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College Soccer Is Vital to the Success of the USMNT

In this opinion piece, Robert L Kehoe III explains why college soccer isn't just important for the future of the United States program, the structure is an advantage America has over Europe.
BY Robert L Kehoe III Posted
August 05, 2014
2:00 PM
If we learned anything from the 2014 World Cup, it’s that conventional wisdom and common assumptions, which ultimately lead to confused commentary, shouldn't be trusted over careful analysis.

In America one of the most common misconceptions that litters soccer commentary is that the college game continues to hinder the long term development of US Soccer and MLS, and the sooner we fully adopt a European version of youth development the sooner we’ll see better results in international competition. 

It’s a lazy argument, as poorly constructed as it is mindlessly accepted, but people still buy it because soccer is one of the few venues where Americans still tend to defer to someone with a foreign accent before they trust their own instincts. Now don’t get me wrong. I like foreign accents, and some of my favorite youth coaches had them. I even like the German accent that’s running the United States squad. But educating athletes is not about accents, it’s about ideas, and the idea that college soccer is the blight of American development needs to be put to rest.

On a fundamental level, let’s begin with this question: how many players from the U.S national team's World Cup roster played college soccer? The answer is 11, as follows:

Alejandro Bedoya—Fairleigh Dickinson and Boston College
Matt Besler—Notre Dame
Geoff Cameron—West Virginia and Rhode Island
Brad Davis—Saint Louis
Clint Dempsey—Furman
Omar Gonzalez—Maryland
Brad Guzan—South Carolina
Nick Rimando—UCLA
Chris Wondolowski—California State University, Chico
DeAndre Yedlin—Akron
Graham Zusi—Maryland

That means the U.S. Emerged from the Group of Death with 11 squad members who played college soccer, while Portugal, England, Italy, and Spain didn't advance to the knockout rounds. Of those 11, nine saw the field, and the only two who didn’t were Tim Howard’s back ups. Of those nine, seven played significant minutes in crucial roles throughout the tournament, with Besler, Gonzalez, Yedlin, and Zusi all thrown into the transfer-to-Europe-rumor-mill after the tournament.

When it was all said and done, the only two field players who weren’t capped in Brazil were Mix Diskerud and Timothy Chandler, both products of European systems. Of course, that doesn’t mean those systems are inferior. But it does mean they can’t guarantee a place on the field over somebody who played at Akron.

And the larger point is this: college soccer actually gives the United States a developmental advantage over every other country in the world, and here’s why.

Unlike our foreign counterparts, the United States possesses a higher education system that provides athletic opportunities for students who are good at sports, and U.S. Soccer is in the unique position to get the best of both worlds. On the one hand MLS’s growth and adoption of a hierarchical European academy-style program is a good thing. On the other, America has a robust and democratic infrastructure supporting 18-22 year olds who play at a very high level while acquiring an academic education and gaining career options outside of their sport. When most European and Latin American players in that age range have been eliminated from consideration for first team football, top-level Americans have an opportunity to continue to grow on the field and academically, sometimes by choice, but in other cases because they've been overlooked by pro scouts.

Tony Sanneh (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), who was a standout performer for the U.S. in the 2002 World Cup, and played in the Bundesliga for five years, recently told me that college soccer won’t be as necessary moving forward for the most advanced youth players as it was in the 80s and 90s due to the growth of MLS. But it still serves a purpose, especially for the "late bloomers" who otherwise may be forgotten. Furthermore, from a development standpoint, Sanneh said sometimes it’s easier to improve as a player when you don’t have the pressure of securing a professional contract.

When I asked Maurice Edu (Maryland) about his path to professional and international success he pointed out how every athlete is different, and for him playing in college was a perfect balance. At a young age Edu knew he wanted to play professionally, but he also came from a family where academic achievement was the top priority. Playing three years of college soccer didn’t keep him from becoming MLS’s rookie of the year, or from playing in the 2010 World Cup and in the Champions League while at Rangers.

If Sanneh and Edu represent the past and present of the American talent pool, players like Harrison Shipp will define the future. But how many outside of the Notre Dame soccer community had even heard that name two or three years ago? Not many (myself included). Now that he’s the leading candidate to win MLS’s rookie of the year, word is getting around. He’s also No. 58 on ASN’s Top 100 and told Brian Sciaretta that Notre Dame soccer meant everything to him. Not only does he think he’s a better person for having gone to college, but he thinks he’s a better player too. Shipp, who said Notre Dame’s practices were just as focused and informative as what he’s experiencing with the Fire, is a cerebral player with some of the best ball control you’ll find in MLS, and it’s unlikely that opponents give much thought to his finance degree as he dribbles past them, whips in a threatening services, or celebrates one of his six goals thus far.

There’s no way to know if UCLA, Maryland, or Creighton will house the next generation of national team players, and college soccer should never claim independent responsibility for supplying the future talent pool for the U.S. national team. But the idea that college soccer, and college coaches, are culpable for developmental stagnation in America couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth is that the college game is a fascinating piece of the United States soccer mosaic, and we ignore it to the detriment of our collective conversation about what America brings to the global game. Of course, there will always be naysayers and conventionalists desperate for wisdom from the Continent, but before jumping to conclusions about college soccer’s place in the future of American development, consider two Euro-related anecdotes.

First, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Kluivert were born on the same day, in a country that starts scouting players in hospital birthing centers. When they were both 19, and Kluivert was lifting the European Cup trophy, van Nistelrooy was considered an afterthought in the landscape of Dutch football. But instead of hanging up his boots, he pressed on, playing for a small first division club while completing his business degree. Van Nistelrooy was a "late bloomer," and his path to Europe’s top clubs looks an awful lot like the path college soccer has and will continue to provide. Incidentally, he also finished his career with 147 more club goals than Kluivert, so things worked out ok for Ruud, don’t you think?

And finally, Jurgen Klinsmann’s son Jonathan, a top goalkeeping prospect with some connections to European clubs, recently committed to continuing his soccer development, not with Schalke 04, Bayern Munich or Borrussia Dortmund. Instead, he’ll be enrolling at UC Berkeley in 2015.

Robert L Kehoe III (@robertkehoe3) played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College.

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