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Global Feb 25, 2014

Is NCAA soccer a better route for aspiring British talent?

In England, the route into professional soccer is very simple. You start off playing for fun before being successfully scouted, thereby joining a professional football team’s academy at a very young age.

From then on, you remain in school (or an elite academy which balances studying with playing) until the age of 16 while attending regular training sessions and matches for your respective academy. After that – and you’re still able to remain at the required level – you leave school and commit to playing professionally.

This is where, for many, it all starts to go so very wrong.

It is a cruel system. Players who fall at the wayside, whether that be due to their technical ability or mental attitude, end up either quitting the game entirely to pursue a new career (which can be difficult due to little qualifications to their name) or they attempt to ruthlessly forge a career in soccer.

This tends to mean playing part-time in non-league football and, if they prove to be worthy of playing at a higher level, there is the hope of securing a professional contract in League’s 1 or 2 (England’s third and fourth tier) where a player can expect to earn a salary of £1,500 to £2,500 a week (roughly $4,160).

For many though, that goal becomes unobtainable as handling the balancing of a part-time job alongside trying to pursue the dream of playing professionally becomes too much.

That is why stories such as that of Sporting Kansas City striker Dom Dwyer (pictured above), who spent most of his childhood living in Norfolk, and Real Salt Lake’s Luke Mulholland, a midfielder from Preston, become all the more inspiring.

The annual minimum salary in MLS of $35,125 is not that much different to the kind of money one would expect to receive in the lower reaches of the English Football League or Scottish Premier League. The US college system gave both Dwyer and Mulholland an opportunity that was not apparent back in England.

Dom Dwyer was unable to make the impression he would have wanted to at a young age while at Norwich City, who are currently in the Premier League, alongside playing for local side Kings Lynn Community football.

One of the reasons he was unable to show he had what it takes to play at a high level was breaking his right foot a remarkable three times. Injuries may have been what detracted Norwich City from ever signing him to a professional contract.

However, his luck turned around when scouted by ex-professional Scotsman Jon McLaughlin of Soccer USA to go on and earn a soccer scholarship with Tyler Junior College in Texas.

While playing for Tyler Apaches, Dwyer won two National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament titles, and player of the year honors. He then went on to play for the University of South Florida in 2011. Dwyer was named second-team All-American by the NSCAA before being drafted No. 16 overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft.

[ +Unlikely introduction to American soccer leads Dwyer to MLS Cup final ]

Dwyer had made it.

He had become a professional soccer player when those in England would not give him a chance. The mental attitude required to persevere when playing in a brand new country, dealing with a new culture and surroundings at such a young age must have been tough.

Nevertheless, Dwyer broke through and has not looked back since, scoring for fun during a loan spell at USL PRO side Orlando City SC in 2013 before becoming a playoff hero for Sporting KC as they won MLS Cup, scoring the winning goal in the MLS Eastern Conference Final against Houston Dynamo. Dwyer earns a base salary of $65,000 a year – a sufficient wage to live relatively comfortably, with ample prospects of bigger contracts to come.

Contrast this to the story of Mulholland, who enters MLS this season after a very different path.

Mulholland attend Preston High School and had never played for a professional team’s academy – only playing for his county team, Lancashire, and Preston College academy, before moving across the pond to play for NCAA Division II program Wingate University in North Carolina for three years after impressing on a club tour of the USA. In 2009 he was named a First Team All-American and SAC Conference Player of the Year after playing for Reading United in the PDL.

Unlike Dwyer, Mulholland had to work his way up the soccer pyramid. The Englishman started his professional career in USL PRO for Wilmington Hammerheads, where he was made USL Rookie of the Year before securing a move a tier above at NASL outfit Minnesota Stars.

After the great form he showed in seven games, Mulholland sought a move to the next level. He had trials from New England Revolution and one from Walsall in English League 1.

Having seemingly failed to impress, Mulholland transferred to Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2012 where he lit up the league. 17 goals and 13 assists in 51 appearances as well as winning a NASL Soccer Bowl in 2012. Individually, Mulholland was able to achieve being named into the NASL Best XI in two consecutive seasons (2012 and 2013).

[ +Mulholland leads North American Soccer League’s 2013 Best XI ]

This winter’s move to Major League Soccer was fully deserved, and with the number of clutch goals Mulholland has accumulated over the past few seasons, Real Salt Lake may have one of the signings of the season on their hands – especially when considering he has joined on a free.

The college system offered these two British players a path when clubs in England would not. Dwyer had been released by Norwich City, while Mulholland was never even given the opportunity to play at a pro youth academy.

Perhaps more aspiring soccer players in England should look towards the States in order to launch a soccer career rather than remain in England.

If they were to make it, then potentially playing in a league as competitive and as rapidly evolving as Major League Soccer would surely seem a much more attractive option than the third and fourth tier of British soccer where national exposure, never mind worldwide exposure, is very limited – not to mention the increase in playing standard and a chance to adopt a new lifestyle.

Even if the chance to kick-start a soccer career seems unlikely, then at least the player leaves with a college education and be able to fully explore new career options.

There is a stigma in England that if you go to play college soccer in the US, then the prospects of playing professionally are over. Dom Dwyer and Luke Mulholland have altered that perception; hopefully now others will follow and carve out their own, similar stories.

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