Men's College Soccer (Part 2): 1972 to 2020, the years of the draft ... and inertia

The 1971 Division 1 Final (Howard 3 St Louis 2) played in the cavernous -- and lamentably empty -- Orange Bowl started my rethink about college soccer.

The quality of the soccer was much, much better than I had last seen it -- some 10 years earlier. Not only from Howard’s foreigners but also from the relentlessly American boys from St. Louis. I sensed - or, rather, believed - that I was seeing the beginning of a great leap forward by college soccer.

Part 1: Sixty years of trying to assess men's college soccer

I wrote a glowingly enthusiastic feature for the New York Times in which I called college soccer “a sport of enormous potential.” Yes, I believed that to be the case. It really did seem to me that college soccer was beginning to fit in alongside basketball and football in the American scheme of things, as a sport that would provide a constant stream of young talent for the pro game.

New and attractive visions were opening up, and I allowed my enthusiasm to over rule my judgement. Logically, I proceeded to laud the NASL’s decision to hold its first-ever college draft. I really should have known better.

I attended that first NASL draft, in 1972. Something was badly wrong. It was quickly and unmistakably clear that none of the NASL coaches knew very much about any of the college players, and, in truth, had little interest in the draft. It was, sad to tell, a joke.

A few years later, trying to justify my optimistic predictions, I blamed the NASL coaches, most of whom were foreign, for the draft’s failings. It really did look as though they did not rate American players. There was something in that argument, but it was not the heart of the matter. That resided in the sport itself -- not the sport of soccer, but specifically the sport of college soccer. Of which more in Part 3.

I don’t think the draft ever advanced beyond the joke stage. How on earth was it possible to ignore the fact that in the 1978 draft, 96 players were chosen and the most successful, looking at his subsequent performance, was Pat Fidelia. He was drafted dead last, with the 96th pick. If such a colossal anomaly could be overlooked, anything seemed possible. The anomaly was blithely set aside. The NASL draft continued.

By 1977 I was evidently beginning to come to my senses. I wrote that “the college system has not been producing players of professional caliber” and that “a major problem has been building.” By 1980 my second U-turn on college soccer was nearly complete and, in an article titled “Is there any hope at all for colleges?” I lamented: “it has seemed to me for quite a few years now that the colleges cannot adequately train pro players.”

That conviction grew much stronger. And very little has been done during the past 40 years to change things. Yes, the game on the field has been improving, but not nearly enough. By 1987 I had pretty much given up on college soccer. It was a time when there was no pro soccer. “If college soccer is all we’ve got,” I wrote, “we need to be sure that the colleges take the sport seriously. Sadly, I’m not at all sure that they do.”

Sadly ... yes, with sadness, because over the past decades I had many discussions with college coaches who sought changes in the college game -- e.g. a longer season, adherence to FIFA rules. Good men, like Steve Negoesco, Joe Morrone, John Rennie, Jerry Yeagley, Ray Reid. I got to know these guys quite well. I did not always appreciate the soccer their teams played, but they all put in a lot of hard work to improve college soccer. Yet their efforts had little effect. Today it is the articulate Maryland University coach Sasho Cirovski who is leading the pleas for meaningful changes. I wish him luck.

In the late 1970s the storm clouds were gathering. As the NASL stumbled toward its downfall the draft assumed an importance it had never had before. The NASL was suddenly emphasizing the importance of Americanizing the game. The colleges were now required to live up to their ostensible purpose of training pro-level American players. So NASL clubs were relying on the draft to help in this unarguably praiseworthy aim of Americanization. Young Americans, drafted from the colleges, were about to get their chance.

It was quota time. In 1979, the NASL mandated that each club must have at least six Americans (or Canadians) on its roster, and that at least two of them must be in each starting lineup. In 1980, the NASL’s proclaimed “year of the North American player,” the required number of native starters was raised to three.

Favoring native talent was a popular move, but for many -- myself included -- this looked like a deception. To us, the real reason why the NASL was suddenly cherishing the draft was starkly crass. It was money. Something the NASL was running out of. One way of cutting expenses was to sign more Americans -- they cost a lot less than the foreigners.

