“Food for Thought”
DevelopmentAcademy Players Hit College Roadblock
By Paul Gardner
Soccer America’s ‘Soccer Talk’
A long list of names can be currently found on the U.S. Soccer website.The names are there because of the arrival, on Feb. 5, of National Signing Day.These are teenage players who have made their college choice.
They are players with U17/18 teams from member clubs of the U.S. SoccerDevelopment Academy (DA) -- 296 of them from 28 clubs. As the DA has amembership of 79 clubs with U-18 teams, there are presumably plenty more namesto come.
So a huge number of this country’s most promising youngsters will be going tocollege to ... well, to what? To get an education, for a start, and who isgoing to argue with that? Not I.
But on the soccer front, things are less straightforward. Will playing collegesoccer help these boys become, or progress as, elite players? Or will it do theopposite and make it less likely that they will enter the elite ranks?
I use of the word “elite” because the DA people themselves use it. It crops upfive times in the official online Overview of the Development Academy program.The key statement announces that the purpose of the program is “to improve theeveryday environment for the elite youth player.” Shortly after that, thepurpose is more focused -- the DA is “designed to produce the next generationof National Team players.”
That can only mean senior players for the men’s national team, the one thatbrings most publicity and sponsorship money. Since amateur players are not tobe found on the world’s major national teams, we’re talking about developingpro players.
So here we have a horde of elite youngsters, ostensibly chosen as potentialnational team pros, being snapped up by the colleges. To slightly re-phrase myearlier question: “Will playing college soccer help these boys become nationalteam players?” The answer is still No. We already know, beyond the possibilityof any doubt, that four years of college soccer during the crucial 18-22 yearsage period is far more likely to retard a boys’ soccer growth than to advance it.
Given the crippling restrictions imposed by the NCAA it can hardly beotherwise. The people at U.S. Soccer who run the DA system are well aware ofthis, they have to be. In their Overview, they single out, as one of theadvantages of the DA program, the use of “FIFA Rules (i.e. no reentry onsubstitutions ...” Yet the massive Signing Day list tells us that a largeproportion of these DA elite players are headed for college where they verymuch do not apply FIFA rules, and where they very much do allow reentryon substitutions.
Such a blatant contradiction calls for an explanation from the DA, but I doubtthat one will be forthcoming. The DA, well-intentioned and well-organized, agenuine attempt to upgrade the caliber of American youth soccer players, hasrun into the same brick wall that has confronted a series of previous attempts.The brick wall known as college soccer.
The Olympic Development Program, for instance, has been run by U.S. YouthSoccer since 1977. Its aim: “To identify players of the highest caliber on acontinuing and consistent basis, which will lead to increased success for theU.S. National Teams in the international arena.” Sound familiar? In fact thesimilarity between the ODP and the DA mission statements is strong enough to suggestthat one of the programs should be declared redundant.
Almost at the end of the DA statement, the word “college” is mentioned for thefirst, and only, time. It comes under the heading “Player IdentificationAdvantages” and follows a mention of “Showcases.” It says simply “400-500college coaches.” The ODP statement also contains but one reference to collegesoccer. It occurs in the very last line, under the heading “Benefits ofParticipating in ODP”, and reads “Exposure to college coaches.”
So, almost as an afterthought, from both the ODP and the DA comes a delayed andreluctant admission that college soccer -- which is known to be anutterly inadequate way of producing pro players -- will play an important rolein each program.
The value of US Soccer’s Under-17 residency program at Bradenton is similarlyweakened by the fact that most of its graduates -- they, too, supposedly futurepros -- like those of the DA system go on to play college soccer.
Such is the formidable, unmovable presence of college soccer, that it can beargued that the main success of the ODP, Bradenton -- and now it seems, theDevelopment Academy -- has been to make the job of college recruitmentconsiderably easier.
Only the Generation adidas program (formerly Project 40) can claim success incountering the misleading siren call of the colleges. The GA program manages tokeep some boys out of college soccer altogether, while tempting others to quitcollege early. The alternative on offer is a place on a pro roster, and financialhelp for education. But the numbers are tiny -- maybe 10 boys a year.
I see no easy, or even feasible, answer to this tangle, barring some hugechange in NCAA regulations. I am still hearing buoyant talk from collegecoaches about the “very real” possibility that, at least in Division I, FIFArules will be permitted.
I have no wish to belittle the efforts of the coaches who are working to getthis to happen. But really, guys, I have been listening to exactly this claimfor 40 years -- barren years, for nothing has happened.
It is quite possible that a pepped-up GA is the solution. Having the futurestars join pro clubs early, while the big majority, those who aren’t going tomake it anyway, play college soccer would be a neat resolution.
Admittedly, 10 future pros a year, even twice that many, sounds a pretty feeblecatch, but a look at the stats -- the global stats -- for teenagers who go onto become stars is not encouraging: Figures range from only 5% of those whowere originally considered to have the necessary talent, down to as low as 1%.
The idea might work if it were possible to accurately predict which18-year-olds were certain to make it. But no one can do that, so the ideafails. No soccer organization or sponsor is going to finance a program withsuch a potentially high failure rate.
A greatly expanded GA program taking in, say, 100 teenagers each year obviouslyhas a much greater chance of producing star players, but again the failure ratewill be too high to justify the greatly increased cost. And the reality ofmaybe 80 young failures who have missed out on a college education is notacceptable.
Like it or not, we end up facing the inevitable truth that the development ofpro players must be the responsibility of pro clubs. And those pro clubs mustalso bear the responsibility of making sure that the youngsters who don’t makeit are not simply discarded, but have been provided with at least the means tofashion an alternative life.
This happens to be the situation that the world’s pro clubs are only now facingup to. For the rich clubs, once the decision to make the necessary provisionshas been made, financing them will not be a problem. For the less affluent --and I think we can include the MLS clubs in that category -- the money issimply not there (of the 28 DA clubs that I mentioned above, the ones whoseplayers are headed to college soccer, 11 are directly linked to MLS clubs).
So we see U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer stepping in where they really don’tbelong, with programs whose stated aim is to produce pro players. Programs thatinevitably fizzle out when the players reach the age of 18. After that age,there is not much choice for most players. The pro clubs offer little by way ofopportunities or money. The allure of a college education makes itself felt,and the deficiencies of college soccer loom. The unreconcilable contradictionsof National Signing Day arrive