Maybe it was all the hype coming into the Final Four about Wake Forest and its loaded quad. Perhaps it was the talk about how deep the upcoming MLS Draft is and how well represented this Final Four would be in that draft next month. Whatever the reason, this year's NCAA College Cup had more buzz than past years and the event essentially failed to live up to the hype.
While that may be true, it seems as if there are a number of American soccer fans who want to use the Final Four, and the three goals in three games it produced, as some sort of indictment of the college game. Complain about college soccer if you want, but a few bad games does not negate the fact that college soccer is still an important tool in the development of pro soccer players in this country.
As long as MLS continues to go slow in establishing a real professional player development system in this country, college soccer will continue to have its place and without it there would be countless prospects faced with few options and little chance to develop into the quality professional players so many college products have become.
Is college soccer an ideal system? Of course not. Limited numbers of games and practice hours make it far from the ideal, which would be full-blown professional academies like the ones seen around the world, but the fact remains that nobody is running up to fund those types of development initiatives. In the meantime, college soccer remains a FREE feeder system for a professional league still in its infancy and an ideal vehicle for soccer players who want to keep pursuing their professional dreams after high school.
It should also be noted that not all college soccer is ultra-defensive and lacking in creativity and crisp passing. This weekend's match-ups were what doomed fans to some sloppy and, at times, ugly soccer as much as the state of college soccer itself. All three match-ups involved one superiorly-skilled team against an offensively-inferior opponent that was going to have to rely on defense and counterattacking to win.
In only one of those instances did the defensive team win, which was North Carolina, a team that counterattacked Wake Forest all night and frustrated the Deamon Decons enough to disrupt their normally free-flowing attack.
Don't blame North Carolina for playing that way (and credit to the Tar Heels for disciplined defending and showing great heart in upsetting the defending champions). Blame Wake Forest for not finishing any of its chances. Blame a team that dominated all year but failed to win either the ACC Tournament or NCAA Tournament. Much as it did in the ACC Tourney, Maryland did what Wake Forest couldn't, finish chances, which is why the Terrapins trophy case is more crowded this year while Wake's collected only dust.
Would it have been better for the college game if we had seen a Wake Forest-Maryland game? It would have certainly been more entertaining for the non-partisan fans. Anybody who saw those teams do battle in an early-season match won by Wake Forest (4-2) remembers some great attacking soccer by two teams loaded with talent. It would have been great to see that match-up on Sunday, but Wake Forest failed to get there. That isn't college soccer's fault. That is Wake's fault.
And since when it is a surprise to see a soccer tournament have ugly, defensive-minded games? This happens from the World Cup on down and anyone surprised to see teams playing more cautiously or more defensively in a single-elimination tournament format must not watch too many tournaments.
Rather than looking at what College Cup wasn't, and using that to indict the college game, critics should look at the quality players the college game has developed and continues to develop, and realize how fortunate we are to have college soccer. When players like Marcus Tracey, Ike Opara, Omar Gonzalez, Sam Cronin and Graham Zusi make the next step to the pros the American game will be that much better for it, and if those prospects can emulate the professional successes of recent college products such as Sacha Kljestan, Chad Marshall, Maurice Edu, Brad Guzan, Bakary Soumare and Marvell Wynne, we will have no choice but to acknowledge that, for all its flaws and inadequacies, the college game is still doing something right and still has a vital role to play in American soccer.