A look at college soccer alumni in the 2020 MLS season

MLS (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
MLS (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

Another MLS SuperDraft has come and gone.  Questions on the relevancy of the college draft remain, and fans expect most of these players drafted to play outside Major League Soccer, or not at all.  Therefore, questions about college soccer in general and whether kids can be persuaded to go, and then the relevancy of the draft as a whole, has led to this analysis on former college players in the 2020 season.

It is vital to mention that the focus was on the 2020 season.  Hence, age and experience were not factors.  Also, each player counted played at least one season in college soccer, and this includes schools in Canada.  Furthermore, not everything will be analyzed in detail.  Rather, this is to obtain a basic look of former college players in MLS, to see which schools produce MLS players, and look in detail at the number of games played by such players.

It is also extremely important that this is not a critique of the college game.  Last year, the importance of changing college soccer to a year-round sport was discussed.  Unfortunately, such a vote by the NCAA was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is believed more of the top players would choose college in the case the development aspect can change.  Eventually, the hope is the change would lead to more college players getting signed by MLS clubs, and more playing time too.

Top Colleges with MLS players

When looking at the schools these players attended, the appearances for the 2020 season are not factored in.  Instead, this is to look at how many players come from these schools.  In the case of transfers, the school where the player played the most seasons was counted.  In the case the seasons are evenly split, the school where the player finished his college career was counted.

While MLS players from college come from a multitude of schools and different conferences, former University of Maryland players led the league with 15.  Not far behind them was UCLA with 14, Indiana University with 13, and the University of Akron with 12.  In the last few decades, these are notable schools with exceptional soccer programs, so it is not shocking they have the highest college soccer alumni in MLS.

Other notable soccer programs, like Wake Forrest University, had nine for the 2020 season, and UNC had eight.  On a more surprising note, the likes of Georgetown University had just six, and the University of Notre Dame just had five.  This illustrates even the best programs may struggle to produce MLS caliber players, which illuminates the need for change with college soccer development.  It could also reveal that players feel they do not have to attend one of the best schools, but rather they can go elsewhere and succeed.  In other words, if a player has talent, and they put in the work, then they can find their way to MLS.

College Soccer players and success

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Amongst some fans, there is this belief that teams cannot have success if they have multiple college-based players.  However, such an idea is folly.

CF Montreal, formerly the Montreal Impact, had the least amount of college-based players, with four.  Yet, they finished 9th in the East out of 14.  Meanwhile, Minnesota United FC, who finished 4th place in the Western Conference, had 15.

Nashville SC, who had a surprisingly successful first season by finishing 7th in the East, had the most college player alumni, with 21.

So, the number of players who went to college does not correlate with how well, or how poorly, a team plays.  Rather, like anything, it is about the quality of the team.  And fans know, sometimes you get players that do not fare well in MLS, and other times you have former college players turn into stars.

The numbers of 2020

271 MLS players played at least one season in college.  The number of games played and started was calculated without looking at experience and age.  Time lost due to injury and/or COVID-19 was not calculated as well.  Yes, there can be a player mixed in who is a normal starter that had less playing time compared to the 2019 season.  Still, once again this a look at the year 2020, and just how many games were played.

Additionally, these numbers are just for the regular season.  That way, the amount of games played by each team is predominantly equal.  Since the season was shorter, and the pandemic impacted the time between games, many teams rotated their players.  This means some players that might have started the majority of matches might have seen fewer starts or appearances due to the rotation.  It is significant to take that into account.

To begin, 42 players or 15.50% did not play a single match.  81, or 29.89% played in 1-10 games, and then 106, or 39.11% played in 11-20 games.  Only 42, or 15.50% played in 21 or more matches.  So, the highest percentage of college player alumni played in the 11-20 match section, but 45.39% played in 10 games or less.

With starts, the numbers become more skewed.  135 players or 49.82% started anywhere from 0-10 matches.  Note those calculated that played in zero games are players who made at least one or more appearances.  Then, 77, or 28.41% started 11-20 games.  Finally, only 17, or 6.27% played in 21 matches or more.  Again, the rotation was widely used due to the abnormal season, so that can impact the results for starts.  Yet, 65.32% started 0-10 games, and this percentage amount includes those who did not play at all.

So, what does this all mean?

When examining the numbers from 2020, it is clear the majority of players who spent at least one season at college are getting fewer opportunities to start.  Whereas rotation can be why players played or started fewer games, it could also attribute to why players played or started more.  But looking at 2020 alone exposes those who developed during college often struggled with playing time.

Also, the top players who do decide to attend college might look at the number of players playing professionally in MLS from that school.  If they are torn between Maryland and Notre Dame, they might decide on Maryland since recently Maryland has the most alumni in MLS.  This might lead to some of the top programs losing out on extremely talented individuals.

In addition, the numbers might steer youth away from college.  As mentioned, development at the college level is a concern, which is why the NCAA must change the season to a two-semester season rather than a semester.  Changes to college soccer would impact the development and game in a positive manner, and possibly eliminate the negative stigma of college soccer players struggling to find success in MLS.  Of course, the likes of Chase Gasper, Jordan Morris, and Julian Gressel show that one can attend college and become regular starters on a team.

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In the end, more research would be needed to get accurate answers regarding these players to obtain a precise analysis of college players in MLS.  But again, this is just a look at the 2020 MLS season.  Anyone can form their own opinions based on the data provided for former college soccer players, and that is the purpose of providing this information.