Clint Dempsey, Jay DeMerit, Brad Freidel and Kasey Keller have represented their country, played in the Premier League and are bona fide US soccer legends. Their international success set the tone for US soccer on the world stage, but before their professional stardom, the quartet found their feet and raised their game to another level at the same place.
Those legends of US soccer all attended and thrived in the college environment. But even after they moved on to dominate the professional ranks, their legacy and presence ensured the standard of US college soccer continued to grow.
Since the likes of Dempsey and DeMerit starred at Furman and UIC respectively, the college soccer landscape has transformed dramatically, with the increased presence of technology, recruiting and professionalism at the NCAA Division I level playing a key role in the overall growth of the game. Those improvements are not exclusive to just the DI level either. The schools in DII, DIII, the NJCAA and NAIA have access to more resources and continue to seek the slightest tactical, technological or physical edge that may be the difference between a championship and second place. The result? The standard of college soccer throughout the US increases and athletes in programs around the country are consistently challenged.
That undoubted increase in standard during the season cannot occur without significant work in the pre-season, which for some colleges means going global. There is a long history of colleges across all divisions heading to countries throughout Europe as they prepare for the lengthy college season. Colleges like Notre Dame and Maryland have consistently conducted international pre-season tours.
It's of tremendous value for us," Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski said of international pre-season tours.
"Unlike preseason here where you see your players for a couple of practices and a meeting here and there, you are with them 24/7. It's an incredible team-building and team-bonding experience,” he told UMTerps.com.
The challenges of being a college athlete are not restricted to the pitch, with the work in the classroom arguably as important as the work on the training track. While maintaining good grades and a solid GPA assists your ability to play the beautiful game, it also sets you up for a future post-college, regardless of how many assists you bag on the field.
There have been a number of examples of top-level college players making an immediate impact in the MLS, with a duo from Stanford’s recent dynasty continuing their success at the professional level. After putting together one of the most successful individual efforts in NCAA history in 2015, Jordan Morris set Seattle’s rookie goal scoring record in 2016, as he went on to claim the MLS Rookie of the Year award. Morris’ 2015 campaign at Stanford was just as outstanding, as he won the Hermann Trophy, an NCAA DI Championship and his third consecutive All-Pac-12 honours. Morris’ teammate in 2015 was midfielder Corey Baird, who went on to win the 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year before making his international debut in January 2019. Baird and Morris shared the spotlight in the MLS with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wayne Rooney and David Villa, all of whom transcended the sport and significantly increased the profile and interest of the MLS worldwide.
Naturally the standard of college soccer varies depending on division, conference and team, but there is no doubt the commitment and talent required to play at the college level. The constant growth of college sport means the standard is always increasing and the awareness around the benefits of college have made the recruitment process more challenging than ever for potential athletes. Being a college athlete isn’t meant to be easy and you’ll face new challenges every week, but the long-term benefits to your game are obvious. By testing yourself against a higher standard of play, your game will naturally evolve and from there, the rest is up to you.