But a decade of stats from the draft showing that draftees, even the No. 1 picks, rarely got much playing time, could not be denied. The totally predictable result of more American players on the field was a drop in the caliber of the soccer.

The colleges simply could not supply pro-level players. And the NASL withered into nothingness.

When MLS arrived in 1996 one of its first acts (in March) was to stage a college draft. It did not look like a sensible move. In a marketing sense, maybe it would score some points, proving that MLS was on the same level as the NFL. But its soccer value was questionable.

Yes, there definitely had been signs of improvement in the college game. The four-year reign (1991-94) as champions of Bruce Arena’s Virginia introduced a lively team that played skill-based soccer that was a far cry from the traditional hustle and bustle of the college game.

But fundamental changes were in the offing. At long last, the message was getting through: being a college star, going on to a high draft pick, was absolutely no guarantee of pro success. Young players, sometimes with agents, were working out other paths to pro glory.

Surprisingly, among the organizers of alternatives to college soccer was none other than ... MLS. Toward the end of its initial 1996 season - and just six months after it had touted its first college draft - MLS announced the Project-40 program. A program that was clearly designed to keep the top youth players in the country out of college soccer.

Forty of these top young players would be identified, then 30 of them would be offered pro contracts with MLS. This was surely a colossal slap in the face for college soccer. It meant the top youth players in the country would not be going to college, and so would not be part of any college draft.

As it happened, 1996 was also the year that I gave up on college soccer. I think that’s the honest way of putting it. I was by now firmly convinced that it could never play any role in the development of pro quality players. I attended my last Division 1 tournament, got myself put on probation by the NCAA for using a four-letter no-no during a press conference, then watched as New York’s St.John’s U, with its zippy multi-ethnic team, beat Florida International 4-1 in an excellent, attack-oriented final.

I’ve watched the Division 1 final four tournaments on television since then and have found them, on the whole, dull, defensive low-scoring bores.

The three-year reign of Stanford, from 2015 to 2017, had me wondering: Is this Stanford team demonstrably better than Harry Keough’s St.Louis teams back in the 1970s? Not easy to answer -- trying to match up teams from different generations is rarely satisfactory. But I can say this: Keough’s teams never bored me. Stanford managed, consistently, to do that.

My view of men’s college soccer is that it has sunk into a rut and is barely worth watching. There is no way forward for such a sport. It can -- and does -- move sideways, from one typically unimaginative, typically college, team to another.

The question that rises is this: Do things have to be that way? Surely there must be a way of injecting life, reality, relevance, purpose into this currently drifting activity?

Part 1: Sixty years of trying to assess men's college soccer

Coming soon: Part 3: Men’s college soccer - Quo vadis?

6 comments about "Men's College Soccer (Part 2): 1972 to 2020, the years of the draft ... and inertia".
  1. Ric Fonseca, May 17, 2020 at 3 p.m.

    Thnks PG, I agree with your assessment as noted in last sentence, but IMHO, what drags collegiate soccer is not so much the make up of teams or coaching (well, at times the coaching is the culprit) but after my first two years at Cal St. Hayward (now CSU East Bay) and then six-one half years as a graduate student at UCLA, followed by four at CSUN, it was so evident then that it isn't "so much" the make up of the teams or coaching, but the archaic ruling intercollegiate bodies, especially the NCAA and I need to say that it is also the intercollegiate administrations usually comprised of former American football, or baseball, or tennis coaches. Even when I introduced the sport at our newest community college in the San Fernando Valley, the then AD was a former gymnastics/baseball coach who literally blanched when the college president agreed to set aside some $10,000 to fund a men's program.  And the same happened at CSUN, and then later on at LA City College - the AD's and (then) Phys Ed Chairmen were also very reluctant to field a men's team. The Laws/Rules of the game were revised by the NCAA, thus we had to play in quarters (a la football) and count down during the last two minutes and the last ten seconds. It was only through a UCLA Alumni turned referee in the Greater Los Angeles Coccer League and other unaffiliated men's leagues, who worked with other referees, e.g. Toros Kibrijian, Heinz Wolmerath, Chuck Bowerman, and with the assistance of then Greater Los Angeles Soccer League President, Tony Morejon, and Dio Cordero, that they convinved the California Commission on Athletics (Community Colleges) to implement the FIFA LOTG, that were very well received that some Los Angeles Unified Schools and SOME other local school districts employ the FIFA LOTG.

