Allow me to introduce one of the many scourges in US soccer. What I like to call the “Freshman Syndrome”.
A lot of high school and college coaches suffer from this idea that simply because you are a freshman, you should smell the fresh-cut grass from the bench, or not at all! Sure, in general a freshman has had less experience and time to develop, but there are many that are better soccer players. Unfortunately, they may not be recognized due to their coach’s syndrome.
This can manifest itself in many ways:
- They don’t even make the team (player is relegated to Junior Varsity, cut from or redshirt on college team, dropped to the reserves or the bench on a pro team).
- They only get playing time in a game that is not considered important.
- When a game is “on the line”, coaches resort to their seniors.
- No consideration for awards.
- Penalty kicks, free kicks, corners, etc … all go to the upperclassmen regardless of quality.
- You are the ball boy and water boy.
What’s the Problem?
The first, and what I believe to be the root, is that these coaches don’t see the full extent of a player’s quality and how he can lift a team’s performance. Instead, they once again focus on size and speed where it’s likely these freshman or rookies are a bit behind their colleagues.
Yes, I’m sure statistically there are few elite freshman that come around with the necessary quality to make an immediate impact. But just because this is historically the case, these coaches should not turn a blind eye and predestine them without a proper evaluation (if they’re even capable of accurate assessment). This is actually what happens!
In other cases, some coaches may just flat out be chicken shits. Maybe they have identified a freshman as having the potential to make an impact, but …
“How would it look to the upperclassmen if one of them is displaced or their overall playing time and responsibilities are diminished?”
This could introduce a rift in the team, especially if the coach has not been running a merit-based ship! Also, consider that the players themselves likely have the syndrome – they are not immune. As a result, the coach’s judgement may be called into question. Who wants that?
Finally, there may be a cultural component for this syndrome. The working class in this country, as opposed to the executive, entrepreneur, or expert in a field, likely works in a seniority based or politically charged environment – promotions and benefits come to those who are senior or well connected. Merit-based environments are rare.
This issue transcends coaching of course. Last year I was attending a Cal State Fullerton game where one of our former club players was on the field as a freshman. He was playing, to the coach’s credit (though he is not entirely cured), because his quality was absolutely undeniable. Were he not to have played, the coach would have proven to been a Supreme Donkey – maybe King of all Donkeys and been immediately institutionalized. In any case, the player lined up to take a free-kick and a person nearby in the stands said
“Why are they letting a freshman take it?”
I wanted to kill myself!
You may have a jewel on your hands, or at least someone better than what you already have. Please try to maintain your objectivity. You are hurting your team and our future stars!
Parents and Players
Those of you who are looking into college soccer … try to do your homework on coaches and look at their track records as far as freshmen are concerned. It may or may not be indicative of the “freshman syndrome”, but having the information is better than going in completely blind.
This is curable! Keep an open mind and continue to educate yourself. And by all means due not perpetuate this idea – it is highly contagious!
What are your thoughts? Have you seen this syndrome up close? Do you think I’m completely crazy (if so, either I’m wrong or you may be infected … hahaha)?
I don’t know if college soccer is different than college football but there are plenty of true freshmen starting in college football over their older counterparts and in nationally renowned teams, not just lower end ones. For example, Matt Barkley at USC, Tim Tebow at Florida, Jimmy Clausen at Notre Dame, and the list goes on and on.
College football (and basketball for that matter) seems almost entirely based on merit and I would hope college soccer would be too. As for High school, who the $#%$^ knows what those coaches’ motivations are. I have heard many stories from parents of players about the “injustices” they claim high school coaches have bestowed on their kids and their families. My son isn’t quite there yet so I will find out how much of it is true or not soon.
I don’t understand how a competitive coach can think about anything but merit in making his/her decisions for the good of the team. Anything other than merit is bizzare to me. But that’s just my two cents!! What do I know?
Gary Kleiban says
While writing this piece, I actually did diverge into the other sports where I know that plenty of true freshman are starters and have a huge role on the team. But I stopped myself because the article was going to be too long and I know I’m not an expert in those sports.
