Steve Swanson, who guided the USA to the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup title in September, has coached women's college ball since 1990. After stints at Dartmouth and Stanford, he has coached the University of Virginia since 2000. He spoke with us about the perils of a recruiting system that has girls commit to colleges when they’re still sophomores or 9th-graders.
Part 1: College recruiting starts too young
SOCCER AMERICA: It’s become common practice for college coaches to offer scholarships to 10th and even 9th graders – and for players that young to commit to a college …
STEVE SWANSON: I think it’s one of the biggest potential problems that college athletics has as a whole. It’s happening with our sport in particular. We’re getting earlier and earlier.
It’s a serious enough problem, the [college] presidents have to be involved.
If this was strictly a job situation, who would make a $50,000 investment after seeing a player play for five minutes, or one game in one tournament, three years out before they go to that college?
That’s insane. But because we’ve gone down this road, because the ball is rolling, coaches feel, "Hey, we’ve got to do this for us to stay up."
It’s a disservice to student-athletes, to the parents, to the coaches. You’re don’t have all the information. You’re going to make poor choices.
SA: Considering how expensive it is to send a child to college, wouldn’t one expect parents to be fine with their 14- or 15-year-old daughter accepting a scholarship?
STEVE SWANSON: Would you want your daughter to figure out who she’s going to marry at 14 or 15? They don’t even know themselves.
I get the financial side. But I don’t think there’s one person -- I don’t think there’s a college sophomore who gets up in the morning, they go out, they have a coffee, and they breathe in deep and they say, "I’m happy here because I’m on a full ride."
That ain’t happening. They get up in the morning and they’re happy because they’re at the right place that fits with what they want, what their needs are, on and off the field.
My concern is we’re only doing this because of the finances.
I see more and more people transferring. More and more decisions that are reversing themselves because it wasn’t the right fit one way or the other.
SA: Does this early-recruitment have a negative effect on the USA’s effort to improve at the highest level of women’s soccer?
STEVE SWANSON: One of my biggest concerns in our sport is we tend to rely so much on the physical aspect. There are some other aspects that in the long run are going to benefit more.
The tough thing we have in college is we’re being asked to evaluate players when they’re freshman in high school and pull this crystal ball out for four years down the road, and say, "Hey here’s where you’re going to be!"
I think any coach in our sport who’s saying where this player’s going to be technically, tactically, mentally – they’re just fooling themselves. And I think we have to be really careful with that.
The easy thing for a lot of college coaches, a lot of club coaches, is to go for the physical side. You know what that’s going to be. It’s probably not going to change that much.
More often than not I think the selection process, the evaluation process is looking at the physical. It’d be one thing if we were swimming or track. The college coach says, "Hey you run the mile in 3:53, so I don’t care what your technique is, how you run, because that’s better than any college runner I have right now."
But soccer is so much different. There are so many things that go into it.
I worry about the kids. How much growth can happen between [high school] freshman and junior years? You can see amazing amounts of growth. A freshman may believe a mid-major college is about as good as they’ll get, but by their junior year they’re unbelievable and now they want to challenge themselves and play in the best conference.
SA: I’ve heard one reason players so young commit to a college is to get the process over with …
STEVE SWANSON: There’s a lot of pressure. It’s sad that for them recruitment has gotten stressful. It should be enjoyable. It should be fun to explore, go to schools. It’s become stressful and they just want to get the thing over with.
We don’t even have official visits. A student can’t make them until you’re a senior. They’ve already made the decision two years ago.
They visit all those schools on their own. The beauty of an official visit is I can pay for you to come out here. Pay for you look at this school.
SA: So players, because they pay their own way to visit colleges, may be less likely to explore opportunities farther away from home?
STEVE SWANSON: How would they know another option wouldn’t be a better fit without visiting?
SA: The pressure to commit early is applied by the coaches because they want to lock in who they think are the top players?
STEVE SWANSON: If I really wanted you and was willing wait for you, I would tell you that. Some other coach might say, "I’m moving forward here and you’re going to have to make your decision." There are a lot of coaches out there pushing the envelope. They want to get a body into their program as soon as they can. They want to get their recruiting tied up as soon as they can.
