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Tar Heels leap down the rabbit hole of pro soccer

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On Dec. 11, 2011, a jubilant North Carolina Tar Heels men's soccer team celebrated on a pitch in Hoover, Ala. Thanks to a 25-yard, left-footed strike from junior Ben Speas, the Tar Heels were national champions, defeating UNC-Charlotte 1-0.

Once the confetti had fluttered to earth, however, the worst-kept secret among even casual followers of American collegiate soccer was that the core of this team, including three underclassmen, would be gone from Chapel Hill by mid-January, off to pursue their professional aspirations.

The Tar Heels' quartet of All-Americans—Speas, Billy Schuler, Enzo Martinez and Matt Hedges—all landed pro contracts. A few days after three of them were drafted in the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 12, senior midfielder Kirk Urso, another starter, was drafted by the MLS in a "supplemental" draft.

Although college soccer, as a "non-revenue" sport, operates at a level far less visible than football and basketball, college soccer players are subject to rules that are, if anything, more complex and confusing. There is a level of player movement between the elite soccer schools that would be unthinkable in basketball and football (two of UNC's players were Tar Heels for only a season), and the career prospects and earning power of emerging college players can vary wildly—even among two players who were adjacent draft picks.

While college soccer players typically don't win million-dollar contracts as rewards for being a high draft pick, the business of soccer around the world has an impact on the role of universities in developing players. The divergent avenues each UNC player took to the pros not only serve as a primer to the byzantine rules governing MLS player eligibility, but they also speak to the challenges still facing American soccer in its struggle to retain this country's most promising young talent. It also illustrates the difficulties of reconciling this country's tradition of using colleges as an incubator of talent in a global soccer economy where young players are often affiliated with professional clubs before they reach their teens.

As a senior who entered the SuperDraft after concluding his college eligibility, Matt Hedges made the most straightforward entry into MLS, but his trip to Chapel Hill was unusual. After playing three years at Butler University, where he was named a second-team All-American, Hedges transferred to North Carolina for his senior season. As a Tar Heel, the 6-4 defender became a first-team All-American, buoying Carolina's backline while also netting six goals as a set piece threat. FC Dallas took Hedges as the 11th overall pick in the SuperDraft.

Although most players taken in the SuperDraft must then negotiate a contract and compete for a roster spot with their new club, Hedges was one of several highly rated seniors who inked a "senior contract" with the league prior to the draft. According to Hedges, his contract is a one-year guaranteed deal with three option years held by the league. (Major League Soccer is unusual among sports leagues in that player contracts are owned by the league, not the club.)

According to Hedges, there were two main reasons for transferring to North Carolina after three years at Butler.

"First, I wanted to go somewhere where I had the chance to compete for a national championship," said Hedges. "And, I wanted to go to a program with a higher profile, where more scouts went to matches, to prepare for going pro."

Under NCAA rules, any athlete transferring from one school to another must sit out a year unless the college he/she is leaving grants the athlete a release from their prior commitment. Being required to sit out a year is commonplace for college football and basketball transferees.

However, the culture of college soccer is quite different. When players switch one school for another they are almost routinely given a release to do so by their prior school, enabling players like Hedges and Speas to change teams without missing a season.

"If a player wants to transfer out of UNC, it would be a very rare case where we would deny them the chance to compete wherever they end up transferring," UNC soccer coach Carlos Somoano says. "That almost never happens."

According to Somoano, the school you deny today may deny you tomorrow. Moreover, the decision to restrict a player could affect your reputation among prospective recruits.

"If I'm a recruit and I know a school has a history of denying transfers, I might reconsider my choice of where to attend," says Somoano.

For Somoano, this is but one example of how external forces define not just the rules but the reality of college soccer in this country.

"I think it's just part of the natural progression of what's happening," says Somoano. "We're limited to 9.9 scholarships, so we get the best players that we can get and so does everybody else ... that's part of college soccer." (For perspective, consider that there are 85 scholarships permitted for a Division I college football program, 13 for men's basketball, 11.7 for baseball, 15 for women's basketball and 14 for women's soccer.)

"But, what ends up happening now with more underclassmen leaving, it leaves unexpected holes," continues Somoano. "How do we even plan our recruiting nowadays? Do we need that player or do we not need that player? Do we need this position or do we not? ... When is the guy going to leave [college], after one year or two?

"It becomes confusing on the recruiting end because you're so limited on scholarships, and then we can't spend, for example, the scholarship that Ben Speas was on until he's actually gone because we don't know if he's 100 percent leaving or not. This has all helped create the increased transfer situation."

Because he was an underclassman, highly touted junior midfielder Enzo Martinez ordinarily wouldn't have been eligible to enter the SuperDraft. But he was able to because the league offered him a Generation adidas (GA) deal. Generation adidas is a joint venture between MLS and U.S. Soccer with the stated goal of developing domestic talent. In practice, it encourages early entry of top underclassmen and other youth national team players. There are usually only about nine to 13 players chosen as GA players each year, selected through an inexact process carried out by league officials. Generation adidas contracts don't count against their club's salary cap for the first few years. This traditionally has enabled MLS teams to secure talented newcomers at an early age and at salaries that are competitive with European clubs. GA players are also guaranteed scholarships to complete their college education should their professional career not work out.

