If Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. men's national soccer team (USMNT), is planning to watch any NCAA men’s tournament action, which games should he choose? On which players should he focus his attention?
This is the second of a two-part series (it's OK if you missed Part 1 because that article is just a click away). Here, I will attempt to provide the coach with his personalized scouting report of the college scene.
But First, a Caveat or Two
Consider this December 1998 release from UCLA. In it, the Bruins celebrate their three selections to All-American teams.
Among the three is future national team keeper Nick Rimando.
Notably missing from the benefit of hindsight, however, is the Bruin who at the time wore the No. 6 jersey, Carlos Bocanegra. Though overlooked that year by an All-American selection committee, Bocanegra captains the USMNT today.
Bocanegra hardly flew under all radars. A starting defender on the strong UCLA side, he also represented his country on a national youth team. Just a few months after that release, Bocanegra scored the winning goal against Cameroon to propel the U20s team into the Round of 16 at the 1999 World Youth Championship.
That national side and UCLA were both coached by Sigi Schmid. Schmid had a respectable track record for player selections. Joining Bocanegra was fellow defender Steve Cherundolo and keeper Tim Howard.
No one should put too much stock in any one vetting process (including my humble attempt to do the same below).
Best Selection Criteria?
The list of highly touted college athletes who never succeed beyond college is lengthy. At least it would be, if anyone went to the effort to compile such a monster.
There is no shortage of resources to help orient anyone interested in learning about soccer players who may be more likely to navigate the huge leap beyond college play.
There are websites that maintain player rankings and detail mock runs of the next MLS SuperDraft (a combination of the original and supplemental drafts). There are sports writers with nothing better (or at least as fun) to do with their time. And there are the schools and conferences themselves.
The Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) sponsors the Herman Trophy for the athlete determined by a panel of judges to be the best soccer player each year. Nominations for the award carry prestige, and are often cited by varying resources as arguments supporting the likely future success of the nominees.
With all due respect to the MAC, websites chock full of sports writers and other honors selection committees, there is another indicator arguably more worthy of attention.
National youth teams involve a system of multiple vetting.
Player selections for the age group are the first, followed by roster selection for any given match as the second. Finally, a national youth coach who sees his players against tough competition over multiple games determines which to field for the next outing.
Additionally, if looking at this question from the perspective of college prospects for future versions of the senior USMNT, we should remember that national youth coaches are within the same U.S. Soccer organization.
A coach for the USMNT is likely to draw more heavily from national youth coach opinion than other sources (admittedly, even me) when making his own subjective player selections.
U20 Pool and Diminishing Collegiate Representation
As an aside, in the first part of this series, we noted that 53 percent of the 2012 USMNT players had college playing experience.
We also noted the school of thought that advocates an academy approach over college play may be winning that argument. Stats from the 2012 U.S. U20 pool of players seem to support that observation.
In that pool, only 36 percent of the players are members of a college team.
That is a 17-point drop in college representation between two groups of national players roughly a decade apart in age. This alone is not conclusive of anything, but it is worth following to determine if a trend is indeed developing.
Conversely, the academy approach seems to be rapidly gaining ground, as 28 percent play either for an MLS academy or already an MLS senior team. The rest (34 percent) play for lower-tiered U.S. academies or teams, or for foreign clubs.
I believe we are seeing the MLS trending away from college players.
My Kingdom for a Defender
Strikers sell tickets and win games, but defenders win championships.
A strong attack will win some games. Additionally, having explosive scoring ability is great when a team finds itself down in the second half. It gives that team hope of climbing out of the hole.
A strong defense avoids those holes, however, and gives the team hope for long-term success over the course of a season or longer.
In terms of national sides, while casual fans will focus their laurels on the heads of the men putting the ball in the net, the more serious eyes will appreciate the men who stop them.
Much has been made recently of shortcomings in the USMNT back line.
This current USMNT is arguably the strongest and deepest this country has ever fielded (granted, the bar for American teams is not all that high). There is one notable exception to this strength and depth, and of course I am referring to the center of the defense.
