- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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There was a big celebration for the Akron men's soccer program last December as the Zips won their first NCAA title in school history. But it wasn't long before coach Caleb Porter knew that repeating that feat would be even more difficult than he might have anticipated.
He knew some of his 2010 players potentially could be headed to the pro ranks, but didn't expect five of them to be underclassmen.
"We're used to forecasting losing seniors; you prepare for that," Porter said. "We knew we'd lose two. But then we lost five more leaving early. It was a positive, we were very excited our players had the opportunity to leave. Those are things that are important to us. If there's a chance for them to move on and be a professional, then that's good for them and our program.
"But we were stuck with a daunting task to reload for five guys in a short period of time. That made the offseason very difficult."
With no early departures, the Zips would have been favored to be the top men's college soccer team in the nation again this year. Instead, Akron still had a very good season -- finishing 15-4-4 -- but fell in the third round of the NCAA tournament to Charlotte.
Of the teams that will meet Friday in the College Cup semifinals in Hoover, Ala., only one of them -- North Carolina -- was also in the semifinals last year. All have made it this far at least once before; UCLA has done it now 13 times, UNC six, Creighton four and Charlotte twice. Team success typically comes from great recruits, and the very best of them are unlikely to complete their college careers. And their coaches have accepted and adapted to that fact.
But there is a broader picture here, something those who follow the entire spectrum of men's soccer in the United States have been discussing for several years.
Is men's college soccer on its way toward irrelevancy in terms of producing professional players? Eventually, will the MLS academies -- every team in the league now has one, and their footprint on the sport in the United States continues to grow -- almost totally supplant college soccer's role in pro development?
There are other ways to look at this, too, and they reflect some of the same debates that go on in other collegiate sports. Even if you ascribe to the most pessimistic view of college soccer's future as a training ground for MLS or other pro opportunities, does that actually change very much about the profile of the college game itself?
After all, it's not generally high on the radar of the average American sports fan, anyway -- similar to most college sports other than football and men's basketball. The men's version of the College Cup happens in the midst of early-season hoops matchups, the Heisman Trophy presentation and nonstop football bowl chatter. Two of the BCS conferences -- the SEC and the Big 12 -- don't sponsor men's soccer.
In the die-hard U.S. soccer fans' view, concern for the relevancy of the college game is likely counterbalanced by the hope that the MLS academy system will, as ESPN.com soccer contributor Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote while examining the issue in May, "ultimately serve the greater good of the American game."
Yet to the teams involved in the College Cup, this event is still a big deal. Especially to the likes of Creighton and Charlotte this year or Akron last year -- schools that realistically see men's soccer as one of the sports in which they can legitimately compete for NCAA titles.
Right now, college soccer is still an option for players to spend at least a little time while trying to become pros. It remains to be seen whether that's a path inevitably on the way to being mostly closed.
Programs like Generation adidas -- a joint venture between MLS and U.S. Soccer -- have created a clearer pathway for the most talented youngsters to spend little or no time playing in college but still have some security about getting a college education.
The fast-track-to-the-pros program -- which originally was sponsored by Nike from 1997-2005 and called Project-40 -- has signed players as young as their mid-teens, but the majority usually go after their freshman, sophomore or junior years of college.
Players are given contracts with financial incentives to help them make the leap into the pro ranks, plus accounts are set up for them to draw on to pay for finishing their college educations, if they so choose. They have about a 10-year window in which to use those funds.
The opportunity to become a Generation adidas player is coveted. Five of the 11 Generation adidas signees for 2011, announced late last December, were Akron Zips: freshman Perry Kitchen, sophomore Zarek Valentin and juniors Darlington Nagbe, Michael Nanchoff and Kofi Sarkodie.
Akron's Chad Barson, who aspires to follow his father and two brothers as a doctor, fully understood why his former teammates left when they got the chance.
"I wouldn't say soccer is as drastic as what basketball has with the one-and-done type of players," said Barson, a junior this past season. "So few soccer players get the opportunity, with the limited Generation adidas contracts that are available each year. It's a lot more limited than basketball.
"For the guys that do leave, most of those opportunities are situations you just can't really pass up. I know for the guys who've left Akron and haven't finished their degrees yet, they know they need their college education. Because one day, soccer is going to come to an end and you'll need another career. As long as you go into it with the mindset that you're committed to finishing your degree, I think it's fine if guys want to leave early because it's an opportunity for them to realize a dream. You're not going to be young forever and able to play."
