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Gary T. Brown: College players boxed by restrictions

(September 24, 1997) -- The "box" in soccer may be slang for the penalty area, but between NCAA restrictions on outside play and the emergence of a Major League Soccer/United States Soccer Federation initiative to lure prospective pros, the real box for college soccer is more than just the area inside the 18-yard lines.

The college game is being boxed in by efforts -- particularly the initiative dubbed "Project 40" -- to provide elite players as much training and playing time throughout the year as possible. Coaches would prefer that be accomplished through outside play during the collegiate offseason, but since NCAA legislation virtually has locked that door, colleges may be seeing more and more players fly out the Project 40 window. It's an opening that many coaches would just as soon see closed.

Born last year, Project 40 is an attempt to identify the top 40 under-20 players in the country and put them in a full-time professional and training environment. If players from that pool sign professional developmental contracts, they forfeit their collegiate athletics eligibility whether they are currently enrolled or not.

The project's goals conceptually are to provide talent for the various USSF national teams and to develop a player pool for Major League Soccer (MLS), which neither body feels the college environment is equipped to do.

Meanwhile, however, college coaches feel the frustration of losing access to some of the country's better players -- or worse, having them plucked from collegiate rosters with little notice.

Initial reaction mixed

Jim Sheldon, executive director of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, said coaches' initial reaction to the project was mixed, though laced with concern over the process more than the product.

"Most coaches understand the limitations on the college game in terms of the talented kid not being able to play enough to really develop because of the restrictions on outside play during the academic year," Sheldon said. "So from that standpoint, there's a certain level of understanding as to why USSF and MLS are doing this. On the other hand, there were concerns -- and there still are -- about how a kid is approached, how much pressure he's subjected to and how reliable funds are for continuing his education."

Project 40 bankrolls $7,500 annually into a player's college "trust" in addition to offering up to $24,000 in nonguaranteed salary. While the money is not as glamorous as that offered by other professional sports, it may nonetheless be an incentive that butts heads with the goals of higher education.

"College soccer coaches are realistic," Sheldon said. "They see what's gone on in college football and basketball -- kids are going to go if the money and career prospects are good. But the money is not that good in Project 40 -- $24,000 per year nonguaranteed -- and depending on the value of a scholarship or the value of an education, that may not be a fair trade."

Global nature

The issue of college versus pro is not unique to soccer. The Continental Basketball Association recently announced a similar initiative that's raising eyebrows within the college basketball community, and college ice hockey and baseball have weathered similar challenges. The number of underclassmen opting to turn pro in football and basketball is startling.

But soccer may be unique in that its competition is global.

Bobby Howe, USSF director of coaching education and a proponent of Project 40, said a main concern is providing U.S. soccer players with a chance to train and compete on the same level as players from other countries that do not rely on colleges and universities for talent.

"It's important for players just leaving high school to have an opportunity to replicate the experience of their counterparts in the rest of the world -- to participate with and against other players with similar abilities on a very regular basis.

"The problem we've had with our national team players is that when they've left our training camps or our tours, they've gone back to various levels of play -- some of which are quite good and others of which are not so good, but certainly none of which have replicated the experiences of players in other countries."

But Bob Warming, coach at Saint Louis University, counters that copying a system that places soccer at the top of the sports chain in other countries is difficult at best.

"They cannot replicate the environment in Europe," he said. "They've drafted players but there's no avenue for these guys to play, train and develop. It doesn't work and won't work at this point with American players.

"Around the world, these developmental players play against other top-class players their same age on a daily basis. They'll all be trained and playing as pros. And of those, only one percent make it to the big leagues. And these are developers who are pretty good at their jobs -- and they're wrong about these players 99 percent of the time. I'm incredulous to believe that MLS can do much better than that."

Behind the world?

Still, some say it's hard to argue with the premise of Project 40. By the time collegians complete their education, they are four years behind the rest of the soccer world in training. Project 40 supporters say that college players just don't see enough action to be able to hone their skills.

