An International Revolution: Outsiders Invade American College Soccer
By Alex Fairchild
American footballers are rushing to the country's airports to ply their trade overseas. However, just as many internationals seek out their passports and papers to head to the United States. They are not coming to America for a vacation. Last year, 1,738 teenagers took to the land of opportunity to take the pitch for US universities.
This movement is extraordinarily present at Fairleigh Dickinson University. At the Teaneck, New Jersey school, the soccer team consists of footballers from Germany, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, India, and Zimbabwe. The 2012 Northeast Conference Tournament Champions represent 5 continents, 14 countries, and a mere 3 states. It is a sensational concept that according to Head Coach Seth Roland has been going on for decades.
There has been an influx in recent years due the age of the worldwide web and a constantly connected globe. Teenagers from backgrounds diverse as the FDU squad itself reach out to American college coaches every year.
"We've always had a 1/3 to 2/5 international flavor," said Roland of his team.
The school at which he coaches, FDU, sits on the outskirts of New York City and is ranked as a highly diverse university, fitting its soccer team in nicely with the rest of the student body. Players feel comfortable in environments such as these, especially when they are nonplussed by their surroundings in the early going of their American lives.
But it is that setting which drives FDU forward in the competitive world of NCAA Division I soccer. Dominated by the likes of Maryland, Duke, North Carolina, and Ohio State, the Knights are a small fish looking to make it in the biggest of ponds. In a sense they have, and that is in large part due to their international recruiting operation.
As everybody looks for an edge, many of which are illegal, whether it be through bribing players or violating other NCAA rules, Coach Roland has done it the right way, whilst bringing his program to the forefront of the college game.
"Somebody told me that since 2000, only 25 or 26 Division I programs have been to a Sweet 16 or an Elite 8, and I guess all but us are big universities," said Roland, who knocked off Saint John's and 8 seed Saint Louis in last year's NCAA tournament. FDU entered the competition unseeded and fell victim to North Carolina in the Sweet 16, the tournament's 3rd round.
This was not the school's first success under Roland. In 2001, FDU defeated Boston College, Princeton, and Seton Hall en route to an Elite 8 birth. North Carolina was there to keep them from the Final Four.
Nevertheless, their impressive runs have come as a result of heading across the pond to international recruiting showcases. These events have been integral to the development of MLS academies, elite clubs, and US youth national teams, not to mention colleges, whose head coaches rush to these jamborees.
Over the summer, a showcase took place in Germany. Including Roland, approximately 40 American schools took to the European nation in search of recruits. "That was demoralizing," recalls Roland, though his coaching staff earned the verbal commitments of a few footballers.
Gaining these young men is no easy task. While it is one thing to find an 18 year old willing to leave home to live out his dreams, it is another to earn the trust of his parents. This has become an ever prevalent issue in Africa, where fraudulent agents promise street players and their families a trial at one of Europe's top clubs. With few other options, these youngsters head off with the stranger. If things do not work, these criminals leave young men with no money and no connections on the streets. But some, like Roland, offer legitimate opportunities to further oneself. As far as how to gain that trust - Roland says that the talks depend on the parents.
Reflecting on his interactions with guardians during his recent trip to Germany he said, "One kid, I didn't meet his parents at all - another, I met his mother. We hit it off very well. One of the other kids, his family had me over for coffee and cake, and the next day took me on a 12 hour walking tour of Berlin. The parents want to know and want to feel that their child is going across the ocean and is going to play for someone that is going to look after them, advocate for them, and is someone that they can trust."
Despite the coaching staff at FDU's forays into the world, they and the rest of the NCAA are missing the influence of Asia. The Knights have one player from India on the team, but themselves and other colleges lack footballers from China, Japan, and the Korea's. Coach Roland says there are a few reasons for that - the main determinant being that there are no major recruiting agencies on the continent. "There's no one pointing the way in Asia for prospective student athletes and that could be because they are not aware of the opportunity that exists to study and play soccer at the same time," said Roland.
In countries like China, students are given little to no time to participate in athletic activities, as they are wrapped up in their studies for a large portion of the day. That is not to say that these children have no talent. Stefan Szymanski, sports economist, professor, and co-author of Soccernomics, believes that the day will come when one of the game's greats hails from the Far East. "There are some amazing football stars in China," Szymanski remarked, "They must have had Messi, Pele and Maradona 10 times over. The tragedy is that nobody ever found them, but they will sooner or later."
In total, Roland has turned 11 young men pro in his tenor at FDU. The ratio of American to internationals who move to the next level is about 1:1 for the esteemed manager.
As long as these student-athletes continue to succeed, more and more will flood US shores in search of these life-altering opportunities to achieve their 'American Footballing Dream.'
By the numbers...
2011-2012 Division I Men's Soccer:
International players - 625 (11.1%) Total players - 5,647
2011-2012 Men's Soccer - Across All Divisions (I, II, and III)
International players - 1,738 (7.6%) Total players - 22,987
In 2010-11, international players made up 6.5% of men's soccer players across all divisions, yielding a 1.1% increase in 'nonresident aliens' over the course of one recruiting season.
0.7% - The chance an NCAA men's soccer player has of going pro. It is the lowest chance of going to the next level of any other major college sport, including football, basketball, and baseball.