Martinez says he would have "absolutely" gone back to school had he not been offered a GA deal. But the honor of the selection, not to mention its benefits, made his decision to leave college early an easy one.

"I think MLS does a very good job at developing a player," says Martinez, who was born in Uruguay and grew up in South Carolina. "In some places, if you don't perform right away you're gone. Here, they give you all the opportunities to develop. Plus, I have family and friends here; I grew up in this country. Soccer here is growing and is going to continue to grow, so I think it's the perfect place to start a career."

Still, the Generation adidas program has its drawbacks and critics. Contracts carry the potential for a five-year commitment—which is not always appealing for players in a sport where you're often considered old at 30.

Martinez has a different perspective. "I don't think playing in MLS and being a part of a team like Real Salt Lake for five years is a bad thing," he says.

While GA salaries are relatively high, the starting contract for a senior selected in the SuperDraft can be as low as the league minimum of $40,000 per year. This year, Martinez was selected by Real Salt Lake with the 17th overall pick. He was the next to last of his Generation adidas class to be chosen, meaning that there were nine non-GA players picked ahead of him, including Hedges. Potentially, Martinez could be making far more money than some of the seniors picked ahead of him.

This allocation of league money bemuses Somoano.

"There's clearly an emphasis on getting underclassmen, which is great," says the Tar Heels' coach. "But it really shouldn't come at the expense of punishing the four-year players. The contracts that they're giving are better for the underclassmen regardless of abilities, so what they end up doing is saying to the guys who are good enough that if you stay [in college] for your fourth year, your contract probably won't be as good as it will be if you leave now. That doesn't make sense. Why should you be punished just for coming back a fourth year if you're a high quality player?"

Before this year's draft, the Columbus Crew announced that they signed Ben Speas, who as an underclassman was not otherwise eligible for the draft, to a "homegrown" contract. Speas, an Ohio native, spent two seasons at the University of Akron, which is a major college soccer power, and he also played with the Columbus Crew's developmental academy. MLS clubs maintain academies that are modeled on the system of development that exists elsewhere in the world, where playing for a college team is not part of the process.

Last summer, Speas, who was unhappy with his role on the Akron Zips, decided to transfer to UNC. Following the custom in college soccer, Akron granted him permission to take the field immediately for the Tar Heels.

By December, Speas' national profile had skyrocketed thanks to a spectacular run of form in the postseason, which included being named the most valuable player of the ACC Tournament and the NCAA College Cup. At season's end, he was named Soccer America's national player of the year. However, as a junior, he couldn't simply declare for the MLS draft. He'd have to be offered a Generation adidas contract by the MLS, or a homegrown contract by his affiliated MLS club.

"I'd have to wait until next year in order to be drafted unless I got Generation adidas," Speas explains. "But I wasn't offered that, so I spoke with the Crew. They can sign homegrowns whenever they think that they're ready, and that was definitely an advantage for me, just the fact that they identified me and wanted to bring me on board."

Established in 2006, the homegrown rule allows an MLS club to sign a player, including a college underclassman, to his first professional contract without subjecting him to the SuperDraft if the player has trained for at least one year in the club's youth development program prior to entering college. Two roster spots for each team are reserved for homegrown players whose salaries do not count toward the club's cap.

"In 2007 I was in the U.S. Residency program," says Speas. "When I came back my U.S. coaches thought it would be best if I got in with an academy team because that's the first year the academy started. Columbus Crew was the academy team in Ohio and is two hours away from where I live. Me and my parents decided that I should do that, so I joined the academy and I've played for the Crew ever since.

"That's how it is in Europe for the most part, and I think MLS is doing a good job in trying to mirror what they've done there."

Under the homegrown system, players can establish and maintain ties with an MLS club while developing through their system. Since their salary does not initially count toward the team's cap, homegrown contracts tend to be somewhat higher than those extended to players taken in the SuperDraft, though distinctly less than Generation adidas salaries.

According to Brian Bliss, technical director the Columbus Crew, once a club lists a player on their talent identification list, they essentially establish a claim on that player's rights not unlike the discovery signing rules, with the homegrown club's right to first refusal extending at least until the player exhausts his college eligibility (and perhaps beyond).

Somoano notes that being designated a homegrown player may inhibit a player's ability to extract maximum value for himself.

"Even a homegrown player, because he's attached to a club, probably isn't going to get as good a contract as if he wasn't a homegrown player if he's a marketable guy because he's tied to that one entity," says Somoano. "The club knows they have them, so there's no competing interest except for overseas. The irony is that rule was put in place to help these players, but now perhaps it has a little bit of an unintended consequence."

