The pomp and circumstance are wildly disproportionate to the magnitude of the event. There are more players on the turf field than there are people perched up against the grass slope alongside it. Yet each participant is elaborately introduced over the PA system as loud music rattles the void, bouncing off the surrounding buildings before drifting off over the Hudson River, just down the ridge.
Following the national anthem, this NCAA Division II college men's soccer game between Mercy College and Dominican College is set to kick off at last. It hardly lives up to all the fuss. Consistent with almost all of college soccer, across all three divisions, the action is dispiriting -- slow and physical and direct and bereft of much technique. Game plans seem to revolve around long balls nobody has the skill to deliver or indeed receive. As far as player development goes, this is a waste of time. No serious prospect will emerge from here.
Which induces a larger and more urgent discussion: Is college soccer still capable of developing professional-caliber soccer talent? And is it still supposed to?
It used to be that college soccer was the breeding ground for the United States men's national team (It still very much is on the women's side, but this series concerns only the men). Coming out of high school, your only other options were making straight for foreign shores, with only the longest of odds, or the bleak prospect of signing in a stateside semi-pro minor league. But by and large, if you weren't in a youth national team or in a good college program, you just weren't going to get noticed.
In 1998, the under-17 national team academy in Bradenton, Fla. opened under the auspices of Project 2010 and started feeding players into the pro game. And in recent years, all 19 Major League Soccer teams have either started an academy or are well into the process of getting one off the ground. The fruits thereof can be signed straight to the first team.
By creating alternatives, America's player development pyramid is veering away from college, its traditional mechanism for producing professional players. Starting with Tristan Bowen in Nov. 2008, 85 players have signed so-called homegrown contracts in MLS. That's equivalent to almost an entire round of college draft picks each year that's being signed out of MLS clubs' own academies instead -- at the expense of college players, of course.
"It's no secret that nowadays the best players don't go to college anymore," says United States under-20 national team head coach Tab Ramos, once an American soccer prodigy. "They find other ways, whether it's through a homegrown contract in MLS or through taking a chance in Europe when they're a little bit younger."
Standing at the exchange between amateur and professional soccer, Ramos has noticed that the better prospects are signing and thriving at a younger age. "My last cycle, at the start of it I had a lot of high school and college players ... and by the time we went to the [under-20] World Cup it was mostly a professional team," he says, adding that those who were pros seldom played for their club teams. "Now when I look at the next group of players coming up, I see that a lot of them are already professionals and a lot of them are already playing. They're not only in professional environments but they're playing. So this next group is a little ahead of the last one."
Given the many flaws in the college game, this isn't terribly surprising. "It does have its shortcomings," says Todd Durbin, who oversees the negotiation of MLS's player contracts as Executive Vice President of Player Relations and Competition. "They don't play year-round and their focus is understandably on winning championships, which is not the same as focusing on developing players and turning them into professionals. While I think college soccer is still going to be an important part of the landscape for the foreseeable future I do see its role in terms of developing professionals decreasing over time."
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There are many complaints of college soccer; the games are too slow; too physical and too direct; there aren't enough of them -- the fall season is typically 20 games or so; the spring season just five or six; there aren't enough quality opponents; there isn't enough talent; the substitution rules distort the game -- coaches can substitute as often as they please and bring players they have already taken out back into the game after a rest. And plus and perhaps worst of all, there isn't enough time.
College soccer teams can spend 20 hours per week on "countable, athletically-related time." During the off-season, which is more than half the year, that number shrinks to eight hours. "While my college soccer experience was a good one -- I had a very good coach, which made a huge difference for me -- the issue was the amount of soccer you can play," says Eddie Pope, a starting central defender for the USA in three World Cups and a 12-year MLS veteran after playing four years at the University of North Carolina. "It's not nearly enough soccer. You just don't have enough hours logged on the field. It's not even necessarily that the level is not high enough or the coaching is not good enough, even if it were the best coaching on the planet, you're still not playing enough soccer."
Pope vividly recalls playing Argentina at the 1996 Olympics with the under-23 national team. They were mostly college players; their opponents well into their pro careers. "They were so far ahead," says Pope. "We lost 3-1 but it was worse than that."
College, if anything, had slowed the maturation of Pope's national team generation, he argues. "The NCAA's goal is: a little bit of sports and we'll make sure we balance that with a little bit of education and we expect you to come out well-balanced so that you can come out and get a job in the real world," he says. "And that's fine. That works well. But it doesn't work well in regard to having a group of players who are prepared to play against [foreign opponents] who are professionals for the last five years straight. It's really, really tough."
Ramos was drafted by the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League right out of high school in 1984 but feared that the league would soon fold, which it did. So he was relegated to playing four years of college at North Carolina State before embarking on his glittering professional and United States national team career. On his college soccer experience, he is rather succinct: "I don't think I was a better player coming out of college than I was coming out of high school four years before."
Editor's note : This is the first installment in FOXSoccer.com's four-part series on the future of college soccer.