By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 14, 2013) US Soccer Players - One of many subplots surrounding the United States National Team's friendly in Sarajevo against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday (2:30pm ET - ESPN2) is the role of college soccer in the development of the players participating. Not only is the American roster dotted with players who spent time playing in the NCAA system, but Bosnia and Herzegovina also owes something to intercollegiate soccer in America.
The American game might never get away from the influence of the college version of the sport, but a noticeable trend has reduced its role in producing US internationals. Of the 23 players initially called up by Jurgen Klinsmann for the game in Bosnia, just eight have college soccer experience. Though this team is experimental in many ways and includes players who wouldn’t otherwise suit up for the United States in a meaningful game, the clear implication is that American teams will feature fewer and fewer college soccer products as time passes. There are many reasons for that reality. More opportunity at younger ages in this country and abroad, not to mention the influx of dual-internationals that won’t end anytime soon.
Oddly, however, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a college soccer product of its own. Vedad Ibišević, the Stuttgart striker formerly of Hoffenheim, played a season at St. Louis University. SLU is also the alma mater of US international and Bolton defender Tim Ream, who received a call-up from Klinsmann for the friendly. If Ream gets on the field in Sarajevo while Ibišević is still in the game, SLU can rightly claim a bit of pride from the rather surprising connection. Though the two did not cross paths at the school, they both played under head coach Don Donigan.
Ibišević is not often mentioned as “one that got away” in US soccer circles, though there’s an argument that he might have been an American international if not for a few chance happenings. Ibišević’s experience in the US is most similar to Neven Subotic, his family having settled in the United States as refugees escaping the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia. After a stop in Switzerland, Ibišević and his family ended up in St. Louis, where the young striker first lit up the high school game before moving on to star as a freshman with the Billikens of SLU. His one NCAA campaign earned him Freshman of the Year and All-American honors in 2003.
St. Louis University has a rich history of playing quality soccer and providing opportunities to foreign players. Famous alums beyond Ibišević and Ream include Mike Sorber, Brian McBride, Jack Jewsbury, and Brandon Barklage, proving the schools longevity as a program capable of producing quality players. The only reason Ibišević isn’t more famous among them is that his provenance and his path took him beyond most American eyes. Outside of perhaps McBride, the Bosnian-born striker has the best resume of the bunch.
It’s very possible that Ibišević might have found himself back in Europe playing professional soccer regardless of where he played in his formative years. But it was in the United States, with the Billikens in the college game and the Chicago Fire Premier of the PDL, where Ibisevic made enough of a mark to earn a call up to the Bosnia Under-21 National Team. Those appearances helped Ibišević catch the eye of Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić, then the manager of French side Paris Saint-Germain. The Bosnian forward did not hesitate to sign with PSG, a move that eventually led him to the Bundesliga and the Bosnia-Herzegovina senior team.
Leaving the States behind after only a few years of permanent residence effectively ended any chance that Ibišević could eventually be a US international. As a European passport holder, Ibišević had the inherent advantage of starting his pro career in Europe without any of the hurdles that face most players leaving American colleges. He might have ended up in MLS had it not been for the Bosnia U21 call-up, but since US Soccer had not contacted him, there was no reason for him not to grab the chance.
After several club switches, the former Billiken went on to establish himself as a goal scorer in the Bundesliga, first with Hoffenheim and now with Stuttgart, and has collected 46 international caps for Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2007. A European club career and his obvious ties to his homeland made his choice an easy one.
That doesn’t mean his ties to the USA and American soccer are a footnote. Forced to flee the horrors of ethnic warfare in Bosnia, Ibišević’s family made their decision to relocate to the United States not based on soccer, but on making a better life. Young Vedad’s talent and the cultivation of his abilities in places like St. Louis University enabled him to return to Europe and to represent the country of his birth as a successful professional. Like with Tim Ream - as well as Geoff Cameron, Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, etc - with whom he might share the field in Sarajevo, college soccer played a crucial role in his development. Considering the player he’s become, it’s not wrong to say that Vedad Ibišević’s achievements should remain a point of pride for St. Louis University and college soccer as a whole.
College soccer’s role in the future of American soccer is a recurring topic year-after-year in light of the rise of youth academies in the United States. As long as so many people from around the world look to the United States as a refuge from difficulties in their native lands, college soccer will serve as a nurturing net for players like Veded Ibišević. It might even send a few more onto European stardom.
When the players step onto the field at Olympic Stadium in Sarajevo on Wednesday, college soccer’s contributions to player development is evident. On both teams.
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