Exotic Talent Nice…

But JMU’s Focus Still On Virginia

Posted: July 5, 2014

HARRISONBURG – In the opinion of James Madison men’s soccer coach Tom Martin, the effect of the United States’ recent breakthrough at this year’s World Cup has been two-fold.

“It’s getting better all the time, and events like the World Cup help,” said Martin, who will enter his 29th season at JMU this fall. “That also helps international kids. They see that the level of play in America and American players at the highest level is serious.

“Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a huge gap between the top American players and the top European players. … We’re working our way up the pyramid, but there still is a pretty big gap to fill if we’re going to be competing with the best in the world.”

Even so, Martin is not yet ready to declare whether or not the college game has become less reliant on international talent. What is certain, as evidenced by the whirlwind of enthusiasm that swept up the nation during the U.S. team’s advancement through this year’s Group of Death, is that soccer is becoming more and more popular in the United States. According to a 2012 ESPN survey, professional soccer currently ranks as the second-most popular sport in America among people ages 12-24 – behind only the National Football League.

JMU’s 2014 recruiting class features only one foreign-born player: Francisco Narbon of Panama. That is the lowest amount of international recruits Martin has brought in since 2008.

Narbon has family in Arlington and spent last season competing for a U.S. Development Academy team in Faribault, Minnesota. Meanwhile, the rest of this year’s eight-man class contains five former high school players from Virginia.

“For some coaches, that may be seen as an easy cure to be competitive – to go heavily international,” Martin said. “I don’t subscribe to that theory. I think our first priority at an institution like ours is with Virginia kids. The second priority is with regional kids. And the third priority would be anybody else. Anybody else would be an international student or someone who’s really not in our recruiting base.”

To go about recruiting foreign talent, Martin uses several different avenues – personal contacts, former players, recruiting services and international showcases. The latter landed him all three of his foreign-born signees from a season ago: Callum Hill (England), Mitchell Jordan (Germany) and Toby Appleton (England).

“For an international student, it’s almost impossible to combine academics and soccer. You have to make a choice. You go one direction or the other,” Martin said. “And many of them start out with aspirations to be a professional, but the percentage that can get to that level is extremely small. So with that as a given factor, those kids want to do something to combine their academics and their soccer, and the American system is tailor-made to get your education finished and combining in an athletic endeavor. No other country in the world has that type of an opportunity.”

These days, recruiting foreign talent has become even easier due to the internet. Since 2010, Martin has had players from nine different nations – not including the United States – compete for him at JMU. Those countries are Germany, Canada, England, Trinidad, Switzerland, Norway, Jamaica and Scotland. He said he receives dozens of “international inquiries” from players and coaches each week over the course of the year via email, sometimes not even in English.

“When you grow up in a culture where it’s the No. 1 game and the only game in town, they may have a little bit more dedication to the game at an earlier age – only because that’s the only option they have,” Martin said. “And for someone like me or other college coaches looking at a potential college soccer player, that’s a good thing. I grew up playing four sports in high school. I mean, there’s no soccer player that I’ve probably ever had that’s international who’s played any other sports. We’ve got so many opportunities for kids here that it’s a little bit different.”

However, Martin also noted some international players have a tendency to underestimate the level of play in the United States. The collegiate game’s shorter seasons, which can squeeze multiple games into a single week, and limitations on the amount of allotted time for practice and training can also make for a difficult transition.

“Those kids usually take a year or two to really acclimate and get into it,” Martin said. “It’s not an easy adjustment. It’s a whole lot more than getting used to Domino’s and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. … We don’t normally count on international students having their best soccer their first year. There’s too many things to adjust to.”

Whether United States soccer can capitalize off its recent momentum and continue to work its way up the worldwide ladder remains to be seen. But Martin is encouraged by what he sees and has his own view on how America can someday reach that upper echelon.

“For the U.S. to be competitive at that next level, they’ve got to produce world-class players at the top of the pyramid,” Miller said. “There’s got to be more Tim Howards that can play in the field. We had five foreign-based players on the U.S. team that played very key, important roles. … In my opinion, I would like to produce more players of that level that grow up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, [or] Chantilly, Virginia, [or] Columbus, Ohio. That’s what’s going to give us that stability to play at that level.”