College soccer has traditionally been one of our best outlets for competition. We are unique in this respect, as the rest of the world favors a system of professional farm teams. Youth players grow up in a system provided by one of the professional clubs. When they graduate high school, the usual course of action is to play professionally, at some level, as opposed to the American road which typically is straight to college, before playing professionally. The college system is great, and it has provided the United States that "semi-professional" league we've lacked for so many years. As a youngster, I saw one of the best games you could see, on par with France-Germany 1982, or France-Brazil 1986. It was around 1990, in a game featuring two of the most storied programs in U.S. history, Indiana and SLU, with outstanding players on the field ranging from Chad Deering, Kenny Snow, Mark Santel to Brian McBride. These were the guys I emulated coming up and I only hope a little of their game was reflected in the way I played. The place was packed and they put on a show; there was some serious talent on the field and when I say it was a good game - with out a doubt - these guys brought it. "Everybody" my age wanted to play like them. In the 1980s and before even, there were few chances for players to play professionally. The NASL, and the MISL - which rode in on the waves of excitement from the New York Cosmos - were about it. Players from the generations of Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena, Jerry Yeagley (and even earlier; former President Bush Sr. played for Yale), didn't have many options, other than college. During those days, it was the highest outlet for players. Unfortunately, the U.S. was definitely in the dark ages of soccer back then. Things have improved dramatically as more and more American players are getting opportunities to play in the domestic professional leagues - MLS, USL, indoor and various off-shoot outdoor leagues - and a few players - a few more than in the 80s or 90s - play abroad. The college system provides a competitive outlet for domestic players, allowing some to receive scholarships, and bringing many foreign players here to enhance their education. There are still some campuses that lack a soccer program largely because the administration does not see enough money coming in from game related revenue. This, of course, has a lot to do with the popularity factor of U.S. soccer, or lack thereof. With its continual growth - seeing the expansion of the MLS, and the exuberant sell outs, from teams like Portland or Seattle - soccer is nudging its way to being the fourth most popular sport in the country. It used to be tennis, but that's falling quickly, at least, in comparison to the popularity of tennis in the pre-90s era.
We're stuck in a system that does not have as many professional outlets as many European nations. Because we don't have many professional soccer opportunities available, partly because the rest of the world is still on the fence when it comes to respecting the American talent level, the competition is even greater than in other places. A lot of players are competing for a small number of openings. In that regard, college is a great asset. Whether Universities provide a soccer team or not, soccer is growing so rapidly I would think those that don't have a team will change that in order to accommodate the vast amount of players that have a desire to represent their school.