Judging the effectiveness of college soccer in developing elite professionals is a mixed bag. And when it comes to measuring MLS talent, one misleading indicator is the Hermann Trophy.
The award that goes to the top college soccer player in the nation will be handed out this Friday to one of three finalists, each an excellent player in his own right. Two have already elected to join MLS: Akron’s Darlington Nagbe and Indiana’s Will Bruin inked Generation adidas deals. The third is Louisville junior Colin Rolfe, who will head back to campus for his senior year.
But beware: Being named the top men’s college soccer player is no indicator of definite MLS success.
Only five of the previous 14 winners of the award are still in the league. No Hermann Trophy winner has ever been named Rookie of the Year, and only one winner crowned after 1996 has been named to an MLS All-Star team.
Two players jumped ship to Europe (Joe Lapira from 2006 and Marcus Tracy from 2008) and 1995-1996 winner Mike Fisher opted to take his degree from the University of Virginia and start on the path to becoming a doctor.
Ali Curtis, the winner in 1999, was the first to put together a decent run when he was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2001. His rookie year began brightly, but it eventually tailed off with two goals in 20 appearances.
Curtis was shipped off to DC, where he ended up as the team’s leading scorer in 2002. However, he retired in 2004 after only three seasons and 48 appearances to go with eight goals.
O’Brian White tore his ACL after his award-winning junior season in 2007, and has yet to replicate his form at the next level. Chris Gbandi, the recipient in 2000, was hampered by the same injury before embarking on a five-year stint with FC Dallas.
[inline_node:98829]Alecko Eskandarian, the winner in 2002, has perhaps enjoyed the most individual success of any Hermann winner. The former D.C. United and Los Angeles Galaxy striker got off to a bright start to his pro career in the nation’s capital, and he led United in scoring during the 2004 season with 10 goals while winning an MLS Cup.
A year later, he suffered his first concussion, bringing his season to an end. After a bounce-back performance and an All-Star selection in 2006, he continued to struggle with concussions. He retired in 2010.
Last year’s winner, Sporting Kansas City’s Teal Bunbury, looks to have the potential to buck the recent trend. He has already earned a call up to the US national team after a strong performance in his rookie year that saw him score five goals in 26 games.
Two of the more successful recent winners have been consistent contributors, but they're certainly not the standouts they were in college: Real Salt Lake’s Chris Wingert (2003) and Danny O’Rourke (2004) of the Columbus Crew.
Both have made more than 100 appearances in MLS and played significant roles with their respective sides in 2010. Wingert won an MLS Cup with RSL in 2009 and O’Rourke won the title with the Crew in 2008.
[inline_node:312025]But as for individual success, it appears that the runners-up for the trophy sometimes fare even better than the winners. Take US international Charlie Davies, who enjoyed a stellar year at Boston College but finished behind Lapira in the voting in 2006. He rose to a starting role up top with the Americans at the 2009 Confederations Cup and was a shoo-in for a spot on the World Cup roster before he was injured in a car crash.
Lapira, meanwhile, has appeared just once for his native Ireland and hasn’t risen above the ranks of the second tier of the Norwegian First Division.
And what about Steve Zakuani? The former Akron Zips standout lost out to Tracy in 2008 before he emerged as a burgeoning star with the Seattle Sounders. Tracy has appeared only sparingly for Danish side Aalborg BK.
And some of the best and brightest talents in MLS, such as Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez, didn’t catch the eye of the award committee while playing in college. Last year’s Golden Boot winner – San Jose Earthquakes star Chris Wondolowski – played in relative anonymity at Chico State.
So tread lightly when it comes to slotting the Hermann winner in as the next MLS superstar. Winning the trophy and excelling at the next level in MLS are two very different achievements.