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U.S. soccer could use a new system for college-age players

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; D03

Four of the 23 players on the U.S. soccer team that captivated the nation's attention last month at the World Cup played four years of college soccer, and as the United States attempts to cultivate world-class players by adopting a model of development popular in other countries -- with professional affiliations starting before a player reaches voting age -- college soccer players soon could be left out of the national team equation altogether.

"If you look at it from a purely objective standpoint, [college soccer is] not an ideal soccer development for a critical stage of a player's development between ages 17 and 21," said Thomas Rongen, the coach of the U.S. under-20 national team.

Rongen said there are exceptions, such as American players who go abroad at an early age and cannot handle the rigorous environment of professional soccer. But he believes college soccer will draw fewer elite players each passing year because its structure is not conducive to improvement on an elite level.

"I think that number is going to dwindle more and more," Rongen said. "I don't care what college coaches say. You cannot replicate a professional environment. There's too much down time, there's not enough games. And if there are games during the season, there are too many of them in a short amount of time, which means most teams pretty much have starters end up recuperating between games and not training."

Virginia Coach George Gelnovatch, who led the Cavaliers to a national title last season, said there would always be players who are late bloomers or need a college environment to mature. He believes that the bulk of a player's technical development occurs between ages 6 and 16 -- even before they reach college.

Without a developmental system that includes residencies tied into professional teams, he said the United States needs college soccer to refine players who are not immediately identified as top prospects.

"Can you imagine trying to take college soccer out, what the heck would happen?" Gelnovatch said. "There's not a system in place for the kid who slipped through the cracks. What would they do? The perfect solution is like it as around the world, with youth systems in place. By 18, 19, you're either going to be a pro or you're not. Right now, it's very, very important. Whether it's going to be 15, 20 years from now, that depends on Major League Soccer."

Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski points to former Terrapins standout Maurice Edu, a member of this year's U.S. World Cup team, as an example of an unheralded player in his youth who needed college soccer to flourish. Cirovski said the top players from the United States will have the opportunity to go professional immediately -- "and there's nothing wrong with that," he added -- but that college sports are an important part of American society.

"Even for our best players, one year of college soccer will not hurt them," Cirovski said. "We saw that even two or three years of college soccer for our elite players could still be beneficial for a number of factors," such as physical and mental development.

Cirovski wants the NCAA, U.S. Soccer and MLS to work together. Like other coaches, Cirovski thinks college soccer players need more practice time in the offseason. He also wants opportunities for the elite college players to either play or train with MLS reserve teams or to create a summer league featuring the nation's top college players.

"There's some NCAA rules and funding issues," Cirovski said, "but that's critically important for the cream of our college players to further their development."

Cirovski does not believe the United States needs a system like other countries, but that it just needs to refine its current system. He cited basketball as an example of how attending college does not hinder an elite player's progress.

"If LeBron James would have gone to Ohio State to play basketball, I don't think he'd be a terrible player right now," he said.

Akron Coach Caleb Porter, a former MLS player, said that college soccer's resources, facilities and coaching make the setting ideal for development -- if the NCAA would allow the coaches to further work with the players.

"The problem is, right now, they're not going to get that development anywhere else in our country," Porter said. "College soccer is where they have to develop. If they go to a program that can develop them, and looks at development and prioritizes that, then they do get development and we see it year after year."

MLS and U.S. Soccer partner for Generation Adidas, a program that identifies the nation's top young players and provides incentives for them to become a professional player more quickly, promising higher salaries and guaranteeing a college scholarship if a professional career doesn't pan out initially.

Only six of the 18 players on Rongen's under-20 roster for next week's Milk Cup tournament in Northern Ireland play college soccer, but it discourages Rongen that the majority of the players in the United States' residency program, which is for high school-age players, are still preparing for college soccer. Even the top college coaches agree that American soccer's future success will be determined by whether a compromise can be found with professional soccer that allows for the development of all players, even the ones who choose to play college soccer.

"If we can do that," Rongen said, "then we're starting to really develop players basically just like the rest of the world."

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