It's not too often that we want Real Salt Lake to be following LA Galaxy's lead (except maybe in winning trophies), but this is a notable exception. They've just signed one of their youth players, Ryo Fujii, to LA Galaxy II, and included in that deal are the financial resources to enroll at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
The college system in American soccer has, in some ways, been an inextricable part of the development of young players. That's not because college necessarily provides them with playing experience they couldn't get otherwise — plenty would argue that the level of play in college is not going to produce amazing players with any regularity. And there's certainly something to that.
But the college system provides something much more valuable: It gives a setting in which young people can develop not just as players but as people, particularly in their level of education. With developmental players in MLS making under $40,000 annually, a college education might be the most important thing they can get. Unless they're fantastic MLS-level players, salaries might top out at $350,000 (under current MLS roster rules, at least) — and they're not likely to have more than five years at that rate. This doesn't leave players with much of a financial windfall after leaving the game, but it's even worse than that for players who don't make it to that level.
Financial planning certainly mitigates some of the risks, but it's hard to undergo financial planning without some level of education. There's a lot involved that's not entirely intuitive. Saving money might be something anyone can do, but unless players are provided with the necessary resources to learn those skills, they'll hardly be planning for the future. Collegiate education helps provide those skills.
But beyond even financial planning, a player who has a 15-year career (a longer one than average, certainly) and makes no more than $150,000 yearly would make $2.25 million over the course of his career. That's probably not enough to retire on, and certainly not in a place with a reasonably high cost of living.
When academy players are lured out of pursuing college (either by their own desires or by the desires of their clubs), it's done without any guarantee that they'll have a long future in the sport. They might make 15 years, but they could last two years and never play a first-team game. That's not entirely unrealistic. By the point they've signed with an agent or the ink's dried on a professional contract, any college options available to the player are by their own making. Scholarship opportunities dry up — you can't play in the collegiate game, after all. They're given on merit, not on the potential sporting ability they had. And that's fine — but when young people devote themselves to the game, they're not left in a situation where they have opportunities outside it.
By offering this young player an opportunity to attend college, they're mitigating the risk that they'll lure a young player from an important collegiate opportunity. They're helping to maintain the spirit of the American game — the thing that differentiates us from the scores of young ex-academy players in Europe left without a future.