Sunday, September 7, 2014

Trying to Keep College Soccer Relevant

While forces outside of the NCAA's control are compelling it to change the way that it administers its revenue-churning men's football and basketball competitions, at least one group is attempting to address issues from within. And in a "non-revenue" sport at that.

Led by WVU's Athletic Director, Oliver Luck (a former quarterback at the school and, perhaps more importantly for this subject, the former General Manager of MLS's Houston Dynamo) a group of college coaches, athletic directors, and administrators are trying to convince the NCAA and MLS that college soccer should move to all-season sport status, with the College Cup to take place in June, not November as it currently does.

The proposed changes would also allow more training time to college soccer teams and are aimed at improving training techniques and game preparation. Such a move would, hopefully, raise the level of play to that of lower division soccer in other countries. 

If the proposal is adopted, it would inject new life into college soccer in the U.S., which has been marginalized by MLS and its youth teams. Whether that diminution is a bad thing or not depends on who you ask. And when you ask them.

U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been particularly vocal about the need for the top-level U.S. players to play in Europe and its young national team players to train year-round with the best teams in the best training facilities, whether they be in Europe or with an MLS youth team in the States.

It's undeniable that the very best players in the World have, for generations, honed their craft in just that way - by playing constantly, with the highest level of coaching, against the best opponents. That is in fact how Klinsmann rose from an apprenticeship at his family's bakery to his fame as a World Cup hero and as feared striker for a number of prominent clubs in Europe.

But the problem with the European model is that for every Klinsmann or Messi or Rooney that it produces there are hundreds of faceless youngsters who became adults with no vocational ambitions to fulfill, tossed to the side because they're not quite big enough or fast enough. While some of the best youth programs offer education as well as soccer as a part of the curriculum, the primary reason that players are enrolled is to learn how to play soccer, not learn in the classroom.

Klinsmann, too, seems somewhat equivocal with regard to how he views American soccer, at both the developmental and professional levels. While he insists that the best players should play in Europe against the best of the world, he made Clint Dempsey the national team captain at the World Cup despite Dempsey's return to MLS last season. And, least we forget, Dempsey came of age as a player not after training in the depths of some professional team's youth ranks, but at Furman University.

Dempsey during his playing days at Furman,
(photo from

Perhaps most interestingly, among the players named to the U.S. squad for the recent friendly against the Czech Republic was Jordan Morris, the first collegiate player to appear on the roster since 1999. Morris apparently impressed Klinsmann while the national team trained at Stanford, where Morris is a sophomore, in scrimmages between the school's team and the U.S. men. While Morris was a player for the Seattle Sounders' youth team, he chose education over professional soccer in signing with Stanford instead of the Sounders.

Morris did not appear in the match, which the U.S. won 1-0 on an Alejandro Bedoya goal. But Morris' inclusion in the squad is hard to read as anything other than an indication that Klinsmann both recognizes his talent as a 19 year-old and validates the developmental training that he received in the Sounders' youth organization and at Stanford.

There are undoubtedly serious problems with the way the NCAA administers its revenue sports. Luck's proposal, however, presents an opportunity to the organization and its member institutions to make strides toward providing education for both sports and for life after sports, with the latter undoubtedly being the vocational destination for a vast majority of their players. 

The Soccer America article linked above suggests that Luck's proposal may well fail because, as a non-revenue sport, soccer simply isn't on the radar of may college athletic directors and presidents. They may either not want to set a precedent for other sports to seek a similar change, or simply not care enough about the development of college soccer to devote time to consideration of a change in how and when it is played.

Such a reaction (or non-reaction as the case may be) will simply be further confirmation of what the true "value" of college athletics to those that administer them is. And it would once again expose the NCAA's insistence to refer to those that play college sports as "student-athletes" for the sham that it is increasingly perceived to be.

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