College soccer has always occupied a strange place in the US Soccer Development program. 

For many players growing up, the ultimate end goal is a college scholarship and the opportunity to play at the Division I level. However, this stands in sharp contrast to other countries around the world, where it is common for top players to sign contracts with professional teams at a young age and then grow up playing in that club’s academies. 

Major League Soccer teams have slowly begun to adopt this model, as every team now operates an academy and has started to invest more resources in youth development in hopes of unearthing the next star. This has created tension between college soccer advocates who still believe college is the best place for development both on and off the field and academy supporters who think that is hindering the progress of top players.

Duke will be able to take advantage of both paths to the next level this fall, as senior midfielder Brian White spent his summer playing with the New York Red Bulls U23 team and earned Premier Development League MVP honors before returning to Durham for his last season of college. 

White was already a mainstay in the starting lineup during a stellar junior year, when he was named the team’s offensive MVP and earned second-team All ACC recognition after notching five goals and four assists, including the game-winner that lifted the Blue Devils past then-No. 9 UCLA. He used this success as a springboard to continue developing his game during the summer and to learn more about how to operate as a striker, a position he transitioned into toward the end of last season.

“I was the lone striker, playing out mobile,” White said. “A lot of my responsibility was holding the ball up to combine with the midfielders and spreading the ball wide. I think it’s something we did a couple times [at Duke], but I think it’s something we need to continue to work on. 

The senior from Flemington, N.J., was an instant success in the Big Apple. He scored 17 goals in just 14 games to win the Golden Boot, helping to lead the Red Bulls to the PDL regular-season championship and the Mid-Atlantic Division title. 

White thrived in the ultra-competitive atmosphere of the PDL, where many players are close to taking the next step and competing in the MLS or other professional leagues and are solely focused on soccer. It was a different environment than what White and summer teammate Marcus Fjortoft are used to on the Duke team, having to juggle both academics and their careers on the pitch.

“At Red Bulls, most [of] those guys have aspirations to go pro,” White said. “I mean, a lot of the guys [at Duke] do, but at the same time a lot of them are very concerned with life after college and not soccer, [which is] just the reality of the trajectory of their careers.”

The mentality of academy teams is similar in some ways to minor-league baseball, with developing individual players a more important priority than trying to win games. This creates the opportunity for rapid skill development, since players can focus on training and individual work every day instead of spending most of practice on formations and preparing for the next opponent. 

“It was a very professional environment,” White said. “We got to train against the first team, train against the second team, see what they bring every day to the training pitch and how they approach games.”

White also believes that his experience over the summer will pay dividends for the Blue Devils come the fall season. He has seen how professionals carry themselves and wants to demonstrate that to the younger Duke players who are still adjusting to the increased demands of the college game. 

“It’s just trying to keep the level high and trying to keep them motivated no matter what their aspirations after this season or after their college careers,” White said.

The senior has increased expectations for himself following his star turn this summer. White was voted the No. 1 prospect on the PDL circuit by scouts, head coaches and technical directors, which makes a path to a professional career for him seem realistic.

“I was able to have a very successful summer and put a little attention on me, so hopefully I can continue scoring goals,” White said. “And then carry that into the combine and the draft coming up after college.”

White’s strong performances are presenting Blue Devil head coach John Kerr with different options with how to use the senior. White will likely be the focal point of the Duke attack, which looked impressive in its two victories last weekend in the John Rennie Nike Invitational.

In Sunday’s 3-0 win against Fordham, White’s second goal of the match was one of the national highlights of the season’s first weekend, as he bent a shot from outside the box into the top left corner of the net. 

“[Brian] did great this summer,” Kerr said. “Scored a lot of goals, got a lot of reps. He’s a great player for us cause he can play in a number of positions. He can play as the high target player, he can play underneath, he can play wide. So it’s a great option for us depending on what we want to take advantage of.”  

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.