In an ideal world, the task of developing pro prospects would fall to Major League Soccer, but the league has only recently begun making any real progress in establishing the infrastructure for such a role. In the interim, and for decades now, college soccer has helped fill that role by giving young soccer players in this country an avenue to pursue the game and grow as players.Yes, ideally the MLS clubs would be developing the professional caliber prospects themselves, and yes, 15 or even 20 clubs in the U.S. cannot develop all the talent.
There are some who still don't realize just how invaluable the college game is to player development in this country, which is disappointing because without college soccer the current pool of American talent would be much more shallow and the pro game in this country wouldn't have made as many strides as it has enjoyed over the course of the past decade.
Even as MLS continues to grow, and the academy programs slowly but surely being put in place start to increase their role in developing talent, the college game will still be important in developing players. Why? Because the United States is just too large a country for 15 teams to cover with academies and even as some colleges cut their men's soccer programs, there are still plenty that are flourishing a doing an excellent job of helping young talents hone their game.
But I would argue that outside the ACC there is a dearth of consistently good college soccer programs. The ACC which is consistently the strongest conference in the college game (three of the Final Four in the past two years have been ACC teams), the ACC has won four out of the last five College Cups. In the last 20 years, the ACC has won 9 of the years (and tied one) and an ACC team has been in the final in 12 of the past 20 years. That is not to say that there are not quality teams in other conferences (Indiana and UCLA have a solid record). Having said that, how many quality programs, year in and year out over the course of ten or twenty years are out there. Programs that through a combination of good coaching and good scouting and good connections to PDL clubs are not big in number that can generate a flood of good talent.
Now the 2009 MLS rookie class has set a very high bar for the years that follow and I do hope that 2010 can produce as solid a class as well. In the end, that will be the measure of college soccer--how successful college coaches can develop talent to make the transition to professional playing. College soccer, again, outside the ACC, in not consistently of high enough quality, at this time, to truly be a breeding ground for professional talent on a broad scale.
What can be done to make college soccer a better breeding ground for professional talent? Simply put, a few rule changes can go a long way:
1. End the practice of unlimited substitutions. I am not suggesting that these games have to be three substitutions, but even a five or six substitution limit would be fine, so long as when players leave the game, they can't come back. This puts more of an onus on the players themselves making tactical changes, measure their output and effort, maintain their fitness, and increase their skills in the game. An interesting side effect that I can envision is that more quality players will get spread around among other teams as players will be seeking programs where they can get lots of playing time, perhaps even as freshmen and sophomores compete for serious minutes.
2. Play fewer games. The average college soccer team will play 20 regular season games in a little more than three months. In general, they are playing a game every three to four days, and that doesn't lend itself to learning. Professional teams might play a series of three games in ten days on occaision, but college teams are doing it every week for three months straight and that is before conference tournaments. Oddly enough, the College Cup Tournament has six or seven days between games.
3. Permit off season training camps. I am not suggesting off season training during the entire spring semester. But off season camps, maybe a three or four day camp every month, generates that which is helpful--skill development, tactical learning and team familiarity. Most high level college players will play PDL or other amateur clubs during the off season, but not all players have that availability. Hopefully the USL will continue to develop that program which provides professional level coaching for players. But until such time as every college program is permitted to have its own PDL team, then college programs should be permitted to train regularly in the off season.
Clearly, the college programs will, in the absence of quality MLS academy and/or academy networks, be the provider of much of the rookie talent for the MLS. So in that respect, the college game is important, but I don't think it should be the best source of talent in 30 years.