With another MLS SuperDraft on the horizon and the academy system evolving, the debate over college soccer continues, but it's clear that it still serves a purpose.
Needless to say, college soccer has its flaws, and it is not necessarily an ideal way to prepare up-and-coming youth for the rigors of the professional game.
Don't think for a second that it doesn't serve a useful purpose, though.
With dozens of professional hopefuls currently on display at the Major League Soccer Player Combine and another MLS SuperDraft on the horizon this week, the age-old issue of determining college soccer's place in the American soccer spectrum returns to the forefront. Another class of mostly college-bred talent will be distributed throughout the league in two rounds at the Indiana Convention Center on Thursday and over four more rounds via conference call in next week's Supplemental Draft.
As history has shown, some of the draftees will make an impact in their rookie seasons and beyond and may even fetch transfer fees from international clubs down the line. Some will fail to live up to expectations or be drafted into poor situations, fall by the wayside and be forced to bide their time with the reserves or in a lower division. Some might crash out of the game altogether.
Plenty will argue that as MLS academies produce more homegrown talent, and considering the financial windfall and incentive for teams to sign academy products while operating under a stringent salary cap, that the college game's relevance will dwindle into oblivion. With senior roster spots at a premium for many teams, becoming more prudent and picky when signing young, sometimes developmental projects has to be a preferred course of action.
As imperfect as international scouting can be, scouting and pinpointing all of the young talent in this vast country is even more of a challenge and an inexact science, though. Having an avenue such as college soccer for those who fall through the cracks and don't get siphoned into the academy system provides a second chance and another avenue for could-be stars.
Is college soccer the way to facilitate top talent to MLS and abroad? Certainly not. There has proven to be little correlation between Hermann Trophy candidates and professional stardom. The college game is a place for the late bloomers and the diamonds in the rough, though. For those parents who value education over a quick path to the pros, it carries value. For those who are not on board with the new U.S. Development Academy system, in which young players essentially have to choose between playing high school soccer and enrolling in more intensive, competitive youth academies, it provides a viable alternative.
As for the fruits of college soccer's tree, the proof is on the field, both domestically and abroad. The likes of U.S. national team players Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Stuart Holden, Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Sacha Kljestan, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu all spent time in the college ranks, with some using that time to augment their youth international experience. The U.S. January camp roster, per usual, is littered with college products.
There is the longevity factor, too. The argument could be made that since college players don't start going through the intensity of a professional career until a few years after their counterparts, that their professional careers have the potential to carry on for longer than the average player. The body of a college-bred player in his late 20s is likely to be able to withstand more than one who has been a pro for 10-to-12 years already.
College soccer has also produced the top coaches in American soccer history, with Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid and Bob Bradley all spending time and having success on campus. New Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, whom some have anointed as U.S. soccer's Next Great Mind, made his name by turning the University of Akron into a powerhouse program.
No, college soccer won't ever be revered along the likes of talent factories such as Barcelona's La Masia academy or Ajax's De Toekomst, but it does not have to be. Regardless of its imperfections, it has its place and serves its purpose in the American soccer landscape, and despite suggestions to the contrary, it is not going anywhere. Embrace it for what it is, don't skewer it for what it fails to be.