My conclusion / explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that when it comes to football, basketball, or baseball, this country knows what it’s doing! The coaches, fans, players, and the media at large are very well versed in the sport. This is not the case with soccer.
Case in point: Look at the hype that was behind Lebron James while in high school … they certainly knew what they were talking about. By contrast, remember the hype around Freddy Adu (he was going to be the next Pele). What happened there? Freddy isn’t even a mediocre player. He rarely gets playing time on his teams. We just don’t know what a quality soccer player is!
In addition, these other sports have huge monetary investments in play. This places tremendous pressure on the coaches to perform – otherwise they are fired. With this incentive, there is no doubt that the coaches do their homework and don’t care whether this or that guy is a freshman. If he’s better, he plays, end of story.
Soccer coaches have no incentive whatsoever. Did you know that a college coach won’t get fired for lowly team performance? Why? Because soccer has no monetary value to the school. These coaches are only fired if the academics of their athletes are below some threshold.
You make a lot of good points. The only weird thing is that I haven’t seen many, if any, coaches that don’t want to win. What I don’t understand is how is it that college soccer coaches are able to put their preference of winning aside for some unsubstantiated (to them) bias of seniority when ALL around them in all the remaining sports of the school it’s only about winning no matter at what level and at what cost.
On another note, how about public high school soccer, since money is not an issue there, wouldn’t coaches want to have winning programs? What is their motivation in picking certain players over others? Is it true that some kids are discriminated against because they haven’t played club soccer to the point that they don’t even get looked at? I keep hearing that but as a former coach, I can’t believe that to be true. What coach would not even look at a player for a minute? It doesn’t take long to figure out if a player has it or not regardless of what he has done in the past. Don’t you think so? Do you have any words of wisdom from your experience around high school soccer?
Gary Kleiban says
True. I also don’t know of a coach who doesn’t want to win.
But of course everyone’s formula on what it takes to have a winning team is different. And that’s where true quality coaching stands out compared to the mediocre or clueless ones. The formula consists of many variables ranging from proper training to what players are on the field (where the syndrome may rear it’s ugly head). Their decisions / formulas are limited by their understanding.
So no, I don’t think it’s based on deliberate discrimination, but rather a lack of understanding of the game and player quality. In general, the idea of discrimination for this or that reason is created and spread primarily by parents (who might be misinformed by their kids), as an excuse as to why little Johnny or Susie does not play.
Words of wisdom? If you’re serious about soccer, the emphasis should not be High School. The level of play is abysmal. The coaching … you might have an English teacher, baseball or football coach at the helm (it’s extremely rare to get a high level club coach). College recruiting does not exist (don’t let anybody fool you).
In our experience, when players come back from highschool, we find them as having taken a HUGE step backwards in their development!
Obviously another US soccer problem, but this is the world we live in. So just play for the experience, have some fun with your friends, get a letterman jacket, etc.
Uninvited Company says
Gary is correct in his assessment that this is a “thing”, and is a scourge on the US soccer scene, but I believe he is off the mark as to the root cause.
The underlying issue is the power of “conventional wisdom” and the safety associated with being risk averse. Generally speaking, the Persons In Charge (PIC), be they coach, manager, CEO, or president, will not be questioned by the masses as long as they don’t deviate from conventional wisdom. Which in the US, with respect to soccer, is dead wrong, unfortunately.
So, those who value their position as a soccer PIC, make the safe choices—(1) selecting big, physical players, (2) favoring seniority and past accolades as an “elite player” over merit, and (3) placing a high value on winning 50/50 balls and tackling hard (known as “effort” here in the US).
If their team underperforms, well, they did everything by numbers, and their job is still safe, at least for a while.
But if they takes risks—pick smaller, smarter, and more technical players over known “elites”, play out of the back, and hold players accountable, they better get results fast, or their days as a PIC are numbered.
Sadly, here in the US, most college soccer coaches, most club coaches, most technical directors, most directors of coaching, and most high school soccer coaches like being PICs, so they take the risk averse path, and we see the results all around us.