In football you don’t wrap that kid up until they sign. Our sport is different. We have this kind of collegial agreement if somebody verbally commits, that’s it. The recruiting’s done. But a coach might gain a verbal agreement by less than moral means. Maybe they say to a sophmore, "Here’s the scholarship. You have a week to decide. I’m not going to let you look at other schools." I think there’s some things ethically wrong with that.
This is the same person who, if you committed at a very early age, for financial reasons, gets all upset if another coach came in to recruit -- even though that’s completely within the rules.
SA: What’s your advice for young players who are being pressured to commit at a young age?
STEVE SWANSON: Never commit somewhere unless you have all the information about the school, the soccer program. There are a lot of players out there who have made those commitments early and are very happy. But I think what’s happening is there are a lot of players that are equally unhappy.
If a coach really wants you, they’re going to wait for you.
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Part 2: Strides made; improvement still needed
SOCCER AMERICA: Previous U.S. players at U-20 World Cup -- which the USA also won in 2002 and 2008 – who went on to star for the full national team include Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly and Rachel Buehler. Do you expect we’ll see players from your U-20 squad star at the highest level?
STEVE SWANSON: I think there are a lot of players on that roster who can compete at the next level. They’re young. I think history shows there’s often a significant lag time between somebody playing on the under-20 level and their introduction into the full team. Yes, you get some outliers, like Alex Morgan.
But there’s a time frame … how they continue to grow, how they continue to develop. I think a lot of them have the makeup in their game to make it at the next level. I’m hesitant [to predict which ones] because I feel strongly there are a lot of late-bloomers.
SA: What was the key to success at the tournament in Japan?
STEVE SWANSON: It’s cliché saying you have to be a team, but you’re talking about the best players in the country at their age. Players who are extraordinarily talented who probably have never had to accept a different role that they might not like. They did an incredible job of understanding, "Hey, if we’re going to win this, everybody’s got to play a role. Everybody’s got to trust one another. We’ve got to push each other. This is all about the team and the goal of winning the World Cup."
We had to stay together to win. We had to stay true to our style, which was to possess the ball. To try and move the ball. To try and build out of the back. I’m not saying we did that consistently over 90 minutes throughout the tournament as much as we would have liked, but we tried to stay true to that.
SA: It has become almost a mantra that American players need to improve technically. What have you seen on this front since becoming involved in youth national team coaching 12 years ago and from the players who’ve come into the college game in the past two decades?
STEVE SWANSON: There’s no question we made strides technically.
We had talented technical players [12 years ago], but I think on average we’re getting better and you’re seeing more players with the ability to handle the ball. More players with the ability to do different things.
That was one of things we emphasized with this U-20 group. We tried to emphasize and prioritize the technical side first in some of our selections.
I kind of liken it to golf. You’re on the golf course and you’ve got a putter, a 5-iron, a driver in your bag – you can only play so many shots. I think there’s more clubs in the bag now for our players. They can play different balls. They can do different things because of that.
SA: So you believe the youth game environment is now more conducive to producing technical players?
STEVE SWANSON: One thing that’s definitely improving is the coaching. I do think that happened. You can really see that.
When I go back 20 years when I first started coaching college soccer, the recruits now are a much more technically and tactically gifted group. So I think the coaching has gotten better. I think the education is out there.
But we still need to improve. I think maybe clubs need to realize how important it is to put the best coaches at the young ages. That’s going to be very helpful developing technique at a younger age.
I still think we can get better. We must improve. We’re not the most technical team in the world. There’s not just one – there are several countries that are better than us technically now.
SA: What is something about the American system that might not optimal for preparing players for the highest levels?
STEVE SWANSON: One of the things I noticed – and this is hard to say without getting wrath – is there is a huge difference between the international level and the college and club level. In terms of dictating tempo, playing a possession type of game.
I think we [in college and club] have a luxury because we can make so many substitutions. If we wanted to, we could press the whole game without having to worry about the legs or fitness, because we can make multiple subs. Whereas at the international level, you can make three moves and that’s it. The fitness aspect, the playing aspect, the tempo of a game. Changes in the tempo of a game. It requires more from players at the international level because the coach can't make so many changes.
I’m not advocating we go to the international [sub rules] at college, but I think we need to look at some sort of medium where we can bridge that gap.
Our sport is awesome in getting numbers out, participation. I’m not advocating this at the younger ages. But at some point we need to be thinking about that.
And how many different rules do we have at this country? You’ve got college, high school, club. I’m not sure other countries have that same situation.