College game not the ideal training ground
In every Major League Soccer season, a few rookie players are impressive in making the leap up from the college ranks. Their success allows the schools they came from -- and perhaps the university system itself -- to still feel like a useful cog in the development machine of American soccer.
There's another view, however -- one that is far less complimentary of NCAA soccer. The thinking in this scenario is that players are actually handicapped by the college game because they become accustomed to a format that doesn't translate to the professional level. In this context, the cog gums up the works entirely, and is thus something to be eliminated rather than appreciated.
Already, certain first-year players have caused onlookers to wince painfully at "how could they?" moments. Shea Salinas (Furman University) blazed over the net from point-blank range; Roger Espinoza (Ohio State) threw an ugly elbow that drew a red and left his team short-handed; Chance Myers (UCLA), the first pick in the MLS draft, committed a brutal miscommunication error that left both the defender and his goalkeeper unable to reach a ball that Robbie Rogers adroitly poked into the net.
Perhaps these could be dismissed as typical mistakes for young players, but that's precisely the problem. At a time when similarly youthful talent in other countries has left such bobbles and gaffes far behind, these U.S. prospects are just learning what the professional game requires. Some are also unlearning bad habits acquired in college.
"College soccer doesn't prepare them to be professionals because college soccer is a very athletic game," Los Angeles Galaxy defender Greg Vanney said.
It is almost a stylistic trademark in this country: the hardworking, athletic player who unfortunately lacks the technique or ball control to truly be a threat. In Vanney's eyes, the rules inherent in college soccer perpetuated the situation, instead of helping the American game evolve beyond it.
"It's run and gun, and if you're not doing it, we'll sub you out and maybe we'll put you back in," Vanney said in reference to the NCAA substitution rules, which allow for an unlimited number of replacements per match.
Professional soccer, except for select exhibitions, doesn't allow more than three substitutions. What's challenging is not just the physical nature of the endurance needed to go the full 90 minutes; it's also about the mental focus required to concentrate that entire time. That discipline is compromised in a system that allows for players to take breaks while the game continues.
"The game never settles down into decision making," Vanney said. "It becomes a physical game, where I can physically impose myself on you and win, and not because I have to make 90 minutes worth of good decisions, because I know I can't go off the field and come back on and get some coaching advice or whatever. The college game doesn't prepare these younger players to think their way through a game."
MLS has in many ways served as a boot camp for the pro game: MLS takes hopefuls from the college ranks and, in return for service at a low salary, serves as the place that polishes off the rough edges and develops the potential of stars who eventually make the leap abroad. Clint Dempsey didn't go from Furman to Fulham -- he learned the pro trade with the New England Revolution first.
Yet with recent changes to MLS regulations, clubs now have more leeway to sign foreign players, so they are less dependent on the raw recruits rolling into the league combine every year. The patience to improve American players isn't necessarily required anymore.
Some might love to take advantage of these changes, especially the league's foreign coaches who are dismayed at the level of skill from the college ranks.
Ruud Gullit, the Galaxy coach, was honest about the situation in a recent interview with reporter Brian Doogan of the Times of London.
"A good young player in Europe will start at [the] youth team level at a professional club, and over the years he will build up his knowledge and develop a natural affinity for the game along with a good tactical brain," Gullit said. "But here in the United States they play soccer in the schools and then college, and they are 20 or 21 years old and they are coming to me, having been coached straight out of a book."
Given the way MLS has depended on such players in the past, perhaps it's no surprise that foreign coaches have often struggled in the league. Perhaps they simply weren't prepared for the sheer amount of teaching required.
"This is a major limitation when these players come into the professional game, and it means that I have to go back to basics with them," Gullit said. "They're just rough diamonds and they don't have the tactical vision."
That skill doesn't need to be taught when a player can be subbed out to get tactics from a coach and then reinserted into a match. While the substitution rules in college might be the most obvious break from the pro game, other differences affect players, too. The "golden goal" is still in effect, so managing game play to secure a result isn't practiced as much as flat-out attacking. Additionally, in order to comply with NCAA standards, the official soccer season is very short.
"In the college game, they're used to playing a three-month season," Vanney said. "[MLS] is an eight- or nine-month season. At some point, a lot of the younger players start to go, 'Wow, this is just dragging and getting long.'"
Hitting the rookie wall about six months into a full season has become a ritual for many players from the college ranks.
The picture isn't entirely bleak, because the salary cap demands of MLS still mean that college players are needed to fill out rosters and will be given chances to prove they are worthy. One emerging player has defied convention and adjusted well so far to the demands of the pro game. Although the Galaxy defense has been porous all season, it's rarely been the fault of defender Sean Franklin, a Cal State Northridge product who has slotted into different spots of the back line as needed. While Gullit might complain about college players in general, he went out of his way to praise Franklin, calling him the team's best player after a recent Chivas USA match.
Gullit had spotted Franklin's potential early on in the season and gave the rookie a chance in the second game of the season after watching him perform with the team's second unit in Colorado.
"I played in the reserve game and he came up to me and told me that he was impressed with how I played," Franklin said. "It was good to see that after my first game and start against San Jose, that he had a big smile. I knew I did something right and he liked how I performed."
Franklin may be the exception that proves the rule, however.
"From day one I thought he was fairly mature, for a younger player -- a lot of times you see younger players a little bit hectic, overwhelmed by the situation," Vanney said. "He's proven to do a good job so far in his decision-making and being in the right spaces. Now it's maintaining that and sustaining it over a long period of time. I think he can, because he has those qualities."
Even with a few standouts impressing, it's hard not to see a future in which teams concentrate more on their own youth development, or bring in foreign youngsters like the Revolution did with Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally, instead of depending on the college system. As the standard in MLS play has improved -- due in part to a higher quality of imported skill -- the talent trying to transition from the NCAA level has often been exposed for continued shortcomings.
"Now you have a handful or more of very smart, intelligent players who are playing around and if you try to out-physical them, they just out-think you," Vanney said. "That's where we still have to progress as a country."
Unless the university soccer system is overhauled, it could soon become practically irrelevant because American professional clubs may choose to bypass it.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.