Saturday, February 02, 2008

ATH: The state of college soccer

College Soccer's Defensive Trust
By Dave Lifton, 02/01/2008 10:00 AM, US National Team Players

WASHINGTON DC (February 1, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- Major League Soccer last month changed its rules to allow teams more international players, arguing that with the league looking to expand even further in the next few years, the crop of college players would not be up to sustaining the current level of play.

It’s a good move for the league to acknowledge that today's audience is savvy enough to notice the difference between MLS and the world's top leagues, but it’s a step back from the league’s mission to create a deep pool of professional American players for the National Team. Still, with more Americans producing in the top European leagues, including those developed in MLS, the league has arguably to some extent met that objective, regardless of how many internationals are on each team.

The next logical question is: with teams having more freedom to look elsewhere for talent, are college soccer and the MLS SuperDraft becoming less relevant? Before answering that, it’s prudent to take a look at some figures.

Of the 47 players chosen in the first rounds from 2004 to 2007, ten have at least one cap with the National Team. At 21%, that's not bad at all. Furthermore, seven players drafted in later rounds, including Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, have also earned caps.

Only six of the 47 are not currently on the roster of an MLS or European team. Of the other 41, ten have not received significant playing time with their team (although two, Steve Cronin and Chris Seitz, are goalkeepers). This is a far cry from the earlier years in the decade, when players like Luchi Gonzales and David Stokes were drafted following successful college careers, only to languish on the bench. Does anybody even remember Mansour N'Diaye?

However, seven of those ten, including Seitz, were from the Class of 2007. So maybe things are taking a turn in the other direction. But the 2008 SuperDraft saw teams adopting different strategies. In the days leading up to the draft, the Kansas City Wizards transferred their leading scorer, Eddie Johnson, to Fulham, and traded Nick Garcia, a stalwart defender, to San Jose for the number one overall pick. Instead of filling those important slots with their two first-round picks, they selected Chance Myers and Roger Espinoza, who will most likely be behind Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington on the Wizards' depth chart.

Why would the Wizards choose to not replace Johnson and Garcia with highly touted collegiate stars like Patrick Nyarko or Andy Iro? When asked, Wizards coach Curt Onalfo said that he specifically chose Myers and Espinoza because they were Generation Adidas (originally Project-40) players, and will therefore be protected in the upcoming Expansion Draft. What Onalfo didn't say was that GA players are also exempt from the salary cap.

Translation: There was nobody in the draft who could step right in and fill Johnson and Garcia's shoes. We'll look elsewhere, thank you very much.

The irony is that Johnson, one of the most natural raw talents the US has ever produced, signed with MLS as a P-40 player as a 16-year old in 2001. As a result, he was given the time to reach his potential.

Forwards coming out of college are gradually having a more difficult time adjusting to MLS. Of the league's top ten goal scorers last year, only rookie Robbie Findley joined the league straight out of college in the last five years. Findley, Dane Richards, and Adam Cristman were the only forwards chosen in 2007 to see significant minutes on the field, with Richards spending the season on the wing. Cristman was chosen in the fourth round and enjoyed playing time thanks to an early season injury to Pat Noonan.

Defenders have traditionally fared better after finishing college. Perhaps the extra years of learning the game at a lower level, while their bodies are still developing physically, creates a player more capable of stepping into a professional starting eleven. Could Michael Parkhurst have gotten his exceptional ability to read the game if he was thrust into the New England Revolution's backline after only a few years in college? Conversely, could the defensive skills of Marvell Wynne, arguably one of the most physically gifted athletes in MLS, been better served had he not chosen to leave UCLA early?

We may have seen a glimpse of the future earlier this week when DC United unveiled five new signings, all South Americans ranging from former Argentine national team star Marcelo Gallardo to 17-year old Peruvian goalkeeper José Carvallo. United have not traditionally had much success with their draft picks over the years, and, with high expectations to maintain, have chosen to overhaul their roster with international talent.

The relevance of college soccer may diminish as the league expands to 16 teams (and eventually more) and attains an overall higher quality, thanks to both an increase in imports and the number of players signed out of the clubs' youth academies. For all its inadequacies, though, college soccer for now at least is upholding its role in creating future generations of players for both the league and the National Team.
Dave Lifton is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to USSoccerPlayers.

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