As a result, there exists today some anxiety over the USMNT’s chances of qualifying for the next World Cup, despite fielding teams that have proven an ability to score on anyone in CONCACAF, and indeed anyone in the world.
From a national soccer perspective, deepening that defender pool must be the top priority, and it is here where we find the greatest future contribution our current college rosters can make, perhaps not in the immediate future, but potentially not long after that.
The Old College Try (and Get Around Me)
Three sophomore defenders stand out among their older collegiate peers. They are Walker Zimmerman from Furman, Eric Miller from Creighton and Boyd Okwuonu from North Carolina.
All three have significant playing time with the U20 national team over multiple games. Okwuonu had more on-field minutes than Zimmerman and Miller with the U20 side this year, routinely playing a full 90 minutes as he did. However, collegiate accomplishments and physical attributes seem to suggest Zimmerman and Miller may be a slight step ahead.
Zimmerman is a 6-3, 185-pound complete defender. Actually, just a complete player, with respectable size and skills for any phase of play. In at least one U20 match, he recorded minutes as a midfielder.
A recent ranking of college prospects on MLSsoccer.com listed the Lawrence, GA, native from Clint Dempsey's alma mater as sixth overall and as the top college defender.
More notably, TopDrawerSoccer projected Zimmerman to go as the first selection in the MLS draft.
TopDrawerSoccer notes the folly in the exercise, as players will move up and down the rankings during the NCAA tournament and the subsequent combine (but they had fun running the mock draft, and I had fun reading it).
Unfortunately for Zimmerman, Furman’s college season is over without an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Miller provides staunch defense and effective attack support for his eighth-ranked Creighton team.
The Blue Jays beat Drake to win the Missouri Valley Conference championship, during which Miller headed in one goal, and then assisted with the game winner.
Miller, much to the benefit of future coaches, also has experienced a recent growth spurt. He is listed on the U20 pool as 5-10 and 165 pounds. Creighton now has the Woodbury, MN, native at 6-1 and 175. Not great size for the back line, but getting there.
Creighton was not expected to do much this season after losing several key players from last year's run into the NCAA semifinals. The Blue Jays are still alive in this tournament, however, with a 4-2 win over Washington.
The next game will surely challenge them. Creighton and Miller travel to Akron to take on the top-ranked Zips.
Okwuonu, from Edmond, OK, is currently the smallest statured of the three at 5-10 and 170 pounds. He plays on the feared Tar Heel back line, which had allowed an astonishingly low four goals during the regular season. And being in the ACC, North Carolina was hardly playing opponents who cannot find the net.
TopDrawerSoccer lists Okwuonu as a likely first-round draft choice. My suspicion is his height might cause MLS teams to have some reservations. However, given his age, another couple of inches may still be in the cards.
The defending national champion Tar Heels were surprisingly tested in their first game of this year’s NCAA tournament. UMBC took them to penalty kicks in an otherwise scoreless match.
North Carolina next takes on Fairleigh Dickinson Sunday. The Knights, who had to play in the first round of the 48-team tournament, have something of a Cinderella run started, already upsetting St. John’s and St. Louis. Odds are clocks in Carolina will strike midnight this weekend.
If Miller’s side does not stop Akron, that task eventually may fall on second-ranked Maryland and future likely pro defender, London Woodberry.
Not to split hares, but the swift-footed Terrapin (get it?) has had a simply stellar season.
Tough to beat one-on-one, the 6'1" and 160-pound junior defender is a composed leader in Maryland’s flat four. His distribution from the back line reflects a maturity beyond his years.
The one criticism even for college level coming into this season was questionable ball skills. Based on what I have seen, Woodberry has grown in this aspect as well.
Woodberry’s home is McKinney, TX, and he played at the FC Dallas academy. MLSsoccer.com, which ranks him at 16th among all college players, predicts he will sign with FC Dallas before the 2013 season and see immediate playing time as an outside back.
Maryland defeated Brown in the second round of the NCAA tournament and next faces Coastal Carolina for the right to advance to the quarterfinals.
Other high-caliber defenders have played on college fields this year, but if the USMNT at some point finds some much needed defensive depth with any of the above names, remember you heard it here first.
