How young Aussie footballers can benefit from the US college system
For years, the A-League and Australian football were compared to the United States and its ecosystem as a yardstick for growth and development. Such comparisons are less prominent now, mainly due to the continued rise of Major League Soccer (MLS). But away from the professional game, few would know much about the pre-professional and college pathways the US has for high school and student footballers across Australia.
To understand more about the benefits of the US system for young Australian footballers, one first has to know how the pyramid works and is structured in America.
Many would be aware of the two main leagues at a professional level on the men's side - the MLS first, followed by the second-tier United Soccer League (USL) Championship. Crucially, no promotion or relegation exists between the two leagues or any divisions across the country. The USL League One (USL 1) and National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) are at the third-tier professional level.
The US's fourth-tier level of men's football consists of pre-professional leagues such as the USL League Two (USL 2) and National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). They then have college pathways, with the main divisions administered by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA organise the Division 1 (D1), 2 (D2), and 3 (D3) tournaments, whilst the other college tournament at this level is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Championship.
Within each college division lies a host of conferences, where teams must qualify for the final tournament at the end of the regular season. Each division at a college level, D1, D2, D3, and NAIA, has over 20 conferences.
So, there are many more opportunities across the pyramid in the US than in Australia. Dylan Watson, a Sports Consultant and the Founder of Southern Cross Athletes (SCA) spoke to Front Page Football recently to provide more context about the quality of pathways in the US, particularly at a college level.
“If you’re at a top D1 program, these guys sort of act as feeders for professional clubs in America," he said.
“I speak to coaches; they’ll progress four guys annually, four to six guys, top-end D1 schools. They might get into the draft, then they might get loaned out to a Championship, USL 1, NISA program, or just find their way into one of those lower leagues straight away."
But how do the pre-professional and college pathways compare to the National Premier Leagues, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria?
“These (the D1 players) are probably lads that could easily be coming over here and playing NPL 1 first grade, NPL 2 first grade," Watson added.
“In my opinion, some people might view it differently; I would probably say USL 1, NISA is probably the equivalent of NPL first grade here, and that’s probably more so the New South Wales clubs having played against guys, knowing guys in those competitions.
“You look at [the] NPL here and NPL 1…these guys are good enough to be professional footballers. They’re on massive more wages, it is a really high standard, and I’ve had a lot of people in America reach out and say, ‘Oh, you know, can you get me over and playing in an NPL club’, for example.
“So, my opinion, I’d probably say top-end NPL is probably the equivalent of [the] NISA leagues, USL 1."
Watson will often market his clients into the NCAA Division 1. He's well aware of the quality in the US, having played college soccer before starting Southern Cross Athletes. Watson represented Bryan College, winning the AAC regular season conference in 2015, before making a national appearance in the NAIA in 2016.
But based in Sydney, having also played football in Australia for Sydney University, the University of NSW (UNSW), and Dunbar Rovers, he undoubtedly understands the quality at an NPL level. Not to mention that he closely followed the A-League in its early years.
Moving up the pyramid to the A-League, Watson cited a friendly between Sydney FC and LA Galaxy back in 2007 - played in front of over 80,000 people - to highlight the growth of the MLS and the perceived decline of the A-League Men.
“Remember years ago when Beckham was smashing it for LA Galaxy? Remember, they came over and played Sydney that one time. It was interesting; Sydney beat them 5-3, I went to the game, and Sydney were dominating," he said.
“You look at how the game has progressed over the last 15 years; I feel like the MLS just keeps rising, it’s on that trajectory, it just keeps getting better, versus, unfortunately, I feel like the A-League has gone backwards a little bit. There’s a number of different reasons as to why that is, and it’s a shame, really.
“I would view the A-League, probably lower MLS, USL Championship level; that’s where I would pitch it. It could be different; on any given day, you could see someone like Melbourne City maybe go out and do really well in the MLS; it’s a funny one.”
Meanwhile, on the women's side, the US has one professional women's football league, the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). The second tier consists of two amateur competitions, the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) and United Women's Soccer (UWS), each with its development leagues underneath. Then, like the men's side, there's the college pathway as well.
