The day after the U.S. failed to make the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years, Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath narrowed U.S. Soccer’s problem down to one main area: development. Specifically, how the college game is out of touch with the rest of the world’s standards.
“I honestly believe the college system for basketball and American football and maybe baseball is as probably as good a setup as you can have anywhere in the world to prepare people to play professionally,” the England native said. “It’s probably the worst for soccer.
“We can’t have kids going to college at 18, staying for two, three years playing three months of competitive football a year. Everywhere else in the world, it’s getting more [games]. Here, it’s getting less at a really important time.”
With the U.S. failing to make the World Cup, which starts this week in Russia, the past eight months have been rife with finger-pointing on where U.S. Soccer, the sport’s governing body in this country, went wrong. While opinions abound on that subject, college coaches have been on a quiet quest for years to stretch out the condensed soccer season. Some say the change would drastically advance the quality of soccer in the U.S.
“Seventeen- to 21-year-olds around the world are professionals. In our culture and our society, 17- to 21-year-olds are playing college soccer for 2½ to three months in a season,” said Taylor Twellman, a former MLS and U.S. national team player who now works as an ESPN analyst.
“College soccer has value,’’ he added, but in its current iteration, it won’t help the U.S. win a World Cup. ‘‘If we are still relying on college soccer the way it is right now, then we are in trouble.”
Dumping ‘archaic’ model
Twellman played college soccer for two seasons at Maryland before turning pro and moving to Germany. His college coach, Sasho Cirovski, has seen numerous former players during his 25 years play professionally, including 41 MLS SuperDraft selections.
Under the current format of college soccer, teams typically play 20 games from August to November. A playoff run can add another month, with up to five more games. The packed and competitive fall season includes little training time. A shorter exhibition schedule in the spring consists of mostly practices.
Despite Cirovski’s success in that system, he calls it “archaic’’ and “sub-optimal.’’ He’s one of the main advocates for replacing it with what’s being called the “21st Century Model” to stretch out the season to provide more practice time while more closely resembling how pro soccer models its seasons.
The new model proposes a two-semester competitive season. It remains at 132 total days but reduces the number of countable athletically related activities hours per week from 20 to 18. It also redistributes 14 games in the fall and nine in the spring, with a maximum of only three midweek games and one game per week.
Training camp would start in late August, with the regular season spanning the second week of September to just before Thanksgiving. Training would then pick up again mid-January, with the season resuming mid-March before the championship on the first weekend of June.
“It’s nothing new, what we’re talking about,” said Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn, who has won the NCAA championship the past three seasons. “Really the difference now is that there’s so many more choices for people [beyond college soccer] that you can’t rest on your laurels and think that staying the way it was is acceptable.”
The rest of the soccer-playing world has long relied on professional clubs’ youth academies, which train players from a young age with the intention of signing them to full contracts in their teens. The U.S. has started that same process, establishing a development academy in 2007 to organize an already robust youth club soccer enviornment.
As academies develop better players and with college’s structure being so different from a pro team, many elite players forgo college to play professionally either domestically or abroad. It’s similar to how club soccer has recently usurped high school soccer as the destination for the best players.
While other major sports mandate at least a year of college athletics before entering the league, soccer is an open market with a literal world of possibilities.
“There may be more of an inclination of the top-tiered players to circumvent college soccer in an attempt to play professional soccer if they felt that the college soccer level wasn’t structured enough to help to maximize their development,” said Rob Kehoe, college programs director for the United Soccer Coaches. “And that dynamic has surfaced more and more throughout the years.”
Kehoe said a 2016 NCAA time-demands study found more than 90 percent of Division I men’s soccer coaches supported the two-semester model. A United Soccer Coaches survey from last fall indicated more than 80 percent of Division I men’s players would also support it.
Loons leading scorer Christian Ramirez actually transferred down to a Division II program that he felt had fewer restrictions on practice time because his two seasons at UC Santa Barbara were so opposite of the high-level environment he craved.
Loons midfielder Ethan Finlay said despite college soccer’s flaws, he couldn’t have gone pro without his four years at Creighton. He credited his time there for strengthening him on the field and also as a man off it.
‘Virtual ATM’ for Europe
While support of this model has gained traction, particularly in the past five years, implementing such a radical change nationally is a big task. Former college coaches, such as Minnesota United development academy director Tim Carter, remember discussing this same issue back in the 1980s and ’90s with no change.
The proposal would need a sponsor — either a conference or NCAA standing committee — to get it before an NCAA Division I council for a vote. As recently as early May, the Big Ten Conference discussed the idea of sponsoring it. Despite positive feedback, however, it ultimately decided not to pursue the measure.
About 16 years ago, college baseball sought a similar season stretch through two semesters, but the proposal never passed, said Chad Hawley, Big Ten associate commissioner for policy and the liaison for soccer. Consolidating the men’s and women’s indoor track and field championships into one event took about 10 years of discussion before it came to be.
Another challenging aspect for adopting this model is the sport’s relative popularity. Of the estimated 350 Division I colleges, only about 200 field men’s teams. The University of Minnesota lacks a men’s team. Gaining widespread approval would be easier if it affected more schools. Women’s soccer, by comparison, has about 330 teams, including one at Minnesota.
Within the soccer community, though, there is overwhelming support, with both U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer backing the notion.
“We’re signing a lot of young players, and we’re losing a lot of young players who are signing to go overseas, bypassing MLS and bypassing college,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “So if we don’t have a path for the next Christian Pulisic, then he’s going to go to Europe because they’re not waiting.
“The European clubs are almost viewing MLS or viewing the United States as a virtual ATM that is a place for them to get cash quick. And that’s a challenge for us, something that we’ve got to really spend time wrapping our head around.”
Is college soccer the problem?
Pulisic, a 19-year-old phenom from Pennsylvania, moved to Germany at age 16 to play for top-level club Borussia Dortmund. He became the U.S. national team’s best player despite its failure to make the World Cup.
With an elite player like Pulisic, no one disputes he made the right choice by turning professional early. The rest of the world has been developing soccer for centuries. And despite steady growth throughout the past few decades, the U.S. is still, simply, playing catch-up.
That makes some question whether college soccer is really even the problem.
Finlay said the U.S. should be casting a wider net with its academies to provide more opportunities for young players who might not live in hotbeds like Southern California. Hawley said success depends on soccer becoming more engrained in the U.S. culture — from more games on TV to more kids playing the sport from the time they can walk, and not stopping for other sports as they age.
Heath lamented that youth soccer in the U.S., which tends to cost a lot of money, doesn’t give kids enough time to play between travel and school commitments.
“This is not a lack of talent,” Heath said. “But from the ages from 14 to maybe 18, 19, I think we have to have a real serious look with where we go with the kids.”
College athletics, especially for soccer, were never intended to be a farm system for a pro team. Given more time developing talent via soccer academies, the U.S. might progress past needing college soccer as another step in producing professional and national team players.
But there will still be a place for the game.
“A lot of people will argue that going into the professional game earlier can be better for soccer, but also it’s a very steep pyramid with a lot of people that then get left with no qualifications and then get left on the scrap heap,” said Gunn, who declined a soccer apprenticeship in his native England to play collegiately in the U.S. “That’s only serving the pro clubs and not serving the general population.’’