Quality Higher Up Field; One Stands Out
It seems most recent discussions of 2012 college players begin with one name. As a junior forward at CSU Bakersfield, Zardes is listed as “the most dynamic player in the college game” by MLSsoccer.com.
The attacker possesses speed, touch, finishing and an instinct for effective slanting runs. He tends to make believers everywhere he goes.
Zardes’ resume goes beyond his impressive Bakersfield exploits. He played last summer with Ventura County Fusion, a USL Premier Development League club. Fusion traveled to England to play a couple friendlies against EPL reserves from West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City.
As reported in one article, among the spectators was Roy Hodgson, current manager of the England national side, and former manager pretty much everywhere else (including West Bromwich Albion and more notably Liverpool).
Hodgson was impressed and talked with the Fusion coach about Zardes.
Whether that was the connection, Zardes did mention in a later interview he spent another couple weeks over the summer training with Liverpool and also noted his desire to play overseas.
The versatile attacker could sign with the LA Galaxy, where he played for the academy team. However, the Ventura County Star also reported in the article linked above (the Hodgson mention) that the Los Angeles native of Brazilian parents may already have turned down a Galaxy six-figure offer.
Returning to Bakersfield for a senior year seems doubtful at this point. As CSU Bakersfield was not selected for the NCAA tournament, it is a fair bet Zardes has played his last game as a Roadrunner.
Others in Consideration
There are quality attackers and middies in the college game after Zardes, but in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek approach of this series, it might be too much of a stretch to target any as strong candidates for future USMNT caps.
For the remainder of prospective draft picks, I will just take the easy out and say the following players as well as those not discussed here need to prove their merits at the professional level first.
(The same is true of the defenders, too, but quality defenders are worth their weight in gold.)
Eriq Zavaleta is a sophomore forward for Indiana. Not flashy, but effective. College Sports Madness lists Zavaleta as the top MLS prospect and MLSsoccer.com has him second.
The Hoosiers recently pummeled Xavier 4-1 to advance to this Sunday’s tournament match against Notre Dame. The sophomore from Westfield, IN, was a driving force behind the Hoosiers making the tournament, leading Indiana (and the Big Ten) in scoring with 16 goals in 20 games.
Zavaleta also demonstrated efficiency this season with the team’s highest goal/shot and shots on target percentages. And he is a versatile player. Zavaleta was a defender a few years ago on a U.S. U17 team.
North Carolina’s Mikey Lopez is a sophomore midfielder who saw regular playing time with the national U20 side. Technically fine, the midfielder from Mission, TX, can be creative as well.
However, as noted in the first article of this series as well as at MLSsoccer.com, Lopez did not have an overwhelmingly impressive ACC Tournament. Additionally, at 5'8" and 160 pounds, MLS teams this year might prefer Lopez return for another season with Carolina.
UConn senior attacking midfielder Carlos Alvarez brings consistency to the table for the MLS draft. After three years of solid performance for the Huskies, the Los Angeles native was tagged to captain the team for his senior year.
Named Midfielder of the Year in the Big East (a conference with five teams still alive in the Round of 16), TopDrawerSoccer has Alvarez listed as the third highest MLS prospect, though notes this year’s draft could be hard on attacking middies across the board.
UConn will meet New Mexico in Sunday’s tournament match after dropping Northeastern 1-0 last weekend.
Senior midfielders Dillon Powers from Notre Dame and John Stertzer from Maryland are solid and also likely to draw early interest from MLS teams. Whether either can translate selection into a starting position on a professional team anytime soon remains to be seen.
In soccer, it is getting to the point where 22 years old is awfully late to begin a pro career.
Nick DeLeon demonstrated this year with D.C. United that it still is possible. DeLeon, who was selected seventh in this year's draft after his senior season at Louisville, had a starring role in United’s MLS Playoffs run.
However, let’s finish with a return to the theme of this series. Klinsmann has shown no rush to cap-tie the American-born son of a Trinidadian father, even as DeLeon has not hidden his efforts to acquire a passport from the island nation he has never visited.