There is a growing consensus among U.S. soccer followers that the fewer collegiate players on youth national teams, the better. The thinking is that prospects who play professionally -- even if only on a reserve or academy team -- receive better tutoring than college kids and, thus, are further along in their development.
The makeup of recent U-20 squads would suggest that fans are getting their wish. The team U-20 coach Thomas Rongen took to Northern Ireland for the Milk Cup in July included only six (of 18) college players. At the Cor Groenewegen Tournament in the Netherlands last May, only four (of 21) players came from universities.
Not long ago, the U.S. U-20 roster was comprised primarily of collegiate stars, and so it would seem a sea change is under way. But Caleb Porter, an assistant coach on the U.S. U-18 national team, doesn't believe we are nearing the end of college soccer as a pipeline.
"Sure, less of the top kids are signing with colleges and, honestly, that is how it should be," Porter says. "But there are also kids who are not ready for the pros right out of high school and can benefit from one or two years in a college program. Because of that, college will continue to be an important step for some players."
Porter is uniquely positioned to judge the college game's role with the youth national teams. In addition to his U-18 duties, he is coach at the University of Akron, a school that can boast more national team prospects than any other. The four college players selected by Rongen for the Cor Groenewegen Tournament were all Akron-based: central defenders PerryKitchen and ChadBarson, and outside backs ZarekValentin and KofiSarkodie. In one game in the run-up to the tourney, Rongen started a backline of three Zips and a fourth (Kitchen) came on as a substitute.
Barson and Sarkodie didn't go to the Milk Cup, but Valentin started all three games for the U.S. and Kitchen started two and was a late substitute in another. After the final, a 3-0 victory over Northern Ireland, Rongen hailed Kitchen's composure playing the ball out of pressure and noted that Valentin's runs down the right flank were a key component in the attack.
There are other college prospects on Rongen's radar -- Notre Dame midfielder DillonPowers (MVP of the Milk Cup), goalkeeper ZacMacMath and defender EthanWhite from Maryland.
"There is a reason a number of MLS teams have looked at [Porter] to be their coach," Rongen says. "He prepares his players well."
Porter appreciates the compliment, but he knows that it is a combination of recruiting and development that has led so many Zips to crack the U-20 team. After Porter was hired in 2005, Akron quickly became known for its attacking talent, including SteveZakuani, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 MLS draft, along with TealBunbury and BlairGavin, both taken in the top 10 in the 2010 draft.
"We had those players here and others, so then in the last two recruiting classes we went after a lot of defenders," Porter says. "We were fortunate in that many of the players we signed had youth international experience with the U-17s and U-18s."
It can difficult to build continuity on a national team as players come together irregularly and operate in different systems with their college or pro teams. By having so many Zips along the backline, the U-20 team benefited from some built-in cohesion. "There is chemistry already there," Porter says. "In the back that partnership is important, and I think [Rongen] recognized that."
As for the players' individual talents, a quick rundown:
• Kitchen, 18, enrolled at Akron last spring and has yet to play a college season. He was in residency with the U-17 team in Bradenton, Fla., and played in the 2009 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. "We actually recruited him to be a holding midfielder and provide some depth with our back four," Porter says. "He is very versatile and very clean on the ball and just tough."
• Barson, 19, has been in the U.S. system since he played for the U-15s. He was a freshman All-American in 2009. "He's a hammer, a tenacious ball-winner who is just fierce," Porter says. "But he is also extremely intelligent and most of all he knows his role. He is just solid for us every game."
• Valentin, who turned 19 this month, is also a long-time member of the U.S. youth system, but he made a leap in the last year, following his freshman All-American campaign with a stellar Milk Cup. "He is a playmaker, composed on the ball and cerebral and a good passer," Porter says. "He defends by reading the game and I think has gotten better at his one-on-one defending."
• Sarkodie, 19, is the most experienced, having two college seasons under his belt and multiple appearances with youth national teams. His two older brothers were also college players. "There is probably not a better athlete playing college soccer," Porter says. "He's an extremely good one-on-one defender, a good server of the ball. Really, he is a complete outside back. He is right-sided but he can play on the left or the right."
Porter believes all four will one day play professionally, maybe as soon as next year.
"I don't know if all four of them will be gone after this season or the next, but if it gets to a point when it is better for their development to leave than to stay, I would encourage them to look at their [professional] opportunities," he says. "It was like with Zakuani. Another college season would not have done him any good and so I encouraged him to go. If and when these guys get to that point, I will give them the same advice."
As for the notion that because they are college kids they must be inferior, Porter shrugs. "Every player develops at a different rate. What is important is the player they eventually become."