The first Wednesday in February brings College Soccer Signing Day. For the vast majority of young men and women it is the finally stage of their playing careers. For the best high school and academy players in the country, a means to an end. While it has become easier to track on the field progress of the top youth players’, years of planning and networking ,off the field, leads to coaches putting a letter of intent in front of the player.
At this year’s National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) convention Mike Jacobs, the newly elected NSCAA President, Vice President of Development for the United Soccer League and former men’s college coach, revealed his trade secret in the seminar “Recruiting Secrets to Success in College Soccer.” In a conversation at the convention in Philadelphia, Jacobs provided insight as to the best way to get on a coach’s radar and the essentials to navigating the process.
“I was always most impressed with prospects who were proactive themselves,” confessed Jacobs. “The parents, who micromanage this process, scare away college coaches. The parents, who mismanage this process, tend to have children who aren’t independent.”
Before Jacob’s nine years as Head Coach of the University of Evansville, he served as an assistant coach handling recruiting for UE’s men programs and at Duke University. While at Duke the team reached the College Cup Semifinals in 2004, won the Atlantic Athletic Conference championship in 2005, and he received the inaugural NSCAA National Assistant Coach of the Year award.
In Jacob’s experiences 99% of questions from parents and prospective student-athletes fit into four categories: athletics, social, academics, and financial. The students are most concerned with the two former, with the parents worried about the two latter. The student-athletes want to have a place on the team and be happy for their four years. Parents are anxious about return on investment.
“Parents, focus their energy on that more so than trying to be an agent for the players. I would say more coaches are turned away by the parent/agent,” admits Jacobs.
Parents and players need to think strategically as to the path their children follow when it comes to playing in clubs or academies. It is important to think about their playing career as a resume. Cost and location are always a factor in picking clubs or academies, but much like their education, it is an investment. Obviously prospects in US Development Academy (USDA) will appear on more recruiting radars at a younger age. Not attending a USDA does not eliminate a students’ opportunity for a scholarship or admission to their target school. USDA is a shop window on Broadway. Eighth Avenue does a lot business too.
View the student’s playing career as a job in a highly desirable field, you need to network or build references. Parents need to research both the program and the coaches at clubs and academies. Find a youth coach with a pipeline to their child’s target schools. If a coach has gotten a few player recruited to a college, they likely have connections. Coaches will use it as a selling point, so take advantage of it.
“The same way the parents have a certain level of trust for the child in this process, the team they play for is critical, because the college coach doesn’t want to talk to the parent. They want to talk to their youth coach,” said Jacobs. “The creditability or equity the kid is going to have is based on the reference of their club coach.”
Once the child displays an interest and ability to go beyond the local youth soccer leagues it is time for the parent to start strategizing about the child’s next move. College programs do not have the resource or time to attend high school matches given the overlap in seasons. It is necessary for those serious about playing at the college level to play soccer all year around. In Jacobs’ seminar with parents he recommends that parents consider practical club and academy experience which involves finding the appropriate competition level and if the team matches the player’s ability. Just as important as the coach who will speak on behalf of their child to get them to the next level of competition and college.
Jacobs points out that Bob Bradley did not coach Michael Bradley’s team until he drafted him to the New York Metro Star at the age of 16. It is unfair or at least unwise to ask a parent for an unbiased opinion. Jacobs, who coached his own son at the University of Evansville, said he would “never reference his own child. I would say, ‘why don’t you go watch him play?’ Any phone call that I use to get from a parent, I never called back,” recalls Jacobs. “An email I got from a parent, I very rarely responded with anything more than a formal letter.”
Jacobs strongly believes College ID Camps are the future of recruiting. Monmouth was able to get a second look at two-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year and recent Major League Soccer Superdraft selection Matt Jeffery when he attended their College ID Camp. Monmouth Head Coach Robert McCourt helped Jeffery get into USDA Player Development Academy after the visit. He recommends any student-athlete entering his or her freshman year of college to their senior year to attend camps of their target schools.
According to Jacobs, the 5-day-4-night camps are outdated, between the availability of quality academies and clubs playing all year around and at the cost of several hundred dollars, it can be a difficult financial commitment for only a week. For college programs to cut costs, he said coaches are not attending as many college showcases. Jacobs considers ID Camps a “fast food type of type of recruiting opportunity.” ID camps are a one or two day commitments that involve a tour of a campus, a visit to the admission office and a tryout. For the child and parent it allows the player to evaluate if they can play at that level of competition and the possibility of receiving a scholarship. While at Duke, on the final day of the camp Jacobs’ responsibility was to provide the parents with the honest assessment. At the very least, it displays the level of seriousness of the coaching staff.
Junior and County Colleges may be the final resort for students to receive admission to their target school. Due to academic demands, however, the county college route is not viable for some schools. For a highly selective university such as Duke, transfer is not an option. Middle major schools such as Evansville and Iona, Jacobs’ other two jobs, recruit junior and county college transfers heavily. Oumar Ballo, selected 30th overall by the Houston Dynamos in the Superdraft, transferred from Community College of Baltimore County-Essex after one season to the 2014 College Cup semifinalist UMBC. For Jacobs the process of selecting a junior college is no different than selecting a club. You need to research and find out who has a track of moving student-athletes onto 4-year universities.
The lack of resources men and women soccer programs have at their disposal requires more work from the parents and prospective student-athletes. Jacobs believes that eventually the best players will be discovered. That does not mean it is not without a lot of planning and help.