Play College Soccer or Turn Pro?

As a soccer agent, I am frequently asked by parents whether their son or daughter should player soccer in college or try to turn professional right away. As someone who played Division I college soccer at Yale University, I can honestly say that playing soccer was easily the best part of my college experience.

But that was also 20 or so years ago. Since then, club soccer has grown exponentially. Soccer “academies” are now found all across the country. Youth leagues – especially MLS Next and the ECNL – are the home of many talented soccer players. MLS Next Pro is giving high school players a potential alternative to college soccer. And Major League Soccer is growing every single year.

So, returning to that question – should a highly talented soccer player try to turn pro after high school or play soccer in college? This is a difficult question to answer. But here are my thoughts.

The main issue to think of is what the player’s goals are (pun intended). Some players have no aspirations of playing professional soccer. If that is the case then, yes, go to college. Get the college experience. Enjoy every minute of it and get that degree!

Also, players and their families need to be realistic about their future prospects in the game. Not everyone can become a professional soccer player. I know, because I was one of those that wasn’t quite good enough! And that’s ok!

But, to those that really want to play professional soccer, and who have the potential to play professionally, college may not be the best path. I have told players that if there is a window of professional soccer open while you are still in high school, explore it. Go on a trial or tryout. See what the clubs have to offer. You can sign on with a professional club while still maintaining your college eligibility (see my blog post on Soccer Players and the NCAA for details). In the end, that window to professional soccer can close very quickly.

Along those lines, if education is paramount, it should be noted that FIFA regulations require that clubs who sign players 16-18 years old “guarantee the player an academic and/or school and/or vocational education and/or training, in addition to his football education and/or training, which will allow the player to pursue a career other than football should he cease to play professional football.”

If you don’t share those opinions, that is perfectly fine. And, having anticipated that opinions on this topic may vary, I took a look at the rosters of our recent US Men’s National Team and U23 Men’s National Team to see to what extent those players participated in college soccer. The results weren’t terribly surprising. But here they are:

I took the following list of Senior National Team Players that will most likely be on the roster for Qatar 2022 (or who will most likely be considered for the final roster):

  1. Ethan Horvath
  2. Sean Johnson
  3. Matt Turner
  4. Zack Steffen
  5. Reggie Cannon
  6. Sergino Dest
  7. Aaron Long
  8. Mark McKenzie
  9. Erik Palmer-Brown
  10. Joseph Scally
  11. Sam Vines
  12. Deandre Yedlin
  13. Walker Zimmerman
  14. Kellyn Acosta
  15. Tyler Adams
  16. Johnny Cardoso
  17. Luca De La Torre
  18. Weston McKennie
  19. Malik Tillman
  20. Brenden Aaronson
  21. Paul Arriola
  22. Jesus Ferreira
  23. Jordan Morris
  24. Ricardo Pepi
  25. Christian Pulisic
  26. Giovanni Reyna
  27. Josh Sargent
  28. Tim Weah
  29. Chris Richards
  30. Antonee Robinson
  31. Yunus Musah
  32. Sam Vines
  33. Sebastian Lletget
  34. Jordan Pefok

Here’s what the numbers show:

  • Of the 34 total players, only 9 (or 26%) had college experience
  • 3 of the 9 players with college experience were goalkeepers
  • Only 1 of the 9 players with college experience is listed as a forward (Jordan Morris)
  • 6 of the 9 players with college experience only played 1 or 2 years in college.
  • Only 2 players had 4 years of college (Matt Turner, Aaron Long)

The numbers were similar with this U23 Men’s National Team roster:

1. Drake Callender
2. Matt Freese
3. JT Marcinkowski
4. David Ochoa
5. Julian Araujo
6. Marco Farfan
7. Justen Glad
8. Aaron Herrera
9. Henry Kessler
10. Mauricio Pineda
11. Auston Trusty
12. Sam Vines
13. Frankie Amaya
14. Cole Bassett
15. Johnny Cardoso
16. Hassani Dotson
17. Andres Perea
18. Tanner Tessmann
19. Eryk Williamson
20. Jackson Yueill
21. Jesus Ferreira
22. Jonathan Lewis
23. Ulysses Llanez
24. Benji Michel
25. Djordje Mihailovic
26. Ricardo Pepi
27. Sebastian Saucedo
28. Sebastian Soto
  • Of these 28 players, 12 (or 43%) had college experience
  • Of these 12 players, 3 of those are goalkeepers
  • Only 3 players played 4 years in college
  • Of the 8 forwards on the roster, only 2 had college experience (for 4 total years)

So, what do these numbers tell us? Basically, most of our elite soccer players did not play in college. Now, please understand that I am not saying playing college soccer causes players to not become elite…, i.e. that playing college soccer causes the elite academy player to not become an elite adult player. I didn’t perform any type of causation analysis (which, as an attorney, I frequently do for my legal cases). I’m just pointing out the numbers that show that most of our elite players do not play college soccer, that the players that did play college soccer were mostly goalkeepers (and not forwards), and that those players that played college soccer normally did not play all 4 years.

What about MLS? A review of statistics from the 2020 MLS Season, is revealing. Summarizing what they found:

  • 271 MLS players played at least 1 season in college. Of those 271 players:
    • About 45% played in 10 games or less.
    • 15% did not play in a single match.
    • About 50% started 1-10 matches.
    • About 6% started 21 matches or more.
    • About 65% started 0-10 games.

So, those are the numbers.

If you’re an academy or high school player who wants to know more about playing in college or turning pro, there are lots of things to think about – as this blog demonstrates. Without giving any type of legal advice, I would say that it is important for you to be thorough. Ask questions. Think things through. Take your time. Consult with others. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others who may have been in your position before. Ask your coaches about your professional potential. Don’t be offended by opinions that you may disagree with. Take it all in and make your informed decision after considering EVERYTHING. It will all help you make the right decision in the end.

For more insight, please contact Mario Iveljic at [email protected]


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