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Is College or Academy the Way Forward for Youth Development in Major League Soccer?

There are two ways to cultivate youth in Major League Soccer. Based on recent evidence which is better in Major League Soccer?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There is often discussion amongst supporters of MLS teams in regards to which way is the right way to bring youth into the professional game. As it stands now, there are two ways a young player can make it as a pro. They can go to college, graduate, and declare themselves for the MLS SuperDraft or they can join a professional team's academy and come up as young player through a club's development system. The former represents how youth development is conducted in North America, whereas the latter is a European-based method.

Both have their pros and cons. There exists a third way, called Generation Adidas, that lets a player play professionally without having graduated college, but for the sake of this discussion, we will look at the college draft and academy system and see how both pertain to Toronto FC.

When looking at the college route, we can see that this has historically been the preferred method for players to go professional in virtually every sport in North America. It has largely worked for the big sports in the region (NFL, MLB, NBA) and produced some exceptional players over the years.

However, soccer is a different beast altogether. According to NCAA statistics, only 1.4% of college soccer players make it to pro. Additionally, some players are invited to combines for the NASL and USL pro, from which they are selected for those respective leagues.

(source: NCAA) (includes only college to MLS ratios)

When looking at previous draft picks from Toronto FC, not too many stand out as having been top performers. A lot have left the club and become journeymen around the MLS or lower.
Two players, however, that do stand out are Maurice Edu and Stefan Frei. Maurice Edu holds the distinction of being the club's first ever draft pick and lived up to his billing on the pitch. Edu would end his debut season by becoming MLS Rookie of the Year and earning himself a transfer to Scottish giants, Rangers, the following season.

Stefan Frei, who was drafted in 2009, would become a good goalkeeper for Toronto FC and currently is first-choice for the Seattle Sounders. There are others such as Luis Silva and Kyle Bekker who have achieved some success in MLS.

However, the vast majority of players drafted by TFC did not make the cut and have since been applying their trade in lower division or smaller leagues abroad. Yet there are still others who hope to impress at TFC and become staples in the first-team. Such players include Nick Hagglund, Daniel Lovitz, and Clement Simonin.

The academy system, though still a new concept in North America, is the other option for player development in MLS. Most teams within the league have started to make use of this method to develop young players to their own liking and playing style. A youth academy gives club's a chance to train players the way they want to. Expert coaches are usually hired to train youth in fitness, tactics, and soccer philosophy. A few players have even started coming out of these academies and into various first team squads within the league. Moreover, the introduction of reserve teams in the USL Pro league is a nice bridge between the academy system and the first team.

Toronto FC has had one the better academies in Major League Soccer. Notable graduates include Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan. Doneil Henry has gone on to play in England for Blackburn Rovers, on loan from West Ham. Ashtone Morgan remains with Toronto FC and is a member of the first team. There are many up and coming players from the academy, who are thought to have bright futures. Such players include Jordan Hamilton, Quillian Roberts, and Jay Chapman. All three players have been invited to TFC preseason in 2016. There are still others that have graduated from the TFC academy, but failed to make the cut to the first team.

When comparing and contrasting both systems, it can be said that going to college gives players an education to fall back on, in case things do not work out on the pitch. However, the academy system gives young players a professional atmosphere from the beginning.

The probability of making it as a professional is slim to begin with, but the academy system would likely edge ahead for giving players chance, as they are specifically recruited at a young age. Another important thing of note is that the step up from the academy to USL Pro does not affect a player's amateur status, so the individual player can still participate in college athletics if they should choose.

It is ultimately in the hands of young players and their guardians to choose the path that they are most comfortable with. There are merits in both options. Some value education in the highest regard, others just want to play soccer. Both systems will be around MLS for a long time.

What do you think is better for player development?