Whenever the question of youth development in US Soccer comes up, inevitably, college soccer becomes a focal point of the discussion. It's unique to the American soccer landscape, and its relevance and importance has been one of the most heated debates in US soccer circles for decades. This past Tuesday, the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland held a panel discussion on the future of college soccer and brought together a group of luminaries to help further the discussion of the role of the beautiful game on college campuses across the country for both men and women.
Maryland men's soccer head coach Sasho Cirovski has been leading a movement to alter the college soccer schedule from a solely fall one to one that spans both the fall and spring. The ability to take college soccer to the next level not only from a development perspective but even a revenue one is an opportunity that he says cannot be passed up.
"We are stuck in neutral. We have the chance to be the best league in the world where we can get players from Manchester United's academy coming to Maryland... because when we show that we can also be serious about the respect for the game and do it the right way, we can have the best platform in the world and make this game beautiful again."
Currently, the schedule for both men's and women's soccer has 20 games in the fall culminating with Championships in December, and five friendlies/scrimmages in the spring. The compressed competitive schedule in the fall presents major challenges for not only developing players but keeping them healthy, not to mention lowering the amount of class time players miss. The split-semester schedule then quickly becomes an attractive alternative to a system that the panel believes is failing the players in the classroom and on the pitch.
"For me, it's an advantage at every conceivable level," said UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance, who has won 21 national titles in Chapel Hill and also led the US women's national team to becoming World Cup champions in 1991. "Certainly, from a player development platform it's absolutely vital. The trouble with the fall season is you spend your entire season tapering into matches; you don't have a training platform.
"One of the biggest complaints in the development of the American player about 15 to 20 years ago is what's called a tournament culture. In the course of a 90 minute soccer game, each player is touching the ball for an average of three minutes. There is no way in a tournament culture when you're not training, just playing games, where, in those three minutes, you can develop into an elite soccer player. So you need a training culture.
"What I love about the idea that [Cirovski] is putting forward is one game a week. Now you have one day off a week, and five training days. Those five training days are going to take every player to his or her potential."
The current schedule structure of college soccer was instituted for men in 1959 and for women in 1981.
"It's an outgrowth of the high school model where one player plays four sports and you pigeonhole every sport into 2.5 months and you move onto the next sport. We're 16 years into the 21st century and we're still trapped in the 20th century with regards to this great sport" said Cirovski.
"Think about how much the game of soccer has changed since 1959," remarked Oliver Luck, executive vice president of the NCAA. "We've got an old structure that just hasn't kept pace with the reality of soccer including the specialization of young kids. It's not just true of soccer; it's true of other sports too."
This movement is gaining traction, as over 70% of the men's college soccer players surveyed by the NCAA recently on how to better improve the student-athlete experience would be in favor of adopting the two semester schedule for the men's game. But building consensus among coaches and players is only one part of the equation for change, as Luck explained.
"Less than 50% of AD's at programs with men's soccer would support this," he said. "It's a change, and all of a sudden we'd have to have an additional field in the spring that we might not have because of the lacrosse team or the field hockey team, do we have an SID available to cover the second half of the season, is this going to cost us more money because one game a week might increase my budget, etc."
And, even if AD's were on the whole more supportive of the measure, then there's the matter of impressing the NCAA's D1 council, which of its 40 individuals, doesn't have any dedicated specifically to soccer, instead having a sub-committee dedicated to all sports not including football, and men's and women's basketball. Luck described this governance model as "Byzantine" and "dysfunctional".
Besides the obvious concerns about development and education, the coaches worried as much if not more about player recovery due to the compressed and hectic nature of the schedule.
"From EPL studies, they found that you need a minimum of 72 hours to recover. The ideal recovery time to reduce injury is 96 hours to attain maximum physical and mental performance. It's hard to come see my team play on two or three days' rest and the fans are seeing 80% of my players" said Cirovski. "I spoke to my track coach and I said ‘if your athlete did a 10K, when is the next time you'd let them run in a competitive meet again?' He said two weeks." The "Final 4" for both soccer tournaments sees the semifinal games played on Friday, with the Championship game taking place on Sunday, as an example.
US Soccer and MLS have both remained quiet publicly on whether they'd support the calendar shift, but behind the veil of anonymity, 17 out of 20 MLS coaches polled last year supported the calendar change, and the three that didn't were not born in the US.
