At age 20, Lionel Messi scored 16 goals in 40 appearances for Barcelona. Wayne Rooney played 48 games and scored 19 times for Manchester United. At the same age, Clint Dempsey played college soccer. He played 19 games with unlimited substitutions and a countdown clock. Of the 23 members of the United States World Cup squad, 16 were developed in the U.S., and 11 of those played college soccer. I am willing to bet that they were the only 11 players in the entire tournament with college experience.
College athletics is a uniquely American product. Only in America does so much attention and money center around collegiate sports. Only in America are the best athletes produced by schools, starting as early as middle school. Aside from the ethical qualms of “amateurism,” this has worked fairly well for more than a century now. The most popular college sports are football and basketball, and the U.S. is unrivaled in both. Soccer, however, is a different story entirely. College soccer is failing in the development of American talent.
In Europe, clubs, not schools, provide for the development of athletes. The biggest end-result of this is that the focus is on developing talent, rather than winning games. For many clubs, selling talent is how they make money. The best talents are going pro while still in their teens, and so they get experience against top-level talent at a much earlier age.
In American youth sports, there is pressure to win, and little incentive for, say, a middle school coach to worry about producing star players. Jurgen Klinsmann has been highly critical of the American youth set-up, and in recent years MLS has made efforts to change youth development. Clubs now have academies, and U.S. has made a point of reducing the costs traditionally associated with soccer academies. But a lot of talented young players are still going to college, And this is stunting the growth of American soccer players.
The NCAA puts limits on how much players are allowed to train, in any sport, presumably so they can focus on their academics. This produces degrees but not trophies, and even in traditional college sports the top teams chafe against the limits and restrictions. Now, it seems that’s happening in soccer. But the pressure is coming from outside just as much as within.
As presently constructed, college soccer is played in the fall, with teams squeezing 20-30 matches into the span of 3-4 months. This hectic scheduling is part of the reason why the college game features unlimited substitutions. U.S. Soccer and some top college coaches are seeking to change this, and turn college soccer into a fall-spring sport. The proposed changes would add a few games to the schedule, but with much more time in between them. Perhaps more importantly, they would allow for up to twenty hours of training per week during the spring, compared to a current 8-hour limit.
To be fair, college soccer doesn’t seem to have ruined Clint Dempsey at all. Guys like Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron played in the NCAA and have had successful pro careers after. DeAndre Yedlin spent two years in college. But I wonder about guys like Harrison Shipp. The Chicago Fire forward has six goals and five assists in his rookie season. He’s also 22, older than Julian Green, John Brooks, and, yes, Yedlin. Where might Shipp be if his rookie season had been last year, or 2012? What if he had gone pro, instead of to Notre Dame? Would he have gone to Brazil? Would European Clubs be bidding for him, too? We’ll never know.