“The women’s game is progressing massively. You’ve got the NWSL over there, but underneath, you’ve got tier two, which some people call a pre-professional pathway. You’ve got all different leagues in here. You’ve got USL W League, the WPSL, the United Women’s Soccer Association. Now you’ve got the WPSL U21s league, so there’s a lot of opportunity in those lower leagues," Watson said.
“So, there’s a lot more opportunity, I think, in the women’s game, which sort of feeds into the WPSL over there, for example.
When comparing the quality between Australia's and America's women's football pyramid, Watson had similar thoughts to what he said about the men's game.
“There’s been a lot of girls that have come back that have played top-end D1 and come back in and played in the W-League here," he said.
“They’re (the US lower leagues) probably on par, I would say, with the women’s NPL leagues here, and that’s [with] having a good relationship with someone like (Gladesville) Ravens, who have just become an NPL 1 club here in the NSW Premier League, that I go and watch consistently, it’s probably quite a similar level in those lower leagues.
“But I do think they’ve just got more opportunity over there. There [are] more leagues, there’s more teams, there’s way more college programs, and you see a lot of the best college soccer players, they’ll go and play in those summer competitions…they’ll be open from May through to August, combining them with the college season."
Watson (left) and consultant Sam Jarrett (right) with client Chloe Walker (middle), who joined St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York, through Southern Cross Athletes. (Southern Cross Athletes)
The term 'opportunity' is something Watson referred to a lot. You only need to look at the pyramids on both sides at face value to understand the sizeable difference in opportunities.
Many reasons why this difference is apparent are understandable, and some are out of the hands of Football Australia and state federations nationwide. Watson agreed, detailing football's lack of funding in Australia.
“I think probably the biggest thing…it’s the access to the funding and the resources (in America) versus what we get here," he said.
“A big thing that we noticed when the World Cup just finished, I think Fox Sports, they released the funding that we get from the government. [It was] something ridiculous like sailing gets more funding than football, and I’m sure we're the most played sport under the age of 18 in this country. That money is just not filtering down.
“The problem is, you’ve got kids paying loads in registration fees, things like that - that does happen a little bit in the American system at a youth level as well. But from the top down, they’ve got access to more funding, with colleges and things like that, the money, and the resources they put into it, it allows you to have full-time coaches, it allows good quality coaches to be getting paid for it at a decent rate they can live off.
“We struggle for that in this country, I think. If you want to be a good coach and coach NPL football at youth level, you're not getting anywhere near enough to live off, unfortunately.
“You go over there, and these college coaches, they’re on full-time wages; it’s just a big difference.
“I think funding and resources is a big thing that America has more access to, and to be honest, they’ve got a better culture of getting around sport."
That last point, the difference in how Americans and Australians engage with sports, particularly football or soccer, is intriguing. Watson mainly refers to college sports. In basketball, for example, the NCAA March Madness tournament is a massive event in the US, with national coverage and broadcasting, even whilst the NBA is still in-season.
Watson explained how this culture is similar regarding soccer, with a story from when he was transferring during college that highlights the sports culture in America.
“I’ll never forget there was a time when I was transferring colleges; I went to visit a school in Dalton, Georgia, which is about an hour north of Atlanta. [A] small town, 50,000 people, and I went to go and meet a college coach at a local park because he was holding a coaching clinic. I’ll never forget when I walked in; there was a middle school soccer game going on. Middle school is like the equivalent of Year 4 to Year 8, so these kids would have been 10, 11, 12 years old," he said.
"It was a Thursday afternoon, three o’clock, I walked out onto this pitch, and they were playing on this beautiful Astro; there were corner posts, a beautiful scoreboard, they had four referees, everyone was kitted out in a great uniform, there was a grandstand full of people.
“I was like, ‘this is a middle school soccer game on a Thursday afternoon, look how the community has gotten around them’, so sport is just different over there. The way they get about it and population comes into it. But there’s probably a reason why America wins the Olympics every four years. It’s a different culture."
