College soccer players focus on their education

Former USF goalkeeper Troy Perkins found his way into Major League Soccer on a developmental contract. He’s carried a second job throughout his three-year career. AP PHOTO

In college athletics, players often leave school early in search of professional success. For college soccer players, however, graduation is an important factor for success.

American soccer players sometimes have to accept what are known as “developmental contracts” to pursue dreams of playing professionally. The money a player makes while under a developmental deal is barely enough to pay the bills, and players are forced to take on a second job.

Former USF goalkeeper Troy Perkins accepted a developmental deal from Major League Soccer’s D.C. United in 2003. He took a job with a sporting goods retail chain to help make ends meet.

“You don’t make any money – especially in (Washington) D.C.,” Perkins said. “I didn’t have health insurance at the time and I was making less than minimum wage. But it was an opportunity to fulfill a dream, and I wanted to make the most of it.”

Perkins is one of many to battle through a developmental deal and into a league

minimum contract. Players such as national team striker Chris Rolfe and Colorado’s Herculez Gomez, who made his first appearance in a USA uniform last summer, also started with a humble eight dollars an hour beginning.

“I was lucky,” Perkins said. “I fell into a club that honors hard work. Those first two years are huge and there is a lot of pressure to have some success, because your window of opportunity to make it in the league isn’t that big.”

For players in the same situation as Perkins once was, a college degree is a valuable asset.

“In this world a high school diploma isn’t enough anymore,” Perkins said. “Once I got my league minimum contract I was able to quit the sporting goods store. For the last two years I had a job with a real estate company that just closed its doors. I’ve got some offers right now and I’ll tell you, a college degree is something you have to have when you’re on the job market.”

USF coach George Kiefer echoed Perkins’ thoughts on the matter.

“If MLS wants you, they’ll offer you a league contract,” Kiefer said. “But these developmental deals aren’t enough if you have a family or want to start one. Especially if you live in a big market, you can’t meet your basic needs on that kind of salary.”

Kiefer and his coaching staff have begun applying even more pressure to their players to focus on academics as well as sports.

“These days a bachelor’s degree isn’t what it once was,” Kiefer said. “We try to get our guys to graduate in three to three and a half years and begin pursuing a master’s degree.”

Perkins agreed with that philosophy, saying he has continued his studies since finishing his bachelor’s degree at Evansville and wants to go back for his master’s at some point.

Soccer players aren’t known for leaving school early to pursue careers in the professional ranks, but it happens. Just last year, USF lost two players who decided to go on to play professionally before finishing school.

Defender Anthony Wallace left after only one year with USF to join the MLS club FC Dallas. He’s played 69 minutes in one match with the team this season.

Former Bulls forward Rodrigo Hidalgo left after his junior season to play with the United Soccer League’s Minnesota Thunder. Hildalgo saw his share of time on the field last season, playing in 22 matches.

“It’s a big risk,” Kiefer said. “If you get hurt or your career just doesn’t pan out the way you hope it will, you need something to fall back on. Even if you’re successful, there is going to come a day when you can’t play anymore, and in soccer you don’t make the millions they make in other sports; you have to move on to something and you’re going to need a college degree.”

As for players leaving college early, it’s not something Kiefer can see becoming a major problem for college soccer programs in the near future.

“It isn’t like other sports,” Kiefer said. “In football or basketball where these kids are being offered millions they’ve got something to think about. But in soccer the money offered isn’t good enough to replace the long term investment of getting a degree.”