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Dec 10, 2008

Colleges still an important pipeline to the pros

When the 50th men's College Cup kicks off Friday in Frisco, Texas, it will offer American soccer fans a rare chance to watch future pros like Matt Kassel of Maryland and Ike Opara of Wake Forest in action. It also will provide the NCAA a national stage on which to display its often-underestimated quality. While the NBA and the NFL (and to a lesser degree baseball and hockey) rely on colleges to provide an endless supply of new players, the prevailing wisdom is that NCAA soccer is an unsuitable learning environment for aspiring professionals.

In many ways, it's a bum rap. While elite prospects like Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore turned pro as teens after being groomed in U.S. Soccer's U-17 residency program -- the domestic game's first attempt to recreate the youth academy system used by the world's leading clubs -- college soccer, flawed as it is, still plays an important role in developing promising youngsters.

Consider that every rookie of the year in MLS history has come though the college ranks. So have nearly 70 percent of the players in the current national team pool. Even some notable internationals, like former Real Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari (Argentina) and current Bundesliga top scorer Vedad Ibisevic (Bosnia), spent time on American campuses -- Solari with Richard Stockton College and Ibisevic with St. Louis.

Now, with the recent demise of the MLS reserve league, the scholastic game appears poised to take on an even larger role.

2008 College Cup
Friday
North Carolina vs. Wake Forest Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Maryland vs. St. John's
Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
8 p.m. ET, ESPNU

"College soccer is getting better every year," said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, who won the 2005 national championship with current U.S. World Cup squad candidates Maurice Edu and Robbie Rogers on the field. "This year's MLS draft is probably the best of all time, and it's senior-dominated."

Although Edu and Rogers didn't spend four years at the school, there is little doubt they benefited greatly from their time in College Park.

"It's not going to do a player any harm to go to college for a year or two and grow up a little bit," said former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who won three titles with Virginia in the early 1990s. "Teams like UCLA, Virginia, Indiana -- they have good players, and it would only help a kid's growth to play with them."

It's certainly more beneficial than sitting on the sidelines. For every Donovan or Altidore, there is a Craig Capano or Guillermo Gonzalez, former U-17 stars whose skills, confidence and career ultimately rotted away on the end of an MLS bench. Some U-17s, most notably Oguchi Onyewu, have decided to spend some time in the classroom before inking pro deals. For late bloomers like Clint Dempsey, who was overlooked by youth national teams until he became a standout at Furman, the NCAA is the only stage available.

According to a study done by ACC coaches, the players who have enjoyed the most success in MLS spent at least three years in college first.

"I'm not sure how many American players are prepared, at 17- or 18-years-old, to live a professional lifestyle," said Wake coach Jay Vidovich, whose program has churned out 10 MLSers since 2002. "There is a tremendous jump from youth club ball to the pros, including for the U-17 national team players."

For the savvy youngster, the decision to go to school might be made with an eye on his wallet. It's not like MLS is offering promising preps deals they can't refuse. Meanwhile, Division I teams can spend almost $400,000 annually on scholarships. For a player on a full ride, that's worth about $40,000 a year -- more than three times the league's minimum developmental salary. As such, it's no surprise that Kassel, a former New York Red Bulls academy player, chose Maryland over the paltry contract offer he received from the senior club.

"Having an education from one of the top institutions in this country is a much better investment" than banking on a soccer career, Vidovich said. Either way, "I don't think [MLS] can match the amount of money we're pouring into developing our kids at this stage."

NCAA Scoreboard
This season, ESPNsoccernet brings you the scores of every men's and women's NCAA Division I game.

Click here for all the action.

The evidence suggests the investment is playing off. Even out of season, the best college teams routinely beat MLS reserve squads. In May, Wake narrowly lost to Brazil's U-20 team 4-3 in Rio de Janeiro. And at schools like UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, crowds of 8,000-plus are not abnormal, adding to an increasingly professional environment.

Still, there is no question college soccer has plenty of room for improvement.

The three and a half month season is hopelessly short. The substitution rules change the way coaches and players manage games. Two-minute warnings? Purists get queasy enough when they notice the countdown clock.

Slowly, however, progress is being made. According to Cirovski, U.S. Soccer is in discussions with top programs to help form an annual spring league that would be played under FIFA rules. If it's successful, they will lobby the NCAA to bring some of its Byzantine rules more in line with the international game.

Said Cirovski: "We all have to work on making it better, because college soccer has been, is and always will be a vital part of the American soccer scene."

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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