Mike Lynch: College soccer makes American system the optimal model

As an American soccer fan, Mike Lynch appreciates Christian Pulisic’s talents. The 21-year-old rocketed up the ranks of international soccer, to become a mainstay of the U.S. men’s national team heading into the 2022 World Cup.

But as an American soccer coach, Lynch knows that Pulisic is special. His experience is far different than most young players here. And – once you take the very few Pulisics out of the mix – Lynch believes that for the vast majority of teenage and early 20s male and female soccer players, the American system is better than the model used in the rest of the world. According to Lynch, college (and high school) soccer offer benefits to substantial numbers of young athletes.

“We don’t have facilities like Liverpool. I get it,” says Lynch, entering his ninth season as head women’s coach at Belmont Abbey College. “But except for places like that, facilities here are better than many big-time clubs. And I’m not just talking about the Power Five (conferences). They’re everywhere.”

Lynch is also not just talking about facilities. Though the NCAA places limits on training dates and numbers of matches, Lynch calls college sessions and games “very intentional. Periodization is very planned. Players are put in a very competitive environment.”

And, he notes, the number of those players is very high, compared to other countries.

According to the NCAA, more than 25,000 men, and a comparable but higher number of women, play college soccer in the United States. Even if only a minuscule number make the national team, Lynch argues, tens of thousands of athletes gain the values of goal-setting, tenacity, teamwork and more that college soccer teaches. They spend four years in a competitive cauldron unavailable elsewhere. (The English professional soccer, including its different divisions, serves only a couple of thousand young players, Lynch says by comparison.)

And college soccer provides educations that make those competitors very valuable in whatever work they pursue once their college careers end, the Belmont Abbey coach argues. “The U.S. is singularly unique, with a co-curricular focus. Players are student-athletes. Coaches are teachers, who teach the game along with life lessons. They imprint success for years to come.” Lynch notes that no matter where soccer players live, nearly all stop playing competitively relatively young. The American college system gives thousands a chance to do that for four years longer than their counterparts around the globe.

“Would a top young player be better off playing at Dortmund? Sure!” he says. “But it’s such a small number who ever get that opportunity.”

Lynch is well aware of the counter-argument: College soccer does not provide an environment that prepares players for success at the highest level.

He’s not buying it. The truly elite male players do develop elsewhere, he says. But they are joined and aided by players who flourished in the college ecosystem. As a women’s coach, he notes with pride the success of the U.S. team on the world stage.

So it “baffles” Lynch why U.S. Soccer “doesn’t embrace college soccer. It’s a strength, not a weakness. This is not an either/or situation, where you have to pick college or another environment, and not support both. And it wouldn’t cost them a dime.”

As someone who recruits young athletes – and whose own son had to choose between interscholastic and Development Academy soccer -- he’s equally passionate about the high school game.

“So many high school coaches are now ‘soccer people.’ They really know the game. And it’s the only place where real pickup soccer goes on today. It’s friends playing with friends, learning from them. In club soccer, everyone lives so far apart.”

Lynch knows that COVID-related questions surround the upcoming season. Many factors will determine whether Belmont Abbey – or anyone – plays this fall. He is aware too that despite his ringing endorsement of college soccer, the game exists in the shadow of football. Its substantial revenue and long cultural roots enable sports like his to exist.

“But (budget cuts and related issues) shouldn’t be taken out on the players,” he pleads, suggesting ideas like regional scheduling as a way to keep the game going this year.

“Belmont Abbey is not unlike a lot of schools. We’ve got excellent practice and game fields. It’s a professional-type environment. It benefits so many players. It’s a good thing we’ve got going here, and all around the country.”

And it’s unlike any other model, anywhere in the world.

20 comments about "Mike Lynch: College soccer makes American system the optimal model".
  1. Octavio Zambrano, July 13, 2020 at 10:33 a.m.

    Of course, if everything would be decided by facilities the USA would be World Champions, or if it would be decided by PowerPoint presentations Canadá would win it hands down.
    The simple facts are that a quality 18 year old club player from any Football/Soccer competitive country around the world plays an average of 60 to 70 highly competitive matches per year, either in a U-20 or Reserve system, trains 2 hours per day, sometimes double sessions, also if he shows promise he is invited for a closer look with the first team.
    Where as a College player of the same the same age will start to fall behind because of the limitations imposed by archaic NCAA regulations limiting training and lack of competition. A college education is very important and there is nothing wrong with players and parents putting the emphasis on accomplishing it. But there is absolutely no comparison from the player development standpoint. This is not an indictment on College coaches, as the majority are more than prepared and have the coaching experience, licenses etc. It's not them, it's the system.

