Jimmy Conrad needed a bit of the beach. He needed a bit of soccer. He needed a bit of time to experience life. Essentially, Jimmy Conrad needed college.
The 2006 U.S. World Cup veteran and defensive icon for the Kansas City Wizards needed Los Angeles, needed higher education and needed former Bruins coach Sigi Schmid.
A stigma still remains around the college game, despite the success of players such as Conrad. Though the MLS landscape for player acquisitions is shifting, that doesn't mean the college game will become irrelevant when it comes to player development.
"It's an important component," Conrad said. "I was a late bloomer and couldn't have gotten far without college. It's still valuable, though its not for everybody."
UCLA, Virginia and Maryland have provided more players to Major League Soccer than any other college programs. The Bruins leads all universities with 54 players, including notables such as Carlos Bocanegra, Paul Caligiuri and Cobi Jones. The Cavaliers have produced 41 players and the Terrapins 34, including 20 in the past five years.
Conrad, 33, a 12-year MLS veteran, said Schmid (now coaching MLS' Seattle Sounders) proved the greatest factor in establishing UCLA as a national powerhouse and a developmental academy in its own right.
"Sigi really did a good job of making it his program," Conrad said. "He set the tradition of having high expectations and the coaches that have followed have had to meet those standards."
Bruins coach Jorge Salcedo said college provides an avenue for players who might have been missed in the youth national team system.
"We develop human beings before we develop soccer players," Salcedo said. "In the development of young men, their maturation from one year to the next is enormous. We can't ever fully understand what's going to happen over time for a player from age 17 to 21."
Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said the college game is often unfairly criticized for not developing players. A couple of common complaints cite the short fall season of roughly four months and the unlimited substitution policy. Cirovski said Maryland replicates a professional culture in terms of training daily and playing, for the most part, only 14-15 players in a match. He did concede that the rigorous scheduling of tournaments and three matches per week demand a more frequent substitution pattern than in the professional ranks.
"College soccer is still a vital part of the developmental process in this country," Cirovski said. "We're producing high-level players who can step in and play immediately. We make good players better and we can also take players who weren't quite ready yet and provide them a platform to bloom and blossom."
MLS clubs are now free to develop players on their own through the youth academy movement. Players can also be added through the designated player option, leaving fewer roster spots for draftees.
MLS director of player programs Alfonso Mondelo said the college game remains one of many avenues for developing players in the United States, along with MLS academies, the U.S. Soccer Federation residency program and elite youth clubs. Mondelo noted that advances in youth development help players before they ever reach college, which will ultimately improve the level of collegiate players entering MLS.
He said the growth and stability of MLS has changed the goals of young players. Twenty years ago, a college scholarship was the pinnacle for players because there was no legitimate first-division outdoor league. However, now children can dream of playing pro soccer just as they do with baseball, basketball or American football.
"In the next five to 10 years, with all of these approaches we will see even greater development of the American player," Mondelo said.
As for Conrad, he understands the benefits young pros gain by training daily in a club setting, but he still has a soft spot for his alma mater (in no small part because that's where he met his wife, Lyndsey).
"I'm really torn on the matter because from a growing-up perspective, in terms of becoming a man, college is huge," Conrad said. "It's a nice buffer of being somewhat responsible and not being ready to come out. I can't answer that but I hope somebody will take a stab at it at some point. Maybe when I'm done I'll solve it myself because I haven't decided yet what I want to do next."