"Oliver and I met with all the technical directors from MLS two years ago, we outlined the plan and they were fully supportive of it" said Rob Kehoe, program director of the NSCAA. "But, they're competing for the same players and that's a challenge." Though as Taylor Twellman, who moderated the panel, noted, MLS teams wouldn't be competing for the same players if they knew they were playing eight months every year in college instead of just four.
It becomes harder for college soccer programs to recruit and develop talent now more than ever, because not only are the coaches of big programs competing against each other for the players, now they're competing against potential pro deals from MLS clubs in some cases before the recruiting process even begins in earnest.
"If this model is adopted, 80% of the players who have to choose between the academy/homegrown deal and school will end up going to school. There's pressure at school. The one thing we're missing in this country from ages 16 to 21 is that last development stage because the men on this panel can't properly coach or develop thanks to the schedule" said Twellman. Naturally, MLS teams could still sign players to homegrown deals after they played a year or two in college instead of before they could even register for classes. Twellman also said coaches would much rather see that type of player play in college than USL, for instance.
What may be college soccer's biggest obstacle in increasing its relevance on the American soccer scene as well as in the developmental pyramid may well be its visibility. 20 games are packed into a short time-frame from late August to December, with games taking place on every day of the weekend including when they get lost in the shuffle behind college football, pro, and even national team games.
"College soccer doesn't have a big following with casual fans aside from schools and city where it's a big deal," said the Washington Post's Steven Goff. "The schedule issue doesn't resonate with the casual fan right now."
Though, as Twellman made sure to point out, 12 out of the 23 men who went to Brazil for World Cup 2014 played college soccer. And he knows why soccer has so much potential for growth even outside of the college game.
"Why would ESPN buy eight years of MLS coverage? Because 18 to 36 on social media, soccer is top three in the country. Yet we can't figure out how to make soccer from ages 16 to 21 matter. But there's real value in playing for your school; getting your education while playing in front of your peers."
Alongside the schedule change, what might be some other methods that could be used to increase the visibility of college soccer? The rules in college soccer are different than the FIFA rules of the game, and for some casual fans that might be jarring. Could rules changes help bring about needed visibility?
"There are a number of soccer fans who follow other leagues that question why we have the rules that we have," said Luck.
"Coaches want more players in the games than just the 12, and the compressed schedule means that you'll need more substitutions, so that's why we have the rules that we do. However, there have been some passionate discussions about those rules, and some coaches have suggested moving to friendly rules with six substitutions or other models that move us closer to FIFA rules. But I don't think the rules turn soccer fans off from college soccer."
"A lot of coaches don't like overtime and would like to amend the substitution rules," said Cirovski. "But it's actually harder to change the rules than change the schedule. Right now, the NCAA is set up where Divisions I, II and III have to have the same rules so most of the current ones are compromises. Hopefully in the not too distant future, we can set rules only for Division I that are more like the Rules of the Game, but that will take time, though I don't think we need to play by the exact FIFA rules."
Only two college sports, football and men's basketball, are currently revenue producing sports, and all coaches full well acknowledged and thanked the two sports for driving revenue and trickling down the benefits to every other sport including soccer. Could soccer, both men's and women's one day become revenue producing sports themselves?
"We have the potential to be a revenue producing sport," said Dorrance. "The NCAA has tried to stuff women's basketball as the revenue leader, but I don't think that's the sport to choose. The potential for us at every conceivable level is off the charts."
And Cirovski believes it wouldn't be a stretch to see schools that don't have men's soccer programs adding it in the future if the sport shows the significant revenue potential Dorrance is hinting at.
"If we put our championships at the end of May or beginning of June, and we're getting 30,000 people coming to those games and we're making money at Maryland, Texas and all these SEC schools are going to say ‘we want in'. The minute we show relevancy and revenue, the schools that don't have soccer in the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten will add it," and he believes with the two semester model that's feasible.
No one on the panel would be drawn on what sort of timeline there might be for a change in the college soccer schedule, but there was unanimity in the thought that the schedule change is fundamental for the health of college soccer going forward. The sport isn't going away anytime soon for men or women, but the health of the sport as and beyond a critical development mechanism is in flux.
"We are the crunch time for whether college soccer is going to go up or become irrelevant" said Twellman, who ended the discussion with an emphatic statement on where the sport could be.
"Soccer is the only sport we apologize for, and we need to stop doing that, because when we figure it out, good luck to the rest of the world."