Ultimately, that's how most college coaches have come to view this, too. When Project-40/Generation adidas began nearly 15 years ago, they had reservations about whether it would always be in the best interest of the development of each young man who entered it. They still have some concerns.
"For our program, this has been going on since the first years of MLS," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said, citing Carlos Parra, who in 1997 turned down his scholarship from the Terps and went pro instead. "What's happened is that we've all learned that you may have some players for one or two or three years. So you see that we all have to hedge our bets a little more in the recruiting process. And you've seen rosters try to get a little deeper.
"But I understand that kids come to play for me because they have dreams not only of getting an education and winning national championships, but they also want to develop and become professional players. I respect that, and I think a lot of my colleagues do the same. We don't want to 'fight' that, we just want them to make good decisions at the right time."
Helping players figure that out has been a process. In 1998, Cirovski spoke about the disappointing experiences had by two of his former Terps who had left early, since they'd spent more time on MLS benches as emergency injured-reserve players than they did actually on the field competing either in MLS or with a developmental team.
Consider, though, that MLS only began play in 1996, thus the youth-development initiatives of the league/U.S. Soccer in the 1990s and early 2000s were still very young themselves. MLS has taken more steps to strengthen itself, among them have been the establishments of the academies and the "homegrown player" program.
The academy teams take in promising players usually around the time they are starting high school, and most cover all their training/traveling/competing costs. Although the players are not otherwise compensated -- thus maintaining their college eligibility -- they are, for all practical purposes, entering a professional environment that focuses totally on their growth in the sport.
Homegrown players are those who live in the regional vicinity of an MLS franchise, which can sign as many as four per year. Once a player has been registered at least 12 months with the team, he can be signed to a professional contract without being subject to the MLS SuperDraft. Two roster spots on each team are reserved for homegrown players whose salaries do not count toward the franchise's salary cap.
A look at last year's College Cup shows not just the five Akron Zips but also players such as Louisville's Aaron Horton and Michigan's Soony Saad, both freshmen, who left for professional opportunities. Horton is a homegrown player for the Columbus Crew. Saad is now with Sporting Kansas City.
"Is it good? What it will depend on is how productive the development systems are in the MLS," Louisville coach Ken Lolla said. "We'll see how much someone like Aaron Horton will benefit from it, and how good it is for his development. We know he's played in one MLS game since leaving us, and I'm not sure from a development standpoint how good that is. Time will tell."
Certainly, one could argue even one year of college could be a significant aid to the social and educational development of anyone, and see the value in that supplementing college playing experience. But if an aspiring pro player believes that college's potential benefits just aren't a worthy trade-off for a path that's essentially professional submersion, college will not be an option he considers if he has other choices.
Dealing with the pro game's initiatives and how that has changed the developmental landscape has altered how college coaches look at recruiting and how they allocate scholarship money.
"It's difficult on two levels," UC Santa Barbara coach Tim Vom Steeg said. "We're all dealing with scholarship dollars, and the ones who end up going to MLS are the big-money players. You can't completely predict if a player will go. You can anticipate it, but you can't give away the [scholarship] money and say, 'Well, I thought you would be going, so I used your money for someone else.'
"At the same time, if you don't plan that way at least a little bit, you may be sitting with scholarship money you didn't use to get another player. And the other issue is simply with building your team. You may hold off on recruiting players at certain positions because of whom you already have. But the next thing you know, you may need that new player because the one you have just left."
Vom Steeg said he tries to have the most honest conversations possible with his UCSB players, with both sides acknowledging their mutual and divergent interests.
"We've tried to make it a situation where we anticipate things," he said. "I guess we over-recruit a little bit, where we feel we have enough players in our program to make up for the fact that if a guy has a great year, he could be gone."
And yet on the upside for college coaches, there's no better recruiting tool than to be able to boast of advancing players to pro careers.
Plus, Cirovski said most college coaches embrace their bigger-picture roles as soccer ambassadors in the now decades-long push to help the United States excel at the world's most popular sport.
"We're all in this together: We want soccer to grow," Cirovski said. "We want MLS to succeed, we want the youth development academy to become better and stronger, and for the college game to link in and be an important part of it, too. I think we've all grown to understand our roles in this more in the last 10 years."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.