No matter what anyone says, one thing is true about most youth soccer players: they have big dreams.
As they go through their youth, the dreams may shift: the youngest may dream about being the next Lionel Messi or Carli Lloyd, while the older players may have visions of donning the uniform of their favorite college or university. Regardless, there is an end game of some kind, and it usually involves playing in a stadium, in front of a crowd, and maybe even lifting a trophy.
FC Alliance shares these dreams with their players. For every player who comes to the club with a goal, there is a plan. The club believes that every young athlete, regardless of age and ability, should have their dreams nurtured and everything should be done to help them reach their goals. And if the goals are out of reach, the club helps players set new goals, ones that are both attainable and fulfills the longstanding dreams of a young soccer player. This philosophy has resulted in 340 players from FC Alliance moving on to college soccer since 2010- an average of nearly 35 per year.
It is foolish to mention the concept of “college” with the club’s younger players. However, it is wise for every parent of every youth soccer player to understand the process. By understanding the process, parents can make the best long-term decision for their children, by getting them into the program that will provide the best long-term path. There is nothing worse than realizing after the fact that your child didn’t get all the tools he or she needed to be successful in something he or she loves.
“So much goes into it,” said Chad Stocton, FC Alliance’s college recruiting coordinator. “College coaches don’t come crawling to you just because you’re a good player. There is so much more than that. Getting into college soccer is much different than, let’s say, college football or basketball.”
One thing not all people realize is that the recruiting landscape for college soccer has changed considerably in the last decade, especially with the rise of national leagues such as Elite Club National League (ECNL) and Development Academy (DA). It is important to understand that state leagues and regional leagues have almost no impact on recruiting. College coaches rarely bother with club tournaments or high school games. Scrimmages with local college programs can be a piece of the puzzle, but players need much more. For example, competing in the right national events and league games gets a player seen by sixty, seventy, and sometimes over a hundred college coaches.
Of course, being seen is not enough. Players must also impress.
“You want to be seen by as many coaches as possible, and then you want those coaches to see you as recruitable,” Stocton pointed out. “You have to check a lot of boxes. You need to have the right training and skills, a solid tactical foundation, and most importantly, have played in a high-level environment that replicates the quality of college games.”
This explains the attraction college coaches have to national leagues and prominent youth soccer clubs. They view a large portion of the players in these leagues and clubs as college-ready. In contrast, being the proverbial big fish in a small pond (specifically someone who dominates lower levels of play) often does not translate to college success. College coaches are looking for players who are ready to compete. This is why approximately 70% of the SEC (Tennessee Volunteers, Florida Gators, Alabama Crimson Tide, etc.) comes from the ECNL, and a solid portion of the other 30% are international recruits. Just like any college sport, coaches want players who are as close to a “sure thing” as possible. “Projects” (unrefined players) are a risk.
TO PLAY MAJOR COLLEGE SOCCER:
The lines between the different levels of college soccer are thin. For major college soccer, players are primarily recruited through top leagues such as Elite Clubs National League and Development Academy. Major college coaches primarily recruit these leagues because not only do the best players play in them, but these leagues offer players consistent high quality competition that readies them for the next level. FC Alliance offers one of these leagues: ECNL. The only other club in Tennessee that offers these leagues is Tennessee Soccer Club in Nashville.
The ECNL is currently considered by many as the top girls soccer league in the United States and one of the top girls leagues in the world. In a perfect society, the best girls in East Tennessee would all be encouraged to try out for an FC Alliance ECNL team. Ideally, they would all join together on one team, play in the top league in the country, and work together to create the most opportunities for each other.
Of course, this notion creates a dilemma for other coaches and clubs: protecting the quality of your team versus doing what is best for the individual player. The simple fact is that if a girl can play ECNL, she should; especially if she is serious about advancing to the collegiate game.
On the boys side, it is the same scenario. Nearly 100% of the best boys players in East Tennessee are served best by playing in Boys ECNL. It is one of the nation’s top boys leagues, behind only the MLS DA programs. Boys from East Tennessee who dream of playing at the highest level have the best chance of achieving that by playing on an FC Alliance ECNL team. In the same perfect society, these ECNL teams should also be the gathering spot for the top players in the area. The only exception might be if an MLS team comes calling; then the club may advise a player to take a spot if they are willing to move to another city (one player recently moved to Kansas City to play for Sporting KC). Philosophically, the club firmly believes it is wrong to dissuade a player from pursuing the best opportunity. The competitive nature of coaches may make that difficult; however, the club emphasizes honest and fair guidance.
“You never want to lose one of your best players,” commented Jon Schneider, FC Alliance’s executive director. “But you have to do the right thing. The individual player has to come first.”
“The vast majority of boys will find tremendous opportunities with what we offer,” Stocton pointed out. “No one in the area comes close to offering what we can, especially with the leagues and events.”
What if a player does not make an ECNL team? First off, one thing to know is that each club gets to enter two ECNL teams at the U19 age group: U19 and U19 composite. This means a club's top 35-40 players can participate. For those who never play ECNL, opportunities are still abound. The club puts a major emphasis on getting all players recruited who want to be; this includes players who are playing on FC Alliance College Pathway teams instead of the ECNL teams.
“Our goal is to get every player a spot in college soccer who wants one,” stated Director of Coaching Josh Gray. “We have a strong history of getting players from all levels of play into schools that they like.”
Statistics support this. One year, the club sent 31 of 32 girls in one age group to college soccer. Another year, players from three different boys teams in the same age group advanced. The key is a strong support structure guided by experienced coaches and directors. Club staff knows exactly what they are doing when they help players embark on the journey to the next level.
HOW FC ALLIANCE HELPS PLAYERS:
First off, club directors advise families to join FC Alliance as early as possible. The sooner a player gets the right training, the better he or she will be. There is a development plan for players that begins at the youngest ages.
“There is a misconception that you can just show up at U14 and have all the tools needed,” explained Gray. “We can still develop you at that age, but the best bet is to join the program much earlier. It makes it so much easier for the coaches and the players.”
College coaches seem to agree. Middle Tennessee Head Coach Aston Rhoden gave this ringing endorsement of FC Alliance in a signing day media release: “[FC Alliance’s] philosophy and style of play fits well with us so we typically recruit from there.”
The NCAA Division 1 Blue Raiders currently has four FC Alliance players on the roster with another two signed in the 2018 class.
Having relationships with college programs is huge. It is not an uncommon thing for schools to fly in to Knoxville to attend an FC Alliance practice. FC Alliance directors, including Chad Stocton, have a great relationship with many of these coaches from years of interaction.
“I feel like these schools trust us,” said Stocton. “We never overhype a player; it isn’t fair to the school or the player. However, we feel like we can reach out to schools if a player is being overlooked. We can be a safety net.”
So how does everything work?
(1) The club trains players to be college-ready from U7-U19, ultimately making them attractive to schools.
(2) The club gets players the right type of exposure for their level of play (leagues, showcases, etc.).
(3) The club makes sure there is contact between the player and the school if there is mutual interest.
(4) The club makes sure colleges get accurate input about players.
(5) The club guides the player through the recruiting and decision-making process.
(6) The club communicates with recruiters to make sure everything is going smoothly for both sides.
(7) The club posts the players picture on club social media on signing day!
“We will give you all the help you need,” said Gray. “The day you tell us you have a dream, we will do everything we can to help you achieve it.”