After years of trying, Major League Soccer’s roster development efforts are finally beginning to pay off. Most of the league’s teams are bringing multiple “homegrown” players through their youth academies, and the league has seen an influx of young talent from Central and South America. Teams have never been more focused on developing young players.
Meanwhile, American college soccer appears to be in the process of being left behind, thanks in part to the collegiate system’s anachronistic structure.
American fans are used to the NCAA being the breeding ground for all young talent. It’s true in football and basketball, and even baseball and hockey have thriving collegiate systems that are the starting point for plenty of big-leaguers. In MLS, though, the NCAA is more of an afterthought.
Of Minnesota United’s four picks in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, which exists mostly for NCAA players, only No. 1 overall selection Abu Danladi remains with the team. This year, Real Salt Lake had three selections in the third and fourth rounds and didn’t even bother to pick players. Can you imagine the uproar if an NFL team passed on a third-round draft pick?
In many ways, college soccer isn’t set up to develop players for professional soccer. The college soccer season is an autumn-only sprint, with teams playing two or three games every week, often only two days apart. The helter-skelter season ends up finishing with playoffs in November and December, when the weather in much of the country is inhospitable for soccer.
Perhaps more important, college soccer allows virtually unlimited substitutions, including allowing players to re-enter the game after leaving. This tends to make the games far more physical and far less skill-based, as players come on for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, with instructions to put as much pressure on the other team as possible.
To their credit, college coaches and players know that this system doesn’t make sense. More than 90 percent surveyed in 2016 were in favor of moving to a full-year system, in which teams would play from September to early November, take a winter break, then restart the season in March. This would allow teams to play only one game every week, with only occasional midweek games — a much more sensible schedule, both on the field and in the classroom.
The NCAA, though, hasn’t made any moves toward adopting this schedule or changing the rules to match up with soccer in the rest of the world. It’s also certainly true that the NCAA doesn’t need to put professional development at the forefront of its goals. The extra substitutions allow more players to play in each game, and the compressed schedule gives players a semester off from game pressure in the spring.
Without changes, though, more and more players will be forced to choose between higher education and going pro as teenagers. Paradoxically, this could make college soccer the choice only for players who already have given up on further careers. In that scenario, no one wins.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• Give the U.S. women’s national team credit. In three games against powerhouses Germany, France and England, the American defense allowed just one goal. Unfortunately, the team scored just two, with a third coming via an ugly England own goal. Do we need to worry about the team’s attack with World Cup qualifying coming up this fall?
• German national team coach Steffi Jones (above) suggested that her team might not be a participant in future SheBelieves Cup tournaments, given the awful March weather (in New Jersey and Ohio, two of the game locations) and the travel demands as the teams crisscross the continent. U.S. Soccer might want to stick to places that have decent weather in March, rather than spreading out the games.
• MLS completed its best week in the history of the CONCACAF Champions League, as all three of its teams pulled off victories against Liga MX teams. Toronto, Seattle and New York will all take leads into the second leg of their quarterfinal matchups this week. If all three can pull off wins, it will be hailed as a shift in the balance of power between MLS and Liga MX.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Juventus star Giorgio Chiellini
Serie A: Udinese at Juventus, 9 a.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. All Juventus, in the unfamiliar position of chasing Napoli for the Italian title, has done so far in 2018 is win seven consecutive league matches without conceding a goal. After an emotional midweek Champions League victory, Juve just needs to avoid a hangover against Udinese to take the Serie A lead.
MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Neither of these teams was happy with its Week 1 result. Atlanta, the trendy pick for Eastern Conference supremacy in MLS, had its doors blown off 4-0 by a middling Houston side. D.C. was overwhelmed in the second half by Orlando, which was down to 10 men at the time. It’s a second try at opening day for both.
Serie A: Napoli at Inter Milan, 2:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Napoli fans must feel like they’ve seen this before. A loss to Roma last week has left Napoli teetering precariously on top of the Serie A standings. They’ll likely be in second place by the time this game — against top-four chasing Inter — begins.
MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at New York City, 4 p.m. Sunday, MLS LIVE. NYC might be the best team in the east. Los Angeles had such an awful 2017 that it started 2018 as potentially not even the best team in its own city. Bicoastal clashes in MLS are always fun. The game’s not on TV, but you can watch online or on the MLS mobile apps for free.