February 14, 2013 – The evolution of soccer in the United States and its rising prominence among the national sports collective can be attributed to a number of factors.
The growing popularity of Major League Soccer.
A booming youth soccer culture, from local children’s leagues up through competitive club teams.
Shifting population demographics.
A subtle, but tangible uptick tied to the quadrennial World Cup.
Each factor has played a role in the development of American soccer and could lead to a tipping point for the game stateside.
But college soccer also deserves its due.
The collegiate game serves as a key bridge between the American youth and professional game. College soccer will never receive the attention or financial support Division I cornerstones basketball and football receive, but neither will the vast majority of university sports. However, the discussion surrounding the college game isn’t merely a matter of lack of marquee collegiate sports status. (You could argue that at schools like Akron and Indiana, soccer is among the sports with top billing.) The debate has become whether the college game is relevant at all.
The talk of the black clouds hovering over college soccer has gone on for nearly a decade now. The implementation of the academy system by MLS clubs has accelerated the debate, but the reality is – despite what has amounted to literally years of discussions about college soccer’s demise or, at the very least, its relegation to nothing more than an unattractive alternative for second-rate players – college soccer has played a role in propelling the U.S. game to its current level.
The subject even found its way to December’s College Cup in Hoover, Alabama. In the news conference following Maryland’s shootout loss to Georgetown, players were asked about whether the college game is declining.
Terrapins coach Sasho Cirovski took the question instead.
“To all the people that think the college game is fading in relevance, tell them to give me a call,” the two-time College Cup winning coach said. “They’re eighter ignorant, or they’re just not knowledgeable. It’s embarrassing for anybody to think the college game is not relevant.”
From his response, it was clear Cirovski had fielded that question before. He easily rattled off a number of compelling points to support his stance.
“(In the) 2010 World Cup, sixteen of the twenty-three players played in a College Cup,” Cirovski pointed out of the national team.
He cited the fact that Major League Soccer is overwhelmingly comprised of former NCAA players. That the top coaches in U.S. soccer history played, coached or both played and coached at the collegiate level. And the list could go on and on.
“(College soccer) is the glue that has kept soccer going in this country,” Cirovski said. “It is the most important connector for the growth and development of the game in this country.”
The evolution of MLS to a professional league that is legitimately challenging for a spot in America’s Big Four has come in part because of – – not in spite of — college soccer’s influence.
Does that mean there is no room for additional avenues of player development, such as MLS academies? Of course not. The European development system, a basis of the MLS academy model, has had success. But it’s not a cure-all for elevating the American game.
No one is arguing that the NCAA system is flawless. The impact of the institution’s rules that govern everything from recruiting to when teams are officially allowed to begin practicing has been the subject of debate in every collegiate sport. But the idea that collegiate soccer only benefits the diamond in the rough or the late bloomer is not an accurate assessment.
“I hope (college soccer critics) hear me loud and clear,” Cirovski said. “Myself and 200 other coaches and 3,000 players work hard every day to make this game relevant. I know sometimes it can get a little chaotic. There’s things we want to do to improve the game, but for anybody that even has the audacity to think that, they ought to look in the mirror and have a gut check.”
In other words, give the college game its due and don’t expect it to go anywhere.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org