This is the first of a two-part series. The second part is scheduled for Nov. 21.
Should Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT), watch or even care about the NCAA tournament?
The knee-jerk response probably is: No, of course not. Why would he?
We might quickly agree that Klinsmann has more important things to do at the moment. The next round of World Cup qualifiers is fast approaching.
But let’s delve a little deeper.
American soccer is still grappling with how to use (or not use) the collegiate feeder system, which has become a mainstay for other sports. While the significance of the NFL and NBA college drafts cannot be overstated, in soccer there are two diverse schools of thought.
The first school, which seems to be modestly winning the argument at the moment, is that the college system is counterproductive to creating top-flight competitive soccer players. Clubs, academies and other European-like structures are what we should emphasize.
The second school (pun only slightly intended) says that we are not Europe and should stop trying to force the development of the American game into a European mold. Instead, we should employ the traditions and structures already in place here in the States.
Those traditions and structures include intercollegiate athletics.
MLS, to its credit or detriment, does not take sides in this debate. It offers an open door for deserving athletes following either approach. Teams have their youth academies, and the league also holds a combine and subsequent draft of college players.
This is the approach that best fits American soccer. At least for now.
Some of our youths are bypassing school teams altogether, even at the high school level. This includes some of our most promising players.
However, there also seems to be a belief that a strong majority of our better and more promising young players are not attending college and thus are not playing for a college team.
Before researching this article, I shared that questionable belief.
I was a little surprised by what I found. If past is prologue and Klinsmann expects to hang around for more than one World Cup cycle, the coach arguably should pay attention to today’s college players.
'If they were good enough to be here, they already would be'
One of the main criticisms against college players, especially upperclassmen, is that by attending school for so long they “squander” the opportunity to develop with a pro club at a critical age.
A 21-year-old player, even when playing in one of the more competitive conferences like the ACC, Big East or Pac-12, is not facing the type of competition that someone like Josh Gatt sees in Norway.
That fact has future implications. Gatt turned down a scholarship to Indiana and headed to Europe. By playing and impressing in the Norwegian league, it is likely that Gatt would be considered by a European premier league team long before an American college player.
Even if that college player successfully transitions to an MLS team, Gatt will have proven he can play in a foreign country and will have more years of proven professional experience than this notional college/MLS counterpart of the same age.
Additionally, much of the college player’s time is oriented toward meeting academic requirements. This reduces available time for—and divides daily attentions away from—training. For a young soccer player, the late teens and early 20s are important for mental and physical development.
There's no question that if soccer were everything (it isn't), everything should be oriented toward the game in these critical years.
However true that may be, consider the fact that of the 49 players who stepped on to a soccer field with the United States' senior team this year, 26 had college playing experience; a full 53 percent.
Of the likely starters in next year’s qualifiers, only Clint Dempsey (Furman) and Carlos Bocanegra (UCLA) attended college. That is two out of 11, but the low proportion is skewed because our likely starters include three players (and potentially as many as five) who grew up in Germany.
For instance, take away German-American Timmy Chandler, and Steve Cherundolo (U of Portland) most likely gets the nod at RB.
Given this reality, the odds are pretty strong that at least a couple of today’s college players will eventually be called by the USMNT.
Beggars can’t be choosers
I believe MLS has the right approach regarding the debate between college and club, because MLS takes both. The league recognizes it needs great, young athletes more than great, young athletes need MLS.
In other words, the NFL and NBA have more of a stranglehold over their youthful American prospects than MLS. Because it truly is a global game, soccer players have more options.
Additionally, MLS does not have the financial ability to make itself as desirable a destination. There is little chance that MLS' average salaries will be comparable to those in the NFL or the EPL anytime soon.
For these reasons, MLS cannot take a snooty attitude and ignore any potential source of players.
The same can be said of USMNT, albeit for differing reasons.
As American soccer continues to develop, Americans are constantly confronted with reality. We are not an elite force in this game.
At least, not yet.
The USMNT does not have a deep pool of talent from which to draw rosters. The pool is getting deeper, but still is not comparable to those of the game’s perennial national powers.
This is evidenced by the realpolitik approach taken by the current team leadership. During the recent friendly with Russia, a good chunk of player on-field communication most likely was not in English (nor in Spanish). Half of our starting field players in that friendly speak German as a first language.
In short, if any quality players are available to the MLS and USMNT from the college pipeline, neither can afford not to notice.
A big problem with evaluating college players…
…is that they play against college players.
This is true in every sport. One way scouts mitigate the problem is by watching and analyzing games in which the players of interest are competing against better college competition.
For instance, four of the current NCAA soccer players considered to be of immediate interest to MLS teams were on the field together for the recent ACC Championship. Maryland’s John Stertzer, London Woodberry and Patrick Mullins played against North Carolina’s Mikey Lopez.
During that Nov. 11 game, Stertzer and Lopez neutralized one another in the midfield, with Stertzer arguably faring a little better.
Maryland also is a slightly stronger team. A week ago, the Terps were ranked second in the nation by the NCAA, with the Tar Heels ranked fifth. On the field, Maryland established beyond question which team is the class of the ACC.
The Maryland advantage up and down the field likely also worked against Lopez in his matchup with Stertzer.
Both demonstrated an ability to perform desperate possession skills. They can hold the ball and find quality passes in tight spaces. Neither had much opportunity to demonstrate anything more creative. Foot skills were apparent, but field vision was not.
Woodberry was solid in defense for the Terps, and one notably dangerous pass back to his keeper aside, most likely did not hurt and may even have increased MLS interest with his performance.
He defends well against individual attackers. He fits the Maryland back four well. And his distribution out of the center defender position was good enough, barring the one poor decision mentioned above.
Mullins was barely visible. He faced a North Carolina defense that had only conceded four goals all season before the conference championship game. The Tar Heels also were well aware of Mullins.
His role in this game was to draw attention away from others, and the multi-weapon Maryland team executed that strategy well. That was a win for Maryland, but a loss for scouts hoping to see more of Mullins.
The attacking player who stood higher in this game was Danny Garcia, Carolina’s freshman left winger. Nothing came of his efforts, but he was the Tar Heel who most pressured the Terp defenders, before being inexplicably subbed out late in the second half.
If scouting this game for an MLS team, I would focus on Woodberry and make a mental note to keep Garcia on the radar. (Actually, FC Dallas already has done the latter, via their academy, and Garcia also has been named to national youth teams as well.)
The USMNT staff may share the same opinions, though from a more patient perspective. The USMNT does not have to beat other teams to the punch (barring a dual-citizenship situation, and the five players mentioned above are all U.S. born and raised).
The national side has the luxury of waiting on these players to prove themselves at professional and/or national youth levels.
Despite that luxury, in the second part we will take a look at several of the current crop of college players who seem to have a decent shot at wearing their country’s senior-team colors at some point.