  2. Dan Donovan replied, July 13, 2020 at 11:01 a.m.

    I think that is recognized in the article. The part that intrigued me the most was trying to figure out how we capitalize on the college system rather than shun it. Part of that answer may lie in making changes to the system that address the limitations imposed on universites by the NCAA. My understanding is that the European landscape is littered with players who went the pro route, foregoing education, only to be confronted several years later that they are not going to make it and missed out on the educational opportunity leaving them adrift. There is a very delicate balance here that if we can figure it out may forge the best path forward.

  3. frank schoon replied, July 13, 2020 at 12:17 p.m.

    Dan, there are so many players that don't make it in Europe but were good players will have a job to fall back on as due to the educational system pushing the kids in the direction of their capabilities all along. Unlike in America where sooo many kids think only of going to college that shouldn't be going in the first place. 

    We are so brainwashed about needing your kid to go to college when in fact in Europe it isn't like that. Kids who don't make the 'big' time in soccer will continue to play for a club regardless.

  4. Mark Pannenberg, July 13, 2020 at 11:32 a.m.

    I agree with Coach Lynch, a military veteran and a class act, who I know personally as his son Kevin and my son played on the same youth squad in Charlotte. Mike gets it and there is so much room for growth in college soccer if the NCAA adapts the positive changes currently proposed by Maryland's head coach. Eliminating mid week games and extending the season into the spring, benefit the players both athletically and academically. The quality of college soccer has improved and will continue to grow if the NCAA takes an interest and implements the proposals suggested. Change is long overdue. 

  5. frank schoon replied, July 13, 2020 at 12:25 p.m.

    Mark, how does it improve the player academically when they extend the soccer season. He's still has to take the courses he needs for those 4 years with the only difference he will spend more time playing soccer. At the most he'll more some time allotted to studying or playing around , checking out the chicks....I don't see jocks saying 'Oh, now we have more time to hit the books, this is just great". Jocks, like most college students tend to minimize their studies and maximize their fun...that's where they're at , at that stage.

  6. Kevin Sims, July 13, 2020 at 11:41 a.m.

    Bravo, Mike! The multiple and varied pathways found in the USA result in more opportunities for more players over a longer time. With the small percentage of club players who become national team players, with the small percentage of high school players who become college players, and with the small percentage of college players who become professional players ... the question to be asked of coaches: do you prepare your players to succeed in their futures while cultivating a love of the game? We absolutely must have environments that enable great players to emerge at the highest levels, while providing wonderful environments for all the rest. A diversified approach to player development is a strength. All levels and pathways are best served when they cooperate and complement one another in a UNITED fashion.   

  7. Peter Bechtold, July 13, 2020 at 12:09 p.m.

    What an odd article, Dan, about the views of a women's soccer coach at a tiny private college--enrollment smaller than most high schools--that read more like a plea for support to keep the system going in these difficult times. I don't blame Mr. Lynch for that; nor do I blame Dan Woog for sharing this unusual perspective.
    But the arguments provided make very little sense.Either Lynch knows very little about the global game, or he tries to protect his career investment, or both. When he says that the facilities at a well-to-do college are better than in Europe, he is comparing apples and oranges. The US college womens game/program is adequate at perhaps the top 15 schools in Division I, and a very few at smaller, financially well-off schools at Division II and below. The game and competition is fine for the equivalent of intramural sports, and I have no problems with that. But, PLEASE, don't compare that to the tiny number of professional women on the USNT. Take a look at the fine young women pictured here. Could any of them play at a European 3rd division U-19,U-18,U-17,U-16 club? Methinks, not.
    I have played and coached here and abroad at the college level and above. Our HS and colleges are handicapped by the NCAA,NAIA,etc. limitations about practice and length of seasons. The structure before Title IX was poor because it was intented to be limiting. After Title IX it has benefitted womens soccer in the US(and Canada) while also harming men's soccer in college, resulting in cancelling many programs.
    Mr. Lynch's main argument is that organized soccer provides many lessons for life, and I agree. But you can say that about womens field hockey, lacrosse, track,choir, etc.etc. That makes it an "educational" experience which I support as a university professor now.
    But that has nothing to do with his comparisons. He implies that European and global soccer players aged 18-23 miss out on educational benefits. Correct. In Europe,Africa, Latin America etc. HS and colleges do not have athletic teams playing in organized leagues. The British English phrase "academy" as in his mention of Liverpool refers to their organized youth teams. When he says that pro players in England are few in the top four divisions, that is statistically correct. I give him some other figures: The DFB (German Football Assn) lists over 24,500 soccer clubs of which only 56 play in the top 3 Bundesligas. What about the other 24,5K "amateur" clubs in Germany? I can assure him that every one has "youth" divisions, normally starting from U-10 on up( U-12,U-14,U-16,U-18). He is right in calling the American system unique in the world, but he fails to point out that it is designed for "participation", not excellence. Just like softball among tradional US sports. And that is fine with me.

