In the spring, Mount St. Joseph senior Jalen Robinson announced his decision to accept a full soccer scholarship to Wake Forest, marking the culmination of a standout first three years at the Baltimore private school.
As one of the country’s top soccer prospects, however, Robinson’s decision to attend college — and the possibility he will remain there for four years — puts him in the middle of an ongoing debate about the best route for the most elite American players.
Robinson is considered a prospect with a high ceiling; he appears a pro-ready player in terms of technical and physical ability. He was the youngest player selected to the U.S. under-18 roster for last week’s Milk Cup in Ireland, a tournament featuring the national teams of six countries, and he scored a goal that helped the United States to a third-place finish. During the tournament, he was approached by at least one agent who said that several European clubs had expressed interest in signing him, including one prominent English Premier League team.
His plan to attend college, one that was based on his family’s emphasis on education, highlights a debate about whether that traditional American route — high school to college to pro — hampers the development of this country’s top young soccer players.
While some in the soccer community emphasize that there is more than one route to a professional career and point to a number of examples of college players in Major League Soccer, many coaches and scouts at the national level believe that elite players can maximize their potential by playing in professional environments, and that the United States will only develop world-class players and contend for a World Cup title if it begins to trend away from sending top players to college.
It’s a mentality that has picked up steam following the launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which provides a more direct route from the youth to professional levels and has resulted in a number of signings in MLS and abroad.
“From a developmental standpoint, college and high school, those are not the right places for players to get a lot better,” said Thomas Rongen, who coached the U.S. under-20 national team through the last three World Cup cycles. “I don’t mean for 95 percentage of [players], I’m talking about the group of really elite players that Jalen Robinson fits into right now. They need to give themselves the best places to get better. . . . and that’s not for two- or three-month [seasons] in college.”
Robinson has long been identified as one of the country’s top youth standouts. He earned call-ups to the under-15 national team and an invitation to the U.S. under-17 residential academy in Bradenton, Fla. He also made an early appearance with the under-18 national team, which Rongen cited as an indication that U.S. Soccer believes Robinson, 17, can handle the international demands at his own age level and beyond.
Robinson, who is a member of D.C. United’s academy and was recently named to the MLS Development Academy under-16 “Best XI,” is a defender who can play in the middle or on the flank and has also stepped into a defensive central midfield role.
“He’s technically very polished, he’s very good on the ball and he’s a very good athlete,” D.C. United General Manager Dave Kasper said. “He covers a lot of ground on the field, he has a very good work rate.”
Though Jalen and his father expressed a desire to go to the academy, Jalen’s mother, Kim Robinson, did not believe the academy placed enough emphasis on education.
“I’m probably not [U.S. Soccer’s] favorite person, but I just strongly felt like it was a great opportunity and Jalen has been fortunate to have the opportunities he’s had, but also when all this is over the bottom line is he still needs to have an education,” Kim Robinson said. “He needs to go out in the real world. Whether it’s soccer or any other sport, you’re not always going to be an athlete.”
Jalen Robinson said he was content with the decision, citing a desire to get an education and grow mentally within the college experience. He also said he wasn’t sure if even a European contract would be the right decision for him or his family, citing the difficulty of transitioning to a new culture at a young age.
“I’m pretty comfortable,” Robinson said. “I want a college lifestyle for a couple years and then maybe I’ll sign pro.”
The emphasis on education is not unique to the United States, but it is within the larger international soccer community. Some players in other countries look at soccer as their only way out, Rongen said.
While players like D.C. United star Andy Najar, who signed with the club while still in high school, need the money to help supplement the family income, Robinson has no immediate need for a professional contract. Homegrown players often earn between $32,000 to $40,000 a year.
“Right now for me, my mom said you’re definitely going to college,” said Robinson, whose mother is an office manager for a doctor and whose father is a Baltimore City firefighter. “Since I’m part of the D.C. Academy I’ll be part of homegrown system and at my age I’d get less money than someone who played for [another youth club]. My mom wants me to go to college, and if something happened I’d always have a degree to fall back on.”
D.C. United has not expressed an interest in signing Robinson, according to Kim Robinson. Kasper would not comment on if the team had interest, but said if Robinson expressed a desire to go to Europe, “we would talk internally at that point.”
Kim Robinson said that if Jalen received a European contract offer, the family might have to reconsider the path, but “it really would have to be a good deal.” She also said she would not stand in Jalen’s way if offers came after a few years at Wake Forest.
“I told him I’d like to see him finish, but if an opportunity came along and he got the opportunity to go pro I told him the decision would be his,” Kim Robinson said. “I think he’ll be at an age where he can make that decision. I said, ‘As long as if you do go pro, you make sure you come back and finish school.’”
For now, though, Jalen Robinson doesn’t seem in a rush to change his mind.
“It’s an honor to be scouted by European teams or just teams in general,” Robinson said. “Going to college would be great as well, having the experience and you have to have something to fall back on. . . . I haven’t felt any pressure from anybody. It’s between my family and I, [and] I’m going to do what’s best for me and for my family.”