On my commute to work Monday morning I heard a story on public
radio about the new American professional soccer league. Seems that they need to bring
new young players into the professional game. Having played soccer in college, I
was very interested.
The focus of the story was the effort between the US Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer to recruit kids as young as 18 years into the professional league. These recruits would receive a contract as "youth" or a "conditional player" and the request to skip college altogether. Needless to say, many college soccer coaches are livid about the idea, called Project 40/40.
The project focuses on developing young American soccer players as professionals instead of amateurs. This is done in many foreign countries including England, Argentina and Italy.
In many of those countries, kids as young as 10 or 12 begin attending soccer
schools run by professional soccer clubs where they live, eat and breathe soccer
with the hopes that the clubs will produce the next Pele or Maradonna.
The US Soccer Federation program isn't as intense as its European counterparts. Project 40/40 would offer young players a salary of $24,000 a year plus a $7,500 stipend which could be used for
college within ten years. The players that sign up would be assigned an MLS team to work
with. They would either make the team or be sent one of the minor leagues
touring the country. In either case, the argument is that players are getting valuable
playing experience against the best athletes in the world; experience they may not receive in college.
Many European soccer players come from industrial, working class neighborhoods
without the same opportunity to attend college as Americans. Letting young Europeans put all their time into developing their skills is not viewed as a waste of time, but an alternative to higher learning. Hence, soccer clubs begin developing players for the pro ranks before many of them are old enough to shave.
However, America is a nation where almost anybody can get into college if they work hard enough. American soccer players are no dummies; many have to rely on academic scholarships to combined with athletic scholarships to make ends meet.
At UAB, where I played soccer from 1990-1992, there was only enough money for 10 full scholarships for a 25 player roster. Not one player on the 1990 squad had a full scholarship. So, for some players, Project 40/40 looks pretty good.
But, for others, Project 40/40 is a mistake from the beginning. The head coach of the University of Maryland believes Project 40/40 will only shorten American players careers while offering them little financial benefits available to athletes coming out of the college system. He suggests paying the Project 40/40 players more money. But the MLS and the US Soccer Federation donšt have enough funds available to offer more. Which leads to the question, why rush into this?
The US Soccer Team Head Coach Steve Sampson said the USA will win a World
Cup in 10 to 15 years. This may be a little far-fetched, but not unbelievable. The
USA has made incredible advances in the last decade. However, most of the
current crop of great American players have come out of great university programs
like Rutgers, Virginia and UCLA.
In an era where the USA worries about basketball players coming into the NBA out of high school, why entice soccer players into the same trap? Why not let the colleges continue what they've been doing? Let the kids play soccer and earn an education at the same time.