In February, U.S. Soccer announced that 13 NCAA Division I men’s soccer programs that would compete in the second annual College Development Program, which is designed to further player development opportunities in zone three (players age 18 and older).
Dean Linke, host of the United Soccer Coaches Podcast, presented by TeamSnap, spoke with Tab Ramos, U.S. Soccer Youth National Team Director, about the program. They discussed the goals of the program, the program doubling in size in year two and what it holds for the future. Below is an excerpt from the podcast. You can listen to the full podcast online at UnitedSoccerCoaches.org/Podcast.
Q: It was announced in February that 13 top NCAA men’s soccer programs will compete in the Second Annual College Development Program that is designed to further player development opportunities in zone three, this is players age 18 and older. Boston College, Clemson, Connecticut, Duke, Georgetown, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Providence, Rutgers, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will participate across two divisions in this year’s program. The programs coming up, it’s going on. It’s running from March 2 to April 26 so kind of an open ended question. What is exactly the goal of this program?
A: So the goal in general is to try to have a better connection between the college player and the international game. We still feel that the college game in general is still part of the pathway and I think it can still play a much bigger role in player development. So having the players at least play the spring games under FIFA rules in which there are some limited substitutions and the clock is moving forward and the referee actually has the clock I think is something that’s positive for the players to prepare them for possibly, whether it’s national team or international competition or the professional game.
Q: Okay. So yeah, on its core, that’s the big issue, right? FIFA rules. So particularly the referee managing the clock and then having substitutions where you can’t re-enter, but it’s not just three subs. It’s at five or seven, somewhere in there, Tab, is that right?
A: Yeah, we’re trying to give everybody an opportunity, but at the same time, we do realize that college coaches have big rosters and it’s important in the spring to give everybody an opportunity to play, to prepare themselves for the fall season. But what we didn’t want is in general the coming in and out of games.
Q: To give you a little history. It was initiated last year as a collaboration between U.S. Soccer and six NCAA men’s soccer programs, the college teams will run this year’s event as an approved U.S. Soccer competition following the federation’s technical framework of best practices for elite youth development, and as Tab said the games will operate similar to a U.S. Soccer Development Academy match featuring traditional timekeeping, a maximum game day roster of 18 players and then the substitutions with no re-entry. What do you feel like you learned from the first year that made you say, hey, we can more than double it?
A: Well, I think the number one thing for me is that was really important was after speaking with players and players letting us know that hey, you know, the approach from our school towards the spring season is different than it was before. You know, in the past the spring season was just sort of a fun season that you’re just trying to get through in order to finish your year and as summer comes, you prepare for your real season. But now that the spring is more competitive I think schools are starting to prepare more and more for individual games because every game is competitive. So the players are training more, they’re training better and they’re preparing for individual games like they were not before.
Q: Now it’s also another opportunity for U.S. Soccer to perhaps do some deeper scouting with some of the top level players in the college game. Right Tab?
A: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I think it’s an advantage. It’s an advantage for us and it’s an advantage for the players. Now, we’re not just paying attention to the fall season now we have a spring season to look into because all these games are competitive and everybody’s trying to play the games to win.
Q: What would be your message to the NCAA? Should they go to the FIFA regulations with time and substitutions or is that something they need to build into?
A: I’m not in a position to tell anyone at the NCAA what to do, that’s for sure. What I’d like to have is eventually down the road have the college game be an important part of the player development pathway, and because of that I think this initiative to have teams play important games in the spring is sort of the first step towards what we hope somewhere down the line, and again, I don’t know how many years, I know people are pushing for it, but I’m hoping that somewhere down the line we’re looking at having both a spring and a fall season.
Q: Well, your experience is a true testament to the fact that college players can make a big impact. Your U-20 team loaded with players that are spending time overseas and perhaps in Mexico and other leagues, but you had a handful of pretty effective players that were playing on college teams during your U-20 qualification, right Tab?
A: Yeah. We had a couple of guys from Indiana. We had a player from NC State, players from UCLA. We went into the World Cup qualifying process with four or five college players.
Q: Now what do you do about the fact that maybe some other colleges are saying, Hey, I want to do this. I want to be seen by Tab. I want my kids to be seen by Tab. You can only pick so many, so what do you say to those schools?
A: I think we just have to remain patient. From our end obviously we don’t necessarily run the league. We’re providing a new pathway. We’re trying to get the teams to get on board with this. I would like to see two, three years down the road, I would like to see most of the Division I schools playing a spring competition under the FIFA rules.
Q: Quoting Youth National Team Director, Jared Micklos. He also says “the growth of the Spring College Program in its second year is a testament to the leaders of these institutions for their work and effort to create the optimal environments for players. It’s beneficial to have more players 17 and older participating in standards-based competition.”
A: Yeah that’s absolutely right though. It is the leadership of those particular schools. It is the head coaches of those schools that are willing to think out of the box and be able to get on board. You know, sometimes it’s easy, you know, for the college coaches to just say, hey, you know, it’s a spring season, you know, who cares, you know, let’s just move on. I think these coaches really want to make a difference in the future of their players and their development. And I think all the credit definitely goes to them.
Q: I do like the statement that you both share when talking about how it’s beneficial to have more players 17 and older participating, but the bigger statement was that U.S. Soccer is proud to support the college game and these institutions and the evolution of the pathway for players transitioning from youth to college. That was important to see because I think sometimes people are wondering what does U.S. Soccer think of the college game and this initiative kind of says, you know, hey, we do care about it. We are paying attention to it.
A: Well we have always cared about it and we have always paid attention. I think there was a perception that we only cared about the kids who turned pro when they’re 16 and 17 and the fact is there’s a lot of college players that go through college and still become pros. I mean, you know, that’s what I did. I know that it’s different times certainly, but, there’s no question that there are many players who have the quality to become good pros for a long period of time that choose the college game as a pathway to get to the pro game.
Q: I think that was important too, Tab, right? Because we don’t want to have any of those myths or those kinds of things out there and like you said, you’re a perfect testament, you played college. Even Claudia Reyna I think played three years in college, right? So that’s longer than most of the NBA guys, right?
A: There’s a lot of players who have done well after going to college and we continue to encourage that. Becoming a pro when you’re 16 and 17 is not for everybody and not everybody is ready, but it doesn’t mean that the 16 and 17-year-old who becomes a pro will necessarily be better when he’s 22 than a player who goes to college for one or two years because development for each individual is different.
Q: I said March 2nd because there’s already been some games played. North Carolina has played Duke, Wake Forest has played Clemson, Virginia has played Virginia Tech. But there’s some big games coming up. Boston College is going to play Syracuse on March 23, you’ve got Connecticut and Syracuse on April 6, you’ve got Connecticut and Providence on April 9 and down in the South Division, North Carolina and Wake Forest on April 6, Duke and Clemson on April 6, Virginia and Georgetown on March 30, these are some big time games, I don’t care, spring or fall.
A: Yeah, they’re all big games and I think the players like it and the coaches like it and in turn it makes the games very competitive and we like it.
Q: All right, perfect. Just to end it up, if there’s one message you want people to hear about why this is now in the second year, what would it be?
A: I think it is that it’s a growing program. I think when you do the right thing and when you’re doing the right thing for the players and players’ development I think everybody gets on board. So I’m looking forward to the future of this competition and for the spring season to become bigger and bigger.