There has been one storyline that has stood out above the rest during the college soccer season: freshmen are dominating on the best teams in the country. Out of the final four teams, three of them have a freshman who is either first or second on the team in scoring.
The main reason for the success of the freshmen is the Development Academy. The Academy is changing the landscape of college soccer.
Michigan head coach, Steve Burns, told Goal.com on Thursday, “(The Development Academy) is helping soccer in our country immensely. And it is greatly benefiting college soccer because we get these players now who have so much experience with the professionalism with which the Development Academies are running their clubs. They are not enamored with bus trips, with getting planes; they know how to represent their team.”
Burns has reaped the benefits with his spectacular freshman forward, Soony Saad. Saad is second in the nation in goals scored with 19 on the season heading into their semifinal clash against Akron. Also, he has already claimed the single season record for goals scored in Michigan program history.
The high goal totals are nothing new to the Dearborn, Michigan native, he scored 27 goals for the Derby County Wolves in 22 games in the Development Academy last year.
Furthermore, it goes beyond just the highly touted striker. Freshman contributors off the bench, Ezekiel Harris and Dylan Mencia, have also translated Academy success to collegiate glory.Burns explained, “You look at the Academies, they are all teaching the possession part of the game and that is raising our level. Look at our team, our roster of 24 guys, and compare it to the 10-11 years we have been a program.
“Our guys now who are the mid-to bottom part of the roster, and are these really strong Academy players who understand the game, have been coached at a high level, and add true value to our team.”
It goes beyond Michigan. Louisville have also utilized freshman additions during the season to get them to this point. With injuries to returning players, coach Ken Lolla turned to freshman Dylan Mares from an early point in the season to fill some goal-scoring boots.
Mares used his experience in the Development Academy with the massively successful Indiana United Academy to help ease the transition into the college game. In his debut season, he chipped in with eight goals and three assists. Coach Lolla recognized the role the Academy has played in pushing college soccer forward:
“U.S. Soccer continues to take an active role in the Academy and what is going on," he said. “That has significantly helped in getting the best players together and funneling them to the national team. I do think that has helped college soccer. There is no question about it.”
The increased quality of new players has helped raise the level of play across the country. Coach Burns believed that the style of play that is being employed in the Development Academy is really helping these players get ready for the next level.
“Additionally, you look at the Development Academies and they are all looking to play," says the coach. "When we say play, obviously it is that yin and yang of ‘do you want a team that possesses and dominates possession to create chances? Or do you want to be a team that has a direct style of play and looks to get the ball quickly up to where you are going to score goals?’ You look at the Academies, they are all teaching the possession part of the game and that is raising our level.”
Now, that the game is advancing and speeding up in the youth ranks, the gap between the club game and college game is quickly shrinking.
This makes college coaches ecstatic. Their recruits are closer to game-ready than ever before.
It may not have been the intended goal, but the byproduct of the elite player development has given college soccer fans one of the most fascinating seasons in recent memory.
J.R. Eskilson is the youth soccer editor of Goal.com. Follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer
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