Maintaining America's unorthodox approach to the beautiful game is a rare gem: College soccer. Today, as I watched the Akron-Virgina game go into overtime and the proverbial penalty shootout, I realized the uniqueness of the game in the United States. Here, soccer is not meant for the kids from the block as much as the soccer moms and the scholarships to competitive institutions. Soccer follows the pattern of all American sports. Little league, junior varsity, varsity, and, if you're lucky... college.
Of course, there's no NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB to pick up the pieces left over from college play... but USL divisions, NASL (USL off-shoot), and MLS are happy to snag the fruits of college sports. MLS has a tough time, of late, in keeping the higher picks from its "SuperDraft." This is because European markets have discovered a previously-untapped new source of players--America. Indeed, recent MLS "dropouts" include Marcus Tracy (Aalborg of Denmark) and Mike Grella (Leeds).
But beyond the obvious tug-of-war between MLS and foreign clubs, one thing remains: college soccer is like nothing else in the world. The average player age is more like a U-23, U-20 team that constantly battles against other U-20s and U-23s. It's the ultimate formative league. It also has strange rules: countdown, regressive game clock; 10 minute overtimes; a mid-game time out, and possibly one or two others I'm not aware of. This, sadly, is what keeps a lot of soccer-minded Americans away from the College game. They are only interested in its products and how they may fare in Europe or the national team or MLS.
Virginia won its 6th title today. Akron failed to win its first even though they were undefeated. Such is the fate of great teams. It was rolling the dice with penalties. It was Restrepo coming up big as a goalkeeper should. It was a fun and emotional game played on a rainy afternoon in Cary, North Carolina. It was the weight of a dynasty (Virgina) against the fun-to-watch newcomers (Akron). And the fun doesn't stop with the game. Caleb, Akron's coach, is being sought by teams like DC United. And that's the other side of the coin--the coaches. Rewind things a bit and you find familiar faces like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley winning multiple collegiate trophies. And they grow up with the system to become managers of a internationally-competitive national team.
Last year's crop included Chris Pontius (DCU), Zakuani (Seattle), Alston (Revolution), and impressive players like Marcus Tracy (expect him at the January camp). Previous, but recent successes include [Furman's own] Clint Dempsey, Charlie Davies, Ben Olsen, Brian McBride and Tab Ramos (actually went to my own NC State). And the kids keep coming through the system: Restrepo, Bates, Tchani, Opara, Duka, among others. Some are of African descent, opting for a higher education in the States whilst providing entertainment through their sport. Others are renegade youths that chose a sport outside of the American mainstream.
In all, College soccer is a wonder of the American game. It may not have the fantasy that some of us desire, but it is gritty, fast, athletic, and most of all, competitive.