By comparison, Watson was somewhat scathing of Australian football, calling for more harmony across the board.
“Without slagging the game here, and I am a little bit, but there’s a lot of people out there that point fingers, and it would be nice if we could get a better unity about it and try and lift the game up,” he said.
Watson's contribution to helping Australian football is through Southern Cross Athletes. The business aims to help aspiring student-athletes - mainly footballers - reach their full potential by assisting them in the US college recruitment process. His team comprises ex-college athletes, including himself, who want to mentor other young Australians to pursue their college dream as they did.
SCA recognises that a 'holistic' approach is required in the recruitment process, focusing on academic and personal development and the athletic side.
Watson described the clientele the business consults with and how the nature of junior and NPL football in Australia leads high school and even university students to consider the US pathway.
“We do work off that funnel of once you get to 16s, you get an age group taken away, 18s, we have another age group taken away, and then you get to 20s, and if you’re not good enough for first grade, you’re going to park football, right?" Watson said.
“We usually work from Year 10 to first year out of high school, so before they’ve even got to the end of that 20s dream, they’re already looking for those other opportunities."
He again reiterated how important it is for aspiring student-athletes in Australia to understand the American system's opportunities.
“You’ve got three different leagues within NCAA, then you’ve got the NAIA, then you’ve got the junior college system, then you’ve also got another whole load of schools that work off separate associations which we don’t really market into. The NCAA and the NAIA are the main ones that we work into," Watson explained.
“You can go over, and get into a good college program, whether it’s NCAA, Division 1, 2, 3, NAIA, junior college. You can go and play in those summer leagues, and it provides a platform where you’re going to have a 20-odd game college season plus a 20-odd game season in your summer leagues. You blink, and you’re playing 50 games of football, which is more than what you’re playing in this country (Australia), whilst training every day at a really high standard.
“I think the biggest thing to reiterate is [that] there’s so many teams to choose from when you’re over there, and they all offer a very similar program where you train every day, you’ve got access to full-time coaches, facilities, resources."
By no means are SCA trying to prevent young footballers from continuing their journeys through the Australian system. As Watson explains, Australia cannot compete similarly with the development, opportunities, or standards.
“To be honest, I wish we had something similar in this country, but we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if we did," he said.
“Some clubs do it really well over here, some clubs don’t, and that’s just the reality.”
Nonetheless, it is at these clubs where SCA will extend its olive branch. Their credibility stems from understanding how the college system operates and learning from past experiences to formulate a process that best prepares their clients.
Watson certainly learnt from his college experience. In a blog on the SCA website, he details how a lack of preparation on his end made it difficult to choose the right school. But he also explained how receiving the right advice is paramount; guidance is crucial when making a life-altering decision.
“I went through a massive recruiting agency back in 2013. Without naming and shaming them, I didn’t get a whole lot of value for my money. They did find me a school and got me into the system, and I’ll forever be grateful for that, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know the intensity of the training, the schedule, how many games we play in a week," Watson said.
"I didn’t know what I needed to do in terms of my SAT results, and just getting a general understanding of what the college system looks like."
Watson would have learnt from his experience. But besides his knowledge, SCA has several resources and partnerships that aspiring student-athletes can use to help their athletic and academic preparation.
Watson expanded on SCA's relationships with Cyclops Performance, based in Blacktown, NSW, and YouStrive, a mental training program created by former Socceroo and Asian Champions League winner Shannon Cole.
“We’ve got a portal [where] kids can go in, they can study for an SAT exam, they can do practice questions, we offer tutoring services," he explained.
“From an athletic preparation, we’ve partnered with Cyclops Performance. These guys are a performance-based company that go through and do everything from physio, performance training, performance testing, nutrition work.
“We recently just did a big workshop with all our players; some of them have signed on, they’ve got personalised programs, specifically for footballers, and we’ve also done some mindset work with Shannon Cole and YouStrive, a brilliant business that helps young footballers on and off the park.
“So just giving these guys access to the resources and the tools to help them be the best possible version of themselves before they get over there is crucial because it’s different."