Clive Charles, men's and women's soccer coach at the University of Portland, sits in the middle of this issue as coach of a perennial collegiate power, assistant coach of the U.S. national team and coach of the Olympic team that will compete in Sydney in 2000.

"It is extremely difficult for our men's national team to compete at an international level when you get kids graduating at 21 or 22 and trying to compete against the rest of the world who started at 15," he said. "Basically, it's 'How can we get even with the rest of the world?' And, really, for our better players the only way is to put them in a professional environment earlier.

"On the other hand, each year the very best high-school players are going to go pro. Any college soccer coach knows that has to happen. They just can't come out four years behind the rest of the world. And what will happen to me as a college coach is that instead of looking at a grade A player I'll be looking at the grade B player because I can't do anything else."

The NSCAA has for years fought NCAA legislation that restricts outside competition during the school year. Coaches acknowledge that the five games allowed in the spring are woefully inadequate for the best college players to fine-tune their games. Meanwhile, players the same age in other countries are playing 60 to 70 games a year against other professional clubs.

"How can I develop soccer players with just five games in the spring?" Charles asked. "Now the NCAA would turn around and say we're not here to develop soccer players -- and that's fine. On the other hand, if you want to be a soccer player, then how can you be encouraged to play for an institution that doesn't encourage the development of a soccer player?

"I'm talking to recruits now who are telling me they're playing 60 games a year and I'm saying great, come to me and I'll cut that by two-thirds. And I've got to make that sound great. Actually, it's making it easier for the Project 40 guys to come up with reasons why soccer players should go pro."

Coach disagrees

Warming maintains, however, that the top college players do get in enough playing time to compete at the next level. He said the regular season, NCAA tournament play, spring games and summer national competition (such as at the World University Games) offer as many as 40 games, which he thinks is more than the current Project 40 players are playing.

"I think that at the end of this year, they're not going to want to reveal the number of games those kids actually played," he said. "My sense of it is that it's going to be less than a college kid would have obtained."

Howe, however, says that players in Project 40 are likely to acquire other skills that cannot be obtained at the collegiate level. He said that while an 18-year-old soccer player may be at his peak technically and physically, the psychological demands at the international level are daunting.

"It's how players deal with the fact that they're no longer the big fish," he said. "Can they start again, how do they overcome injury, how do they deal with being dropped -- all these situations that the pro game presents. And although these players are skillful at the age of 18, they're not equal to the demands of the professional game.

"In the U.S., one could say, 'Well, players at 18 are going to colleges and competing against older players,' but if they're the top players in the country, they're still going to be stars on their own campuses. One of the other things that Project 40 will do is to improve that psychological aspect of their play."

Too early to evaluate

Promoters agree that Project 40 has not come close to attracting as many players as originally anticipated, but say it is too early to fully evaluate the program.

Howe believes it is a short-term initiative and that ultimately, individual Major League Soccer clubs will bear the responsibility of developing players under their own umbrella. But that won't alleviate the concerns within the college coaching community.

Warming, who chairs the NSCAA's professional sports liaison committee, hopes that if nothing else, Project 40 administrators will communicate a timeline for drafting and signing so that college coaches know what they're up against.

"There were coaches this year who had sophomores who were just stolen away," he said. "It's a money-making scheme by MLS, by their own admission. The way you make money in the world of soccer is by buying and selling players. MLS owns the right to all Project 40 players. By buying guys when they're young, they may have a chance with one of 100 to sell those guys to European clubs for a lot of money someday.

"Let's find out what the reality of the thing is. Right, wrong or indifferent, we (college coaches) are still probably the greatest influences of high-school and college kids. Let's be able to take the facts with us into their living rooms and give them the real story about what can happen. After that, let them have the opportunity to make an informed decision."

Gary T. Brown is NCAA publications editor and may be e-mailed at gbrown@ncaa.org. This article first appeared in the NCAA News and is reprinted with permission.

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