  2. Ric Fonseca, May 17, 2020 at 3:04 p.m.

    I forgot to mention the name of the UCLA Alum that was/is instrumental in introducing the FIFA LOTG, Dan Goldmann, a science professor at Santa Ana Community College.

  3. frank schoon, May 17, 2020 at 5:11 p.m.

    I played soccer in the late 60's for Maryland ended up co-champs in '68. Maryland had a total of 18 players of which there 5 Americans and the starting team had  only 2 Americans. The others were immigrants who learned their game in Europe. Later on as soccer got more and more popular, with the growth of soccer associations, the university teams became saturated with more American soccer talent. Many think after 50-60years the college game has become better and more technical because of its growth needs to understand that it is quite the opposite. One needs to keep this in mind as I explain the following first and relate this back to college soccer.

     Cruyff once stated that if he had to measure the technical ability of today's players to the ones Cruyff  palyed with in his days ,he rate the former a 5 and latter an 8. The reason is that in the old days TECHNIQUE was the major standard but as time went on it became more and more as the physical and athleticism was stressed.

    Three major reasons for this change, one was that 'street soccer' the pickup soccer was reduced due to the growing car traffic in Europe and two, the coaches who copied Rinus Michels 'total soccer' style of practices which, in most part, accented 'physical,athletic training. And that's why the game in the 70's began to change to a more athletic game.  You see all these coaches were impressed with Rinus Michels and copied his style of training forgot or overlooked one IMPORTANT element and that was all of Michell's players were GREAT technicians of the game for they grew up playing street soccer. Michells stated that's the only thing(atheticism) he could work and improve his players for they all had great skills. But these coaches fail to realize that their players had nowhere near the technical capabilities and therefore stressing 'athleticism' didn't make their players any better soccer players.  NEXT POST

  4. frank schoon, May 17, 2020 at 5:46 p.m.

    The third reason the decline in technical ability was more and more individuals who lack good skills became involved in coaching through obtaining a coaching license. And this is why the game has changed more to one of defense, not only is it easier to teach defense by coaches who themselves have difficulty taking on a lamppost 1v1 but also it lack the real "playing insights' and technical dexterity to teach or coach an offensive game.

    With this backdrop in mind ,all the immigrants mostly made up the good college teams learned and developed their game during the 'street soccer' days in Europe. This is why the college game in the old days was more technical ,better than todays college games for all the reasons,  aforementioned. Today's college game is much more physical, athletic than when we played for we immigrants grew up applying a more technical skill. Although the 'street soccer' era is going basically it still seen in pockets in Europe ,it is transformed now into "pickup' soccer WHICH WE DONT HAVE IN AMERICA. The European kids coming over here playing college ball still have a good playing basis because of 'pickup soccer' that our American kids lack.

    I was watching today on Youtube an English game played in 1962, Spurs vs Burnley, full game. I watched the Spur players and noticed their feel for the ball when passing the ball to each other. How technical the English played , nice short passes under pressure near the sidelines as they build out from the back, their positioning off the ball and how they thought. The passes the players madeed as I watched  gave it was a message, a feeling behind the pass,telling the receiver this is what you should do next with the ball by the way I passed it to you. You have to be able to read between the lines, the game within the game, so to speak and you if one is not aware of it ,it will go right over one's head...

    Paul mentioned St.Louis and obviously they had I'm sure in that area lots Germanic immigrants to influence the game... But to me ,even today, I admired their history, and strength of good soccer in St.Lous. I remember beating them 3-1 in the regionals, but I came away with the feeling we beat a better soccer playing team but we just had better individuals 

    Paul wrote a great article about the college game but deep down it harkens for us that we have to change our style of player development drastically, and it has to begin with Pickup soccer, and the rest will follow....

  5. Wooden Ships replied, May 18, 2020 at 10:40 p.m.

    Frank. The St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Tons of individuals going way, way back. 

  6. frank schoon replied, May 19, 2020 at 8:15 a.m.

    Ships, WOW.....I hope you guys have good time.  I hope SA will cover this or better let them know of this event....Sweet memories......

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