There are over 460,000 athletes in the United States that compete at the Division One level, and only two percent of those athletes will have the opportunity to move on and play for a major professional team, according to the NCAA website. In Europe, collegiate athletics are not as prevalent. At many major English Premier League soccer teams such as Bayern Munich and Chelsea, talented players develop their skills early on. Teams develop academies and “junior teams” in order to start the recruitment process for players as young as 15, according to usatoday.org
So, what do the athletes do if they want to get an education, but also have the chance to play professionally? Many will travel to the United States, in an effort to prolong retirement. On our Rhode Island men’s soccer team, there are nine players who have traveled from countries such as Germany, Norway and South Africa to continue competing in the sport they love.
Senior and goalkeeper of the men’s soccer team, Nils Leifhelm is one of many players who came to the United States in an effort to extend his days on the field. Born and raised in Münster, Germany, he decided to move overseas to play soccer and receive a higher-level education as well.
“I tried to play professionally back home, and I thought I had a good chance, but in Germany you can’t balance education and soccer,” said Leifhelm. “I came here to play on a high level and get and education at the same time.”
To find the university, Leifhelm used a recruitment agency that sent promotional highlights and videos over here to the United States. Communication to the school was facilitated by Tony Bassett, a current assistant coach.
“They came to talk to us once when I was at a tournament,” he said. “I was 17 and I didn’t consider it at all because I wanted to play professionally in Germany. But I remembered it when I was 20 and I arranged a meeting with the guys from the agency. And I starting liking the idea of playing and studying in the [United] States a lot.”
Head coach Gareth Elliott also had extensive experience finding players from other countries. As assistant coach from 2003-2007 and head coach since 2013, Elliott has years of experience recruiting for Rhode Island. and he has held the position as head coach since 2013, and was an assistant coach from 2003-2007.
“Sometimes there are international recruiting agencies that will present these players and promote these players to our school and other schools throughout the U.S., and they will hold showcases and we will travel over there to meet and evaluate the players and see if they are a good fit,” he said. “I have traveled to a lot of different countries, as far as South Africa and Zimbabwe looking at players.”
Elliott likes to parallel international talent with local ability, and named Stavros Zarakostas, a sophomore from Coventry, Rhode Island as his most powerful offensive weapon. In addition, Zarakostas won rookie of the year for the Atlantic 10 conference last year.
According to the NCAA recruitment database, 17,000 of the 460,000 Division One athletes are from foreign countries. “The U.S. is a pretty unique country in the sense where you can continue to balance a high level of soccer with education,” he said. “A lot of countries around the world will make you pick or choose.”
The Men’s Soccer team finished out last season with eight wins and 11 losses. So far this year, they have won three games, tied once and lost twice.
“We’re looking for difference makers. We’re always going to put the best 11 players on the field that’s going to give our team the best chance to win,” said Elliott. “It’s not favoritism, it’s not scholarship, it’s not where they’re from, it’s what fits our need to win the game.”