Going to Europe does provide more depth and breadth of opportunity at lower levels compared to NASL and USL but it’s still difficult at highest league, which is logical. Rolling the dice and trying to get onto a team in lesser footballing powerhouse leagues (e.g., Sweden, Norway, Denmark) or in Latin America is a far better option for a 18-23 year old who is serious about turning professional.
If you want an education first and foremost, then US college soccer. If chasing your dream, do all you can to find something outside USA after high school. Alejandro Bedoya is a perfect example.
The other option is to have more pro clubs at various levels and do what a lot of European clubs do and provide continuing college education so players aren’t left bagging groceries if it doesn’t work out.
A long-term 20-25 year plan for USSF/MLS/USL/NASL should be to change this. These organizations also need closer ties with Latin America and the Caribbean. See the region as a player development pool much like Europe and South America operate. In these countries, 18-23 year olds play in a variety of countries and clubs cooperate and have networks.
USSF/MLS/USL/NASL can make this happen but for college soccer it’s an impossibility now and forever. College soccer has tenured coaches who are for the most part immune to any pressure to develop quality talent and there is a mountain of restrictions that inhibit development outside the collegiate environment.
It should be quite the opposite. Players need incentive to develop and grow outside the cushy confines of college walls. College soccer artificially stifles development in what I think are most important years for a player.
A major issue is that universities in this country have brainwashed parents to think that scholarships are the best way to develop student-athletes. All scholarships do is hold an athlete in indentured servitude. Another model is to use your athletic prowess to get accepted to a good university, forgo the scholarship and complete your diploma over an extended period while you compete professionally. Many high level skiers have followed this path. Although they can usually only complete a single semester a year, extra semesters done during inevitable injury rehab make it possible to end your professional career concurrent with obtaining your degree. Plus it spreads out the cost making the scholarship $ less critical.
Uninvited Company says
Armando—I agree that college soccer is a terrible place for a player to try and develop, and that an 18-23 year old in the US who aspires to be a professional player should consider the smaller / non-powerhouse leagues like those in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc.
The trick is how to get there, which ties in to the “Matters of Circumstance” post.
The “easy” hurdles involve the logistics of the move, the impact of the language barrier of the training grounds, and adapting to life in a foreign country far away from family and friends.
The hard part is attracting interest from a club in the first place, and then resolving the immigration piece (for non-EU passport holders, at least).
In Norway, which is non-EU, I believe the immigration part is a bit easier—my understanding is that if a club offers you a contract, that entitles you to a work permit.
In most EU countries, I think the sponsoring club has to make a case to the immigration authorities, and then in addition pay a pretty significant fee if the permit is approved / issued.
Of course, in many countries, the barriers to entry are pretty high—certain “standards” have to be met to ensure that a player is of sufficient quality / stature, which is why Juan Agudelo is at FC Utrecht rather than in the EPL.
The current issue with the lower division pro teams in the US is that they suffer from many of the same flaws as MLS, and are not attractive options from a player development standpoint.
Among them, the only potential bright spot I see is that in the NASL, the teams own the contracts rather than the league, and there is no salary cap. This arrangement at least allows for the possibility of them developing talent and selling it to overseas clubs. I have no idea what the quality of the coaching is there, though.
Can’t argue with anything you said Uninvited!
My son is in High School going to 11th grade. All the communication he receives from counselors, coaches, others points him to college. He is a smart kid (about 3.2 GPA and takes a few AP classes) but he wants to be a professional player and said he will bypass college to chase his dreams. And he is not alone and the numbers who feel like this will continue to grow with each passing year and generation.
But he is frustrated that the “system” as it exists is 100% funneling players to college. There is no outlet for those seeking non-EU nations. Those players have to lookout for themselves.
I am a footballer all my life and love the sport, but I am no agent or person who can consult aspiring players on how to get to non-EU nations and get a look. I see a growing, viable business opportunity for someone, whether that be an independent agent type or a club that isn’t a pretent recreational club that holds itself up as competitive.
Having truly pro-centric clubs run by professionals with identifying and developing talent for professional football and minimizing parent cost is critical to achieveing this goal. But we don’t have any clubs like this as far as I know.