Soccer journalist Ives Galarcep recently wrote that after years of robust Generation adidas contracts, MLS sought to curtail GA salaries for the 2012 class. At the same time, the league seems to be shifting resources to their academy programs and homegrown players.

Some speculate that this emphasis on academies will eventually diminish, if not eliminate, college soccer as a breeding ground for American soccer talent. Already, high school soccer has been eclipsed as ambitious players choose to channel their training through club teams operated by the likes of Capital Area Soccer League (CASL), Triangle United and many others around the country.

"We recruit from U.S. soccer academy clubs for the most part now, whereas other schools recruit from high schools," says Somoano.

"We rarely visit a kid in high school or watch his high school team. You want to see the players compete at the highest standard, and high school isn't as challenging as the others.

"We can only afford to recruit so much budget-wise and time-wise, so we are going to spend our resources where we can see the most good players at the same time. For us to go watch one good player in a high school environment versus watching 22 in an academy game doesn't make sense financially or from a resource point of view."

While Speas, Hedges and Martinez (along with Urso, who will fight for a contract with the Columbus Crew this spring) found very different routes to the pros via the MLS bylaws, there is another route: overseas.

On a team full of stars, Billy Schuler often shone the brightest. After missing the 2010 season with a shoulder injury, the redshirt junior forward led the Tar Heels with 16 goals in 2011, eight of them game winners. The Allentown, N.J., native, who also earned All-America honors in 2009, possesses a prized combination of speed, skill with the ball and a dramatic flair. Schuler was highly prized by the MLS, and was offered a Generation adidas contract shortly after the Tar Heels claimed the national title. But after reflection, and consultations with his new agent, Schuler chose to sign with Hammarby IF, a second-division club based in Stockholm, Sweden.

Speaking to the Indy by telephone in Stockholm, Schuler says that he nearly accepted the Generation adidas offer.

"Since my season with North Carolina ended, MLS was my most likely destination," Schuler admitted. "They had the most interest and it was concrete interest—it would be almost a sure thing. But then Hammarby came into the picture, and it was really exciting because it was an opportunity to go overseas."

One important link between Schuler and Hammarby proved to be the club's newly hired American coach, Gregg Berhalter, who played at UNC in the mid-1990s before embarking on a successful playing career in Europe and for the U.S. national team.

"You follow the college season and you see who's having a good year and you keep tabs on these people," says Berhalter.

"[Billy's] very good at turning to goal, he's good in tight spaces and he has a knack for scoring goals," Berhalter says. "[In] the Swedish league, you need to be good in tight spaces."

The opportunity to play in a culture where soccer is a passion was a powerful factor for Schuler.

"It's just a different atmosphere over here," says Schuler. "The Hammarby fans, and the fans in Europe in general, are so into soccer and I've never experienced anything like that. It's all soccer over here, and that's something I wanted to experience."

"If you're able to come to this stadium and see the fans and the atmosphere during the game it's exceptional," confirms Berhalter. "There's a lot of upside here at the club."

For Schuler, the sheer length of the GA commitment carried the potential to inhibit his ambitions and earning potential.

"The Generation adidas deal I was offered is a five-year contract," explains Schuler. "It's a two-year guaranteed contract with three option years that the club holds. So, if there is European interest or something, the club would have to let you go, which is usually not very easy. I'm going to turn 22 in a few months, and that would kind of hold me down in MLS until I'm 26. For me, that's a long time."

If Schuler succeeds at Hammarby, he would be able to quickly and dramatically increase his earning potential, either by renegotiating his contract or seeking a move to a bigger club. But money seems to be a secondary concern for him to simply living the life of a European footballer.

"I just want to play professionally for a living," says Schuler. "And Europe is the place to play soccer. MLS is great, but it's Europe that has the most potential. I'm at Hammarby now and I could stay here for the rest of my career or maybe I get picked up by another team. Who knows? Maybe I come back to MLS after a failed stint with the team. I don't know.

"But I feel like there's a lot more potential in Europe to do something, and do it for a living, than maybe in MLS."

While each UNC player successfully reached the professional ranks by different routes, the question remains whether this fragmentation ultimately helps or hinders overall player development and the growth of soccer in the United States.

"I think the major issue for soccer in this country is that you have so many different entities pulling in so many different directions," says Somoano. "We'd all be better off if we came to a conclusion that it's better developing players together than everybody fighting for their own piece of the pie.

"U.S. Soccer Academy has one thing in mind, college soccer has another thing in mind and MLS has their suggestions. So, everybody has their own rules, and I just think a unified approach where we're trying to help youth soccer and youth soccer is trying to help us, and we're trying help pro soccer and vice versa, would certainly make soccer better in this country."

A fuller profile of Billy Schuler was published on Triangle Offense, the Indy's sports blog.

Correction (Jan. 25, 2012): Speas was in the U.S. Residency program in 2007, not 2010.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Tar Heels in wonderland."

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