College Soccer Looks To Full-Year Schedule To Bolster Its Relevance

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Top college soccer coaches are finalizing plans and canvassing support for changes that would extend the men’s season over the full academic year.

The proposals recommend a 25-game season split between the fall and spring semesters. Individual conference championships would be held early in May with the showpiece NCAA College Cup following in early June.

Proponents of the switch point to two significant benefits for student athletes – improved conditions to aid their development as players, and a lighter fall timetable allowing for greater participation in other facets of university life.

The Soccer Observer understands that senior figures from the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer are supportive of the plans. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati gave his backing to representatives from Division I soccer programs during a meeting at January’s National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Convention in Philadelphia.

Collective approval from coaches, administrators and athletic directors is required before the plans can be submitted to the NCAA’s legislative and student-athlete welfare cabinets for review.

The changes, if adopted, would take effect from August 2016 at the earliest under the governing body’s timelines for new legislative proposals.

Growth of U.S. soccer leaving college game behind

This summer’s FIFA World Cup once again underlined soccer’s growth in the U.S. About 25 million ESPN and Univision subscribers watched the Americans tying Portugal on June 22, the country’s record television audience for a soccer game and a figure that exceeds the most recent basketball, baseball and hockey championship finals. Thousands more gathered in bars, sports venues and public squares to watch the game on big screens.

MLS, the second-tier North American Soccer League and third-tier United Soccer Leagues offer increased opportunities for American players to reach the professional level with expansion franchises in all three divisions popping up in new cities. Development academies operated by U.S. Soccer and professional clubs have enhanced training opportunities for high school kids, and youth participation in leagues governed by the USSF has doubled to about four million players since 1990.

Yet college soccer has remained stagnant, still shoehorned into the antiquated fall-season structure that it was allocated when the NCAA College Cup was first contested in 1959.

Student-athletes may not participate in countable athletically related activities for more than 20 hours per week during the short soccer season under current regulations. That figure drops to eight hours in the off-season with a two-hour limit imposed on working with the ball.

“The sport has evolved so much in this country,” West Virginia men’s head coach Marlon LeBlanc told The Soccer Observer.

“For us to only be allowing kids two hours a week of instruction on the ball is crazy.”

U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is among the myriad critics of a college set-up that is perceived as too slow, too direct, too physical, and too disconnected from the professional game to aid player development in the 18-22 age group.

Many college campuses boast facilities that would shame all but the world’s elite professional soccer clubs. These proposed changes seek to overhaul training techniques, game preparation and the overall quality of the product, making the college soccer environment an increasingly attractive option for aspiring pros.

Fall overcrowding

LeBlanc’s Mountaineers played 21 games last season over a 3-month stretch from mid-August to a season-ending loss at Akron in the Mid-American Conference tournament semi-final. West Virginia’s schedule included five midweek dates and two weekend double-headers, leaving LeBlanc and his coaching staff with little time to focus on player development between games.

Reigning NCAA champion Notre Dame played 27 games over a 4-month stretch between its opening exhibition game and the College Cup Final on Dec. 15. Runner-up Maryland played 28 games between Aug. 20 and the season finale.

Incorporating the spring semester into the competitive college season allows more time for players to recover physically and mentally between games, LeBlanc said. It allows those struggling with injuries to fully recuperate rather than worrying about missing significant playing time, and it keeps players in competition mode throughout the year instead of the current set-up that includes a slate of spring friendlies.

It allows coaches to focus on continually improving their players over the course of the year rather than simply preparing for the next game.

Reducing the number of midweek dates should make it easier for players’ families and students on campus to attend games.

It even opens a window during the winter break where top college players can train with MLS teams or join U.S. youth national team camps.

All of these factors contribute toward enhancing college soccer.

Then there is the weather. Last year’s NCAA College Cup took place on a frigid mid-December weekend that clashed with the end of college football’s regular season. Several feet of snow piled up around the Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park and only a few thousand hardy spectators littered the stadium’s terraces.

“What if you’re playing that game in June when everyone has gotten into a longer season?” LeBlanc said.