SCA follows a four-phase recruitment process to help footballers transition from junior or senior NPL football into the college system: evaluate, prepare, promote, and decide. It begins with evaluating the player.
“We want to find out in that evaluation phase what it is the family are looking for, and that could be anything from the football, the education, the cost, the location, and it’s just trying to weigh up their expectations and where we best feel they would be suited," Watson added.
“You need to evaluate the kid, understand the different conferences, the levels, where he’s playing, and where he might be best suited so he can ultimately go and have a good experience when he’s over there. So that’s the whole reason why we do phase one.
“Phase two, the preparation…it’s trying to make sure they’re prepared from an athletic, academic, personal perspective, and it’s getting all their highlight reels in order, it’s getting them through the SAT exam, it’s building their profile on our website so coaches can easily click through and see all their athletic, academic, their bio information, highlight reels.
“And then we move into promote. So it’s connecting them (the players) with coaches in our network, it’s helping to prepare for interviews, what to say, what not to say, giving them feedback before and after the call on the program, the coach, where we see them headed or how suitable we think that program is."
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Tiago Troyano, a Southern Cross Athletes client who represents Lawrence Tech University in the NAIA Championship. (Southern Cross Athletes)
The final step, the 'decide' phase, is picking the right program for the player and arguably SCA's most crucial. Watson stated that last year they had a youngster from the Central Coast Mariners system with roughly 25 schools interested in him. At a young age, such interest can be overwhelming for a footballer, so Watson and his team were there to help him narrow down the list.
The US system has its intricacies, and it can be complex to understand without the proper guidance. Watson explained how making connections and understanding the talent pool at each college or pre-professional level is vital.
“Understanding the different programs, the conference, the progression that they might have. A big thing I try and tell all the kids is can you go and speak to the coach and say, ‘How can you help me progress? Do you have connections in USL 2, NPSL, where I can go and continue playing throughout the summer?’ Because in those leagues, USL 2, NPSL, it’s all the best college soccer players; you don’t have to be D1. It’s D1 players, D2 players, D3, NAIA kids. If you’re good enough, you go and play for these teams in the summer," he said.
The summer competitions Watson mentions are where college players can get a taste of something akin to a professional environment and play against top-quality opposition. Finally, through more anecdotes, he elaborated on the surreal nature of the college pathway, with the crowds and quality of opposition Australian kids could play in front of and against particularly notable.
“My mates used to play at a club called Chattanooga FC, who have now been promoted to NISA, at the time they were NPSL. They’re playing in front of 5,000 fans every week. I’ll never forget the first game that I went [to] and watched them. They played Atlanta United in their inaugural game, and there were twenty-odd thousand people there. My roommate was marking Kenwyne Jones, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is where college soccer takes you,’ Watson said.
“Real Betis from La Liga came over one year and played them in a pre-season game. They’re playing in front of massive crowds; there’s a lot of professional coaches [and] top D1 programs looking at them; that’s the next step from college. I try and tell the kids, find yourself a coach that’s going to push you and get you into those competitions because most of the kids that come speak to us have a goal of being a professional footballer.”
One of SCA's clients, Elliot Forestier, could become their first to make it to the professional level. He has just signed for Pathfinder in New York. They play in the North-East Conference of USL 2, a pre-professional league. Forestier was playing for Sydney University's U20 side when he was referred to SCA. After one great year abroad, he's playing in a competition one tier below a professional level.
SCA continues working with youngsters like Forestier to help them realise their potential as college athletes. The business has started to connect with kids in Perth this year. They have already helped one in South Australia, previously had several in Queensland, and have clients that play at an NPL level in Victoria. They are most prevalent in New South Wales, though.
Forestier is one of those kids from New South Wales. Would he have progressed at the same pace in the NPL system? It is unlikely. The access to resources, quality coaching, more match minutes, and a far more professional environment caters for enhanced development in the US.
One could even say the Australian system should be a feeder to the American one. It's a fascinating idea, but first, local clubs and their promising young players should seek to understand more about the US college pathway.
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