  8. beautiful game, July 13, 2020 at 12:23 p.m.

    Mr. Lynch makes a good point. High school and college soccer have many benefits. Their platforms are limited by design. Any player with talent and committment has to make a choice as Pulisic did with foregoing college and going through soccer's development stepping stones and process. He made a high risk choice of going all in. 

  9. humble 1 replied, July 13, 2020 at 6:15 p.m.

    In the case of Pulisic, I don't think it is a high risk choice when a European club 'signs' you at 15 to go play at one of the top academies in the world.  That for me, is a good bet.  Had he 'failed' at 17/18 he could have come home and gone to college. 

  10. frank schoon, July 13, 2020 at 1:19 p.m.

    Lets look at 2 kids who played together beginning at year 8 for the same teams ,same coaches, up until 14,  when one has  an offer to go the DA program (player A), let say, and the other decides to play high school, club ball, then college. Let's say A was a defender type and B was an attacker type. The  current thinking is that player A will be playing against better competition and therefore will be a better "soccer player" when both reach 18...... really???  

    Do you really think Player A will have grown more as a player in those 4years because he's playing against better competition than B. Tactically there  a little to no difference as far as learning the game. Technically, ???? again what does a back learn that an offensive players learned in those 4 years. As far as I'm concerned ,technically, player A due to his position and what is needed at that position will not grown as much, relatively, but I can't say that for player B whose position demand more creative play, technique and thinking. 

    So lets say at the age of 22 B graduates from college and is given a try out for an MLS team. As coach, I have a good front line but I decide to play more offensively and therefore thinking of an attacking back . I have a choice between A or B at the back position and realize A has had more defensive experience but lacks the technical one on one expertise and creativity. I would pick B for you can teach the defensive aspects that B perhaps lacks a little of and fill him in.  It is always easier to teach defense than offense.

    Also take into account, that soccer takes  'insight', and the more you SEE the game the easier it is to play and add to that the ability to play under pressure, play in small spaces and have quick ball handling skills. DO YOU REALLY THINK THESE PLAYERS ARE LEARNING THAT IN THE DA PROGRAM......  Of Course not!!!  So you have to ask yourself HOW MUCH or better are these DA program players....IS IT REALLY THAT MUCH BETTER. Don't forget TALENT which can't be taught or developed, you either have it or you don't! And if B you has a little more TALENT than A , player B would do just fine after 4years of college going into the MLS, after a some months of learning. NEXT POST.....

  11. Ben Myers replied, July 14, 2020 at 6:35 p.m.

    Frank, you are absolutely correct.  Learning defensive principles is relatively simple compared to mastering all the moves with the ball, traps, and both passes and shots with and without spins, free kicks and corners.  No surprise that at the college level, many high school offensive stars get moved to play defense, or, at least a more defensive role like holding midfielder.  No matter where one plays in today's higher level and modern game, one must be good and confident on the ball.

  12. frank schoon replied, July 15, 2020 at 9:21 a.m.

    Ben, you're right on,< " one must be good and confident on the ball"!!!>  With that quality you can play easily any position and easy to teach them as well....

  13. frank schoon, July 13, 2020 at 1:34 p.m.

    Mike had mentioned great facilities which to me has noting to do with playing good soccer. I mean, think about those 3rd world student/athletes who learned to play soccer in lousy accommodations..It is a great selling point, but that's about it. Mike is also right about the few with talent like Pulisic to make the early move as compared to the many who don't make it. And it is true  what Mike mentions about the eco-system in which everything becomes a positive experience.

    We are arguing about what is the better way to go, but I say it doesn't matter for without a culture of PICKUP soccer so much of what we are arguing about would be thrown by the wayside; for we currently have INCOMPLETE player/development. And  as long as we don't have real EXPERTISE that I often mention to get involved from abroad in our player development in the DA or MLS or in our National program we'll never get real good soccer players. 

    The good talented players will succeed regardless which path they choose , College or MLS dvelopment...

  14. humble 1 replied, July 13, 2020 at 6:23 p.m.

