Should I Play College Soccer If I Want To Play Pro?

Historically in the United States, college soccer has been seen as the route to a professional contract. 

Those times are changing. 

In 2008, 68.8% of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) players played at least a season in college. By 2018, only 39.8% had participated in any US college program.

Historically, the USMNT has recruited both domestically (via MLS) and internationally. The decline in USMNT players who played college is for two reasons:

  • More US players are moving abroad at younger ages. 
  • More MLS teams are recruiting directly from academies instead of college.

Is college still a viable route to professional soccer? Here’s what we know.

How Do You Go Pro in the United States?

Prior to 2008, nearly all MLS franchises prioritized recruitment from the MLS draft. It was the way MLS teams recruited top American talent. Regardless of the MLS academy you played for, you could attend the draft and sign for any MLS franchise. 

Entering the draft meant players could sign for any MLS franchise regardless of their college or academy affiliations. A player who participated in the FC Dallas academy could attend college in North Carolina and sign for LAFC. As players could freely move between academies, this provided no incentive for MLS academies to produce top talent. The risk of losing them to college or the MLS draft was too high. 

This model meant MLS teams would focus their energy on recruiting players from college rather than internal development of their youth. 

In this instance, college was widely regarded as the pathway to pro as it offered national visibility to MLS franchises and provided a fantastic academic safety net.


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What Changed?

In 2008, the MLS changed the ownership of US talent production. They introduced the Homegrown Player Rule. 

The new rule allowed MLS teams to retain the rights to homegrown players. Homegrown players were deemed as any youth player inside the teams catchment zone*. Effectively, a homegrown player could not sign to another academy without the approval of the franchise.

This rule directly incentivized franchises to develop both their academies and subsequent player development programs, opening a more secure pathway to the first team. 

Today, these initiatives are called MLS Next and MLS Next Pro. Currently, the MLS Next program accounts for 90% of youth national team player pools.

* Each MLS team’s catchment zone varies by club and sometimes includes multiple states.

The Proposed Homegrown Player Rule Change

This rule was supposed to be implemented in 2022. We haven’t found evidence of this change actually happening. If you know whether these changes have been implemented, please let us know.

The proposed new rule means franchises can register a maximum of 54 players in their academy structure as homegrown players, 45 of which must play in their academy. The franchise then holds the rights to that player and may block attempts from other clubs to sign them or demand a fee. These rights are still held if a player enters college, although franchises must provide an official contract offer prior to them joining the MLS Draft.

Players who are not registered on an MLS franchise’s priority list can move freely between clubs and are able to sign homegrown deals elsewhere. The new system allows greater fluidity across teams while still incentivizing player development in academies.

What Does This Mean for Hawaii Players? 

MLS franchises are looking within their catchment zone for talent first. The state of Hawaii falls under the catchment zone of the Seattle Sounders. Players looking to play for a different MLS academy can still be considered a homegrown player if they are not listed on the Seattle Sounders priority list.

Either way, MLS Next requires relocation their academy. Not all Hawaii players are able to relocate. In this instance, college is a great way to get to the mainland and be noticed by top coaches. College programs will also provide opportunities in other domestic competitions such as the USL2. These domestic leagues provide further national visibility and a great opportunity to showcase your talent. 

So, Which Way is Best?

There is no one best way. There is only the best way for you.

While the US is actively improving its player development, it does provide players multiple avenues to professional contracts. It’s accepted that the most direct route is through an MLS academy, but that doesn’t mean it’s do or die. College soccer is a fantastic opportunity for players to be seen on the national scale and work their way into a professional program.

In 2020, 271 players on the MLS roster came through the collegiate system. Furthermore, if we look abroad, some of the top US national team professionals came through the US collegiate system including Zak Steffen (Manchester City, Maryland), Jack Harrison (Leeds United, Wake Forest) and Tim Ream (Fulham FC, St. Louis).

What Should You Do?

Right now, most of Integrative Soccer’s audience is in Hawaii. The following is for you. This can also apply to anyone not in a catchment zone.

If you have the financial support: MLS Next is currently the best route to playing professional soccer domestically. Unfortunately, this option requires you to relocate to the mainland. Programs like the IMG Academy help individual players with room and boarding.

If you have the academics: College soccer is still a good route for you. You can still get plenty of visibility from professional teams. For more information on ways to get recruited to college, see our interview with DI Men’s Soccer Coach, Dustin Fonder. Because competition is fierce, you need to stand out in more ways than just athletic ability.

If you’re open to either route: Get noticed by participating in ID camps, ODP, and/or player showcases. To make sure that these are good time and financial investments, research what the visibility will be for each opportunity. 

If you’re feeling adventurous (or if you have connections): Find a way into an international academy and climb the ranks there. This is currently the best route to professional soccer anywhere.

If you have questions, email us at For information about our services, check out our home page.

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