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As he was passing through a St. Louis hotel lobby one evening recently, David Brcic (pronounced Bur-sek), 19, was hailed by a former college rival. "Hey, Dave, I just heard that you signed with the Cosmos. That's great!"
When Brcic smiled his thanks there was an impressive display of late-teen orthodontic braces, an adolescent mark that made it difficult to believe the boy had signed a contract in professional sports. And though he carried off the scene all right, not everybody thought his signing was just great. Until the end of September, Brcic had been the outstanding goalkeeper for perennially strong St. Louis University, and his move to the Cosmos had profoundly disturbed the entire college soccer community. Last week the collegians were shocked again as the Cosmos reached out and picked off another college star—Rickie Davis of the University of California at Santa Clara—and signed him, too, to a so-called "Olympic" contract.
Until this fall the individual NASL teams had honored a gentleman's agreement not to recruit undergraduate players. Instead they have held a full-fledged NFL-type draft for graduating seniors each spring. But a few weeks ago the Cosmos, in the wake of Pel�'s retirement and with a new enthusiasm for American players, turned their attention from the international soccer player pool and began closing in on the college ranks.
Eddie Firmani, the Cosmos' head coach, spoke warmly of the new approach and the reasons for it. "We need more Americans in the game at this point, and the way to do it is to get as many 18- and 19-year-olds into our programs as we can," Firmani said. (League rules now mandate a progressive reduction each year in the number of foreigners carried on NASL teams.)
"The colleges are just not turning out the numbers and the quality of players we need," Firmani said. "They play only three months a year—maybe 20 games of mediocre competition by our standards. Developing kids need year-round training. And outside of the top 15 schools, the boys are getting antiquated and ineffective coaching. By the time a boy's 22 and getting out of school he's wasted four years in which he might have been developing toward the pros. We're moving toward the system followed elsewhere in the world of club junior teams, with proper coaching and training, playing against many foreign teams. It's something like the farm systems here in baseball and hockey. I hope the rest of the NASL follows our lead."
Well, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Los Angeles have been talking to undergraduates; in fact, Los Angeles made an offer to Brcic before he signed with the Cosmos. Terry Fisher, former UCLA coach and the current Aztec mastermind, says, "I've been on both sides of the fence, and there's a real crisis for college soccer. Either they're going to continue to turn out sportsmen and scholars and lose their best players or they'll have to become a better pipeline to the NASL for players. A wrong choice can ruin the sport."
Although there has been progress in the performance of college players and the quality of competition—the NCAA now boasts 437 schools playing soccer, up from 277 in 1967—the colleges have had slim pickings from a boom that has led to 500,000 kids playing the game in California alone and 76,000-plus sellout crowds for the Cosmos. College soccer has simply been trampled in the rush, limping along without adequate funding and often without varsity status. If the pro raiding increases, the position of the sport at many schools could be badly damaged; the few superlative players would be courted by the NASL, and high school stars might decide to bypass college altogether.
The ruthless manner in which the Brcic and Davis raids were made has left a bad taste. Last summer, while the U.S. Olympic team trained alongside the U.S. National team, both Brcic and Davis told Assistant Coach Ray Klivecka that they wanted to turn professional. That was in August. In early September, after their season was over, the Cosmos hired Klivecka as an assistant coach. On Sept. 27, Brcic signed his contract with the Cosmos, and at the end of last week Davis, after considering an offer from Tampa Bay, signed, too.
Although the situation is muddied by charges and countercharges, the implications for the college game are clear—Klivecka was hired by the Cosmos because of his access to and knowledge of the Olympic and National teams, the cream of American amateur players.
"Klivecka played dirty pool, no doubt about that," says Harry Keough, coach of St. Louis University, which had been stunned by Brcic's decision. It came just eight days before the SLU season opener. "On the other hand, college players must be pretty good for them to sign a 19-year-old. The Cosmos don't want Humpty-Dumptys."