    Spot on.  I am on a visit at a beautiful city with imaculate public soccer fields.  It is the exception to see someone playing soccer on them - the rule is - they are empty.  There are literally dozens of soccer fields in this town, turf and grass.  Empty.  This is the same for the colleges - they guard their fields and keep 'em under lock and key like the business clubs that parade as soccer clubs.  The bottom line is that an asset can only produce when it is utilized.  The problem with Coach Lynches logic is he fails to take utilization into account.  I once watched a youth soccer match in Uruguay on a dirt field. The only dirt field in the local league my host complained.  A kid took a hard knock and came out bloody with dirt in his cut.  Underutilized is something you can never say about even a dirt soccer pitch in Uruguay.  USA, usually the pitch is empty, night and day. 

  15. James Madison, July 13, 2020 at 2:49 p.m.

    It is silly to argue over whether the academy model or the college model is a better avenue to a professional career. The academy model is unquestionably superior in all respects save one; and, in order to check the missing box, it needs to figure out those with college potential can obtain the benefit of a college education while training as a pro. Talk to Bobby Clark, whose parents insisted on his going to college as a condition of signing a pro contrct in Scotland. That having been said, if US Soccer wants to participate in developing a broad-based soccer culture in this country, it would do well to encourage and not denigrate colleg soccer and the thousands of player whose knowledge of and devotion to the game  are enhanced by the opportunties it gives them to play.

  16. R2 Dad, July 13, 2020 at 6:31 p.m.

    If college soccer is so great, but no college graduates are recruited for the MLS draft anymore, what is the true output of the millions spent on college soccer? Kids might as well play college club soccer. The NCAA has criminally constrained the game despite the ENTIRE WORLD playing it according to the LOTG, proving the NCAA mandarins are impervious to logic and change. All we have left is to denigrate college coaches--you would think they could find a pressure point with their ADs and the NCAA by now but no, it's just more of the same. And don't think parents have forgotten the face of corrupt college soccer: UCLA FTW!

  17. humble 1, July 13, 2020 at 6:34 p.m.

    Speaking as a parent, the only trouble with your argument, which ex-USA is certainly true, is that abroad, the academy systems have proven themselves.  Here, they have not.  Meanwhile, there are certain high schools and colleges that have track records here.  For me, you need to read the tea leaves in your area because no one is accountable for the so called academies here - USSF just dumped them - and now we don't know where they go.  I cannot tell you the number of families I know of first hand that were sold the DA bill of goods - and now - poof!  Gone.  So read your tea leaves, and look for people that have actually developed players.

  18. Glenn Alpert, July 15, 2020 at 5:29 a.m.

    one more generation and we will have thousands of more kids playing the game who will have had a parent who played college soccer.

    We're still 1 more generation away from making this work. When a lot more parents bring their kids to a soccer club and have played the game, the standard goes up. They expect more from the clubs, they expect more from the system, and their players show up more complete at 7 and 8 years old to really master the game, kids need to start kicking a ball around at a very young age. S

    up at seven, eight, nine years old and learning how to control ball for the first time is way too late compared to the rest of the world. 

    Of course, you can look at this from two perspectives. One is through the grassroots lens which is really for participation in all of the benefits of playing a sport, and then one is through the competitive pyramid lens which is where we are concerned about international competition and elite-level soccer.

    In order to make that competitive pyramid higher and reach further, the base of grassroots has to be broader and stronger, that means more players, and more players who have learned the game from an earlier age being shown it and mentored by a parent at home who has a plain background. College soccer is serving that need of getting more and more people into the game, and when they have their kids, they will be able to teach them at home from that very early age.

    That is the generation that is going to break through and have more success at the elite level, and The Grass Roots base will be larger as well.

    right now, at the elite level for the men's side we are relying too much on kids of former professional players. For example Reyna, pulisic, weah, bradley, and I'm sure there are more. we need more players breaking through other than kids of former professional players who can get them opportunities in Europe which are not available to the general population.

    We need players with no special connections, but have the raw talent from hours and years of playing and then we are able to develop them to their fullest ability. It's also the cultural thing. One more generation.

  19. frank schoon replied, July 15, 2020 at 9:17 a.m.

    Glenn, that is all good for soccer. But as far as bringing it into the realm of quality play, I'm that won't  happen until we have a culture of pickup soccer. When kids after school leave the home  to play outside and the main question for the kid is " should I bring a soccer ball or basketball or both with me....I don't see any kids walking around with a soccer ball as second nature, as yet....That to me, not the abundance of parents having played soccer in some form or another is the key.....

  20. R2 Dad replied, July 15, 2020 at 4:18 p.m.

    Unfortunately, Glenn, my grandchildren will be saying "one more generation" when they are old and gray. Maybe by then all the MLS stadia will have been paid off, no one will remember the old USSF/MLS talking heads and people might question why we have been floating adrift for 100 years and, unsurprisingly, still have never reached a world cup semi. 

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