College game helps cultivate late bloomers
With the college soccer season in full swing and MLS nearing playoff time, it's time to ask the question: does college soccer adequately prepare domestic players for professional competition?
Based on college soccer's retention of top domestic talent, the answer is yes. A number of young American stars with professional opportunities have chosen college soccer to develop their game.
Charlie Davies, a sophomore at Boston College, had the option to play in Europe out of high school. He strongly considered signing on with a professional team in Europe but in the end, Davies and his father both agreed that college was the right choice for him.
"I was considering going to Europe -- to Belgium -- to play for a couple years before I could play in England," Davies said. "My dad thought it would be a good idea to go to college and get some experience playing with bigger guys."
That doesn't mean that Europe does not still beckon. Far from it - as Davies continues to excel, interest in the talented attacker only grows. Back in August at the U-18 Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, the New Hampshire-bred striker wowed the crowds with his quickness en route to a hat-trick in the finals. His performance undoubtedly earning the notice of the professional scouts in attendance.
Davies, whose ultimate goal is to play in one of Europe's premier leagues, spent last week running on the beaches of San Diego, clearing his head and making priorities. He has chosen again to delay his jump to professional soccer and returns to BC for one more season.
"My goal is obviously to play at the highest level I can. I just want to get better," Davies said. "We're playing in the ACC this year. It's is the best competition we can have, which is a good thing."
Lee Nguyen, Davies' U-18 teammate for the United States' triumph in the Milk Cup, also faced the college/pro decision a few months ago. After mulling several offers, he decided to play collegiately and signed with perennial powerhouse Indiana.
In Nguyen's case, college will be an important step in his development, according to Sigi Schmid, coach of the U-20 men's national team. Schmid believes every American player, especially one as slightly built as Nguyen, can benefit from at least one year of college ball.
"The way our youth soccer is structured in this country is one-year age groups," said Schmid. "As a result of that, college soccer is the first time that they play against older opponents. So that one year helps any player."
Davies, who garnered Big East Rookie of the Year honors after notching nine goals in 20 games, agreed. He said the bigger players reminded him of his freshman year of high school.
"(College players) aren't more skilled - it's just a matter of them being bigger and in some cases faster," Davies said. "I knew it would be a good to get used to the physical challenge of college."
The retention of domestic athletes is a credit to the level of competition in college. But just how does this level compare with some of the other options these players have?
Schmid believes elite college soccer measures up favorably with European professional leagues.
"To me, top college teams are definitely the equivalent of third division soccer in Germany, which is where most of the reserves for the pro teams play," Schmid said. "(College soccer) can hold its own, for sure, in the second division in England. Some of the top college teams could do all right against the bottom of the French second division."
Besides a high level of competition, college soccer offers a number of other advantages over pro leagues.
For one, college has proven adept at cultivating "late bloomers." With 199 D-I men's college programs competing in 2003-2004, there are plenty of roster spots for unheralded players to develop.
"If they are talented enough to go straightaway -- the Landon Donovan scenario -- and can get major training opportunities and games with the first team, obviously that's a unique situation," said Dean Wurzberger, head coach at the University of Washington. "But the vast majority of players have yet to mature and they can certainly do that in their college years."
A prime example is newly-signed SV Hamburg midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
Without any scholarship offers out of high school, Feilhaber walked on at UCLA, eventually earning a starting spot. He parlayed his success with the Bruins into a spot on the U-20 national team. His strong play at this summer's World Youth Championships in the Netherlands got him noticed by a number of big European teams, including Hamburg, the team he eventually signed with.
Feilhaber played two years at UCLA before going pro, following the footstep of his Bruin teammate Chad Barrett. The Chicago Fire striker tore up the Pac-10 for two seasons before making the jump to MLS. Unlike college baseball, which requires its player to wait three years to be drafted, college soccer allows its talent to leave at anytime.
One perceived knock on college soccer involves the relatively small number of games played per year. But with spring seasons, players get about 35-40 games a year, only slightly less than they would be getting professionally in Europe. Additionally, players are free to pick up additional experience during the summer.
Another notch in college's favour: student-athletes have access to outstanding facilities and support services.
"Our training facilities at the collegiate level are superior to many lower division pro outfits and even our A-League," Wurzberger said. "There's no way the Seattle Sounders can replicate our training environment at the University of Washington - we just have more resources."
Even financially, college makes sense compared to the MLS.
With the exception of Freddy Adu's substantial contract, the financial infrastructure of the MLS can't offer young players the guaranteed money and lucrative signing bonuses their peers in basketball and baseball receive.
The recent release of MLS player salaries shows that some developmental players earn as little as $11,000 per season. Players on the senior roster can make as little as $28,000. That's not much more than the value of athletic scholarships awarded to players - such scholarships generally range from $13,900-22,300 per annum, depending on a number of factors.
However, player development remains the overarching concern for players with dreams of plying their trade professionally. In the end, all these players must ask themselves the same question: Where can I go to get the highest level of soccer available and still get game experience?
For America's elite youngsters, the answer means choosing between collegiate and professional soccer. As players in this situation continue to opt for college, it's an affirmation of the ability of college soccer to develop players.
Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org