Collegiate development still viable path to pros
Alex Carson | Tuesday, September 23, 2014
When it comes to soccer, the college landscape may be the “great debate.”
Some people, like men’s national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann, think American players would be best served playing their trade overseas in top European leagues, progressing through a club’s youth academy to ideally join up with the first team around his 20th birthday.
But Klinsmann’s view is not universal. Some believe that a so-called “American” system — one reliant on player development while at a college or university — works just fine for college soccer. And while college soccer prepares to enter what might be a new age of reform, Irish coach Bobby Clark said he is a firm believer in college soccer for young players.
“I think college is a fantastic way for young players to play at a very high level and to get a great education,” Clark said.As far as college soccer alums go, Clark’s time at Notre Dame has seen quite a few contributors to the Major League Soccer stage.
Defender Matt Besler (’09) started every match for the United States at this year’s World Cup and just recently signed a Designated Player contract to remain reigning champion Sporting Kansas City’s captain for the long haul.
At the same time, there is a chance the Irish will have produced back-to-back MLS Rookies of the Year. Colorado midfielder Dillon Powers (’13) took home the honors last year while Chicago midfielder Harrison Shipp (’14) is widely regarded as one of the frontrunners this campaign after signing his homegrown player contract in January.And while the accomplishments of Besler, Powers and Shipp — who has six goals and six assists in 27 appearances for Chicago this term — are well-noted, they are not the only players Clark’s program has produced.
“Obviously Dillon and Harry were both super players, and they’ve both done very, very well, but there are many other guys like Michael Thomas (’10) and Bright Dike (’09) that have gone on and done well,” Clark said.
It is a narrative that is discussed all around soccer circles in the country. Take a look at any MLS roster and one will find plenty of players that came through the college soccer system. But what about the elite players?
In the United States’ World Cup opener against Ghana, 14 players saw action, four of whom had dual citizenship. Of those remaining 10, five played college soccer, and five did not. The remainder of the 23-man roster, though? All of them either played collegiately or are dual-nationals that grew up outside of the United States.Clark also said a player would not necessarily gain leadership from a young age if he went professional right away. Of the 19 MLS captains this season, 12 of them hail from the United States. All but one of those 12 — Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman — played at least two years collegiately. Ten of those 11 played through at least their junior season.
“[College soccer] allows youngsters to become leaders,” Clark said. “If you go into the pros as a 17- or 18-year old, the chances of you developing leadership skills are pretty slim because you’re always one of the youngest of the group. If you go to college, by the time you’re a junior or a senior, you’re leading that team even though you’re just 20 or 21.”
And while Clark is a proponent of college soccer both from a developmental and educational standpoint, he conceded that if a once-in-a-lifetime player came along, he should probably sign the professional contract.
“If we have the next [Lionel] Messi, I always liken it to Tiger Woods when I was coaching at Stanford,” Clark said. “Tiger was coming to the end of his sophomore year, and Nike offered him $40 million or something. If that’s the case, then the decision is very easy.”
But unless dealing with that generational talent, Clark still comes back to education to back his belief that college soccer is best for America’s young soccer players.
“Let’s be honest — there’s a lot of kids that have already gone into the MLS early and missed out on the college route, and so many of these youngsters have already been waived by the professional team — there’s a whole pile of them,” Clark said. “I think they’ve missed a great chance to get an education.”