Out of the Deep South and the grimy industrial towns, the young men come to hit the line for alma mater, pay cursory attention to their studies, lead the life of a highly profesplayers in residence on campuses. Then they sional athletes who just happen to be football take off into the wholly professional game. Baseball and basketball players are in much the same case. There is no conflict at all, quite the reverse, between their ambitions in their sport and college attendance.
Soccer in America is another matter. A college education, far from advancing the career of a promising soccer player, can kill it. There are exceptions. Kyle Rote Jr., son of a distinguished American football player and commentator, turned down a football scholarship and accepted a soccer scholarship to the University of the South, instead. He emerged as the first American-born professional player of standing of the last decade and is still playing center-forward and scoring goals for the Dallas Tornado.
But, generally, college means, for an American soccer player, four years in limbo, four years of being away from the professional clubs that help him improve his game, four years playing at a low, amateur level, usually subjected to indifferent coaching. By the time he comes out of the chrysalis, he isn't much of a butterfly.
Thus, it is no surprise to find more and more American pro soccer clubs signing promising players straight out of high school. Jim McAllister, who had a fine season at fullback for Seattle, and ultimately, in the championship game, received and accolade of Pele's shirt from the maestro himself, is one. Another is the 19-year-old Ricky Davis, a little center-forward whom the U.S. national team coach, Walt Chyzowych, calls possibly the best native-born player ever - recommendation when you remember the likes of John Sousa, on that fine 1950 American World Cup team.
But Davis, who was a freshman pre-med student last year at the University of Santa Clara, has withdrawn from college, deciding to gamble wholly on a career in professional soccer. I quite understand why he has done it, but I do think it is a shame. I would like to consider whether or not there is a way out of the cleft stick in which such fine young players are caught.
One of my greatest complaints about the professional soccer game in Britain, and elsewhere, is the way it smashes up the lives of the young, fills them with often unattainable ambitions, encourages them from the earliest age - as young as 10 - to neglect everything but soccer, then simply leaves them by the wayside - failures in soccer and unequipped for any other kind of job.
It is particularly vicious because it is also unnecessary. Recent experience in England has shown that it is by no means essential for a boy to go straight from school, at 15 or 16, into the meat grinder of professional soccer for him to succeed. The case of Steve Heighway is a most pertinent one.
Last May, in Rome, Heighway and Kevin Keegan, the two Liverpool strikers, destroyed the Borussia Munchengladbach defense and enabled the English club to win the final of the European Cup; the continent's major tournament for clubs. Yet, until he was 22, Heighway had never kicked a ball in professional football, and had had only desultoory relations with pro clubs. He had gone to the University of Warwick, taken a degree in economics, and played for Skelmersdale, then a senior amateur club.
Alan Gowling, a tall striker with Newcastle United of the English First Division, joined his local club, the famed Manchester United, as a youth, but trained there on his own in the mornings, going on to attend Manchester University in the afternoons, where he took a good degree and has now written a thesis on the pro soccer game.
In Italy, the 21-year-old Lazio stopper, Lionello Manfredonia, now on the fringe of the full international team, is a law student, although he is now doing his military service.
The list could be vastly expanded. The point is that the international pro soccer game is changing, the general level of education and intelligence is rising. Players, besides, are slowly beginning to realize that to put all their eggs into one; uncertain basket is a foolish gamble.
The North Amerian Soccer League has just decreed that by 1988 their clubs will be allowed to use no more than six foreign players on a team. That, by international standards, is still a vertiginously high number, but it does represent a considerable cutting down from 1977, when the maximum was 10. Next year, it is going to be nine, and so on, diminishing by one player each season until 1984.
It means that more and more American players will have to be seen in the game.And why not? Why should America, with its superb tradition in so many sports, be the only country in soccer history to import its players, or most of them? The ideal solution, surely, is for clubs to put their players through college, wherever they wish, on a part-time basis. Bring them from their home towns, but then see that they are educated nearby.
I don't much want to see soccer invade colleges as football has done, setting up a series of what you might properly call athletic ghettos. I do want to see America produce its own good players. But I don't like to see them drop out of college, as young Ricky Davis has felt obliged to do.