in charge by the USSF in development or who initiates the empitus for change in training and development. I'm afraid that the 90% you mentioned are not capable or have a feel for what is necesarry. Put it this way, I would be just as frustrated as you to hear the college coaches express what they want ,because so many like you said aren't up to snuff.

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