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Blaming college soccer for U.S. World Cup disaster misses the point

It’s been years since college soccer was the main path to the national team

NCAA Soccer: Men's College Cup-Stanford vs Wake Forest Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been hard to find bad takes since the United States Men’s National Team were knocked out of the 2018 World Cup on a disaster of an evening in Trinidad & Tobago on October 10. Among the worst takes I’ve seen over the past week have had something to do with it being all college soccer’s fault.

Before unpacking why this is such a bad take, know this: College soccer absolutely needs to change.

The two semester schedule being pushed by Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski and many others in the college game needs to happen, first and foremost for the benefit of the student athletes but also to improve the game domestically, both in its professional and amateur ranks.

A schedule change would help solve a couple of the most glaring problems - liberal substitution rules and a too-short competitive season - but even if these changes were implemented today, college programs’ role in developing players for the U.S. national team has already become diminished to the point of becoming nearly unrecognizable.

Even a mostly throwback team put on the field by head coach Bruce Arena in the Trinidad & Tobago game featured just four players in the starting XI that played any college soccer at all. Of those four - DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Besler, Darlington Nagbe and Omar Gonzalez - only Besler exhausted his college eligibility before joining the professional ranks.

Plenty of previous U.S. teams with even more former collegians in the lineup performed better than this rightfully maligned bunch, but you still have to go back to 2006 to find a U.S. roster that was mostly filled with former college players. That year, 17 of the 23 players on the roster played college ball one cycle after 16 of the 23 players who advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup previously suited up for college programs.

A lot has changed in the sport since that glorious 2002 World Cup run for the United States, but sadly college soccer has done little to align with the global game, sticking to its bizarre set of rules and a schedule that crams 2-3 games a week into a fall season while also expecting athletes to somehow keep up with their studies.

Meanwhile, elite players have increasingly more opportunities to avoid college altogether and head directly to the professional ranks, both domestically and abroad.

For evidence of this, take a look at the rosters for the last two U20 World Cups. In the most recent World Cup, there were more college players on New Zealand’s roster (six) than there were on the U.S. (four). In 2015, there were as many college players playing for other countries (six) as there were for the U.S.

That college soccer is home to a number of non-American international players is probably the oldest story in soccer that somehow keeps being retold as though it is something new. About a third of all Division 1 players in the men’s game this season were born outside of the United States. For one quick example, the tiny country of Iceland - which recently qualified for its first World Cup - has more players in Division 1 college soccer (28) than 22 U.S. states. Only seven states can claim more D1 players than England can this season.

Reflecting this trend, the biggest prospects in Major League Soccer’s annual SuperDraft increasingly have been players who aren’t eligible to represent the United States while many of the best young domestic players are skipping the draft altogether to sign homegrown contracts with their clubs, if they even make it to campus.

Scanning the list of recent homegrown signings will reveal that homegrowns with college experience are becoming something of a rare breed.

Of the 34 homegrowns signed to MLS contracts in 2017, only 13 played college soccer and just four of them exhausted their eligibility. Many, like Philadelphia Union homegrown Anthony Fontana, never even verbally committed to a college program.

Fontana, who turned 18 this month, isn’t on the youth international radar right now, but his pathway through the Union’s youth system and playing his way into a first team contract as an amateur in the USL with Bethlehem Steel appears to be the route many future U.S. internationals will be traveling in the foreseeable future.

Those with the ability to get an EU passport like Christian Pulisic will have other options before they turn 18 when the decision for elite youth stars will be what country to play in, not whether to go to college or go pro.

That’s not to say that the college game is becoming completely irrelevant or that there isn’t quality soccer being played on American campuses. The addition of a new USL Division 3 league means additional options at the professional level for 21- and 22-year-olds coming out of college to continue playing at a high level and keep alive the hope of moving up to top flight football.

There will always be the exceptions to this, late bloomers or out-of-nowhere players who fall through the cracks in a large country still greatly lacking in scouting and coaching resources. But for the most part, pointing the finger at college soccer and saying that fixing it is the answer to avoiding future World Cup disasters misses the point altogether.

To improve the U.S. chances in the future, you need to look younger to the issue of league fees and travel expenses at the youngest ages of youth soccer and solutions to the problem of introducing the game to more kids in underserved areas of the country, providing them the coaching and support that is needed from a very young age to produce players that can not only compete on the world’s stage but improve the game at all levels in the U.S. from the top flight on down.

In other words, changing what Union head coach rightly called “a sport of privilege” in a news conference last week into one where kids with talent in all shapes, sizes and demographic backgrounds have a chance to learn the game the right way and develop into the kind of players who will move us closer to the ultimate prize of world soccer.