From a young age, elite soccer players in the United States are told that they are being prepared for college soccer — theoretically the next phase of their pre-professional playing careers. I’ve seen this pattern first hand: ever since my club team entered high school, the focus was always being scouted by a college coach at elite tournaments. Even the highest levels of club soccer — development academies — focus on college recruitment. While development academies’ main goal is to produce the next batch of national players, it is simultaneously a pipeline to the top college soccer institutions in the country.
This would be all fine and dandy if college soccer institutions properly developed their players for the professional game (and thus, the national team). But the goals of college soccer are catastrophically out of line with the goals of our development academies and national team. Compared to the rest of the world, college soccer is a mirage that fails its top players, and in doing so, the future success of the sport.
College soccer’s main problem stems from its disregard for the global rules of the game. Because of college soccer’s unlimited substitution rule, the college game rewards speed and physicality; meanwhile, the rest of the world is playing with FIFA’s three player substitution rule, which rewards astute technical and tactical ability.
Proponents argue that college soccer is integral to the development of the player in terms of personal growth. The college experience, they argue, makes athletes more well-rounded and prepared for the professional game. But if you put this thought process in a global context, this idea makes no sense whatsoever.
The college soccer season is an embarrassingly short four-month season that includes at most 25 games for Div. I teams. Meanwhile, overseas, the next generation of European and South American players aged 18-22 — the usual age for college players — are playing for youth teams or reserve sides that play around 40 games a year and train twice a day from August to May. NCAA rules prohibit college sides from seriously training in the off-season, further impeding development. Does the value of being “well-rounded” really outweigh training for less than half the time as European and South American competition?
It should be no surprise, then, that our players who go through the collegiate system fall short of the global standard. It should also come as no surprise that top youth national team players are opting to skip college and go overseas. Christian Pulisic left for Europe when he was 16. Seventeen-year-old Josh Sargent, one U.S. Soccer’s most prized assets, is off to Werder Bremen in February. Twenty-two-year-old Matt Miazga turned down an offer to play for the University of Michigan at 18, and three years later signed with English powerhouse Chelsea. The list goes on and on.
Slowly but surely, top American players are leaving college soccer in the dust for the higher levels of soccer overseas. Until college soccer changes its rules to conform to the high demands of the global standard and prioritizes development, it will be relegated to no more than a sport for the best of the rest.