“There’s so much more that can be done to build college soccer’s visibility.”

Benefits for student-athletes

Student-athlete welfare is of greater concern to college coaches and athletic directors than the growing calls from the wider U.S. soccer community for the college game to up its contribution to developing the next generation of American talent. Those two goals are not mutually exclusive.

Reducing the athletic burden on students during the fall encourages them to select subjects that they might otherwise have shied away from to minimize their academic workload.

The proposed schedule changes reduce missed class time by limiting the number of midweek games to one in each semester.

A more balanced schedule also allows student-athletes greater scope to join other university committees or societies, to participate in campus activities and to integrate more fully with their peers.

Change, as always, will not occur without overcoming difficult hurdles. Some athletic directors will balk at the additional travel cost resulting from the elimination of double-header road trips. Smaller schools with limited sports facilities may envisage increased wear and tear on playing surfaces, or scheduling clashes with summer sports like field hockey or lacrosse.

At West Virginia, LeBlanc enjoys the backing of an athletic director that is well versed in the issues surrounding college soccer and the U.S. professional game. Oliver Luck, the father of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew and a former NFL player with the Houston Oilers, served as the president of the Houston Dynamo during the franchise’s first four seasons in MLS before returning to his alma mater in 2010.

Luck sees an opportunity for college soccer to follow the example set by baseball. This year’s College World Series and related Division I championship games attracted a combined 52 million ESPN viewers across 62 games. New baseball parks have been constructed at schools across the country. Coaching standards have improved, and the collegiate game has been elevated to a much higher level.

“There’s been a long history of MLS coaches believing that college soccer could do better,” Luck told The Soccer Observer. “The improvement in MLS needs to be mirrored at the college level.

“We can’t be on a divergent path where the gap gets bigger and bigger otherwise the college game will become irrelevant.”

* * * * *

Correction: The original story misstated that the proposals were discussed during a meeting at January’s NCAA Convention in Philadelphia. The event was the NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) Convention.

 

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Feb. 6, 2014 — Moving U.S. Soccer To The FIFA Calendar

Jan. 25, 2014 — Austin Berry, Matt Hedges Set Example For Latest SuperDraft Class

Dec. 15, 2013 — Former Don Bobby Clark Steers Notre Dame To First College Cup Title

 

Ian Thomson

21 Comments

  1. Very good reporting on a timely and necessary change in college game! The US has a huge resource in our colleges to be able to bridge the player development gap for 18 – 22 year olds. Must utilize the resource fully.

    Another change: How about adoptng FIFA (or MLS) laws of the game? Unlimited substitutions should be dropped to make players comfortable for the full 90 mins to become pros.

    • William,

      There’s a completely different dynamic involved in the women’s game. The college infrastructure allows the U.S. to produce the world’s top women’s team. It acts as a hindrance on the men’s side given the competitive professional environment elsewhere.

      Title IX requirements mean that athletic directors will be consulting with those involved on the women’s side during this process, but the plan focuses on the men’s game to bridge the gap to improvements in the U.S. professional leagues and in development academies.

      That’s not to say that women’s soccer will not follow on somewhere down the line if this is accepted and proves to be successful.

      Ian

      • It would be an incredible step forward in recognition, if Women’s Soccer would be given the opportunity to follow in this great initiative as well. They deserve this reward! (I would like to state as my Dutch daughter is playing college soccer as an International Athlete in the USA).

  2. I would be interested to know what this change would do for the hour/days off limits that are currently in place. As all athletes know, that 20 hour limit does not count time spent in the training room, time spent preparing for practice, time spent watching film, etc. I think in theory splitting up the schedule makes it seem like there would be time for other activities/classwork but I think it would very possibly be abused and students would end up with less time over the course of the year. Not to mention, off season/spring is the only time that athletes can realistically work.

  3. Would this change apply across divisions or only to D-1?

    • Doug,

      It’s being driven by D-1 coaches/ADs. Not sure what involvement the lower divisions have at this time.

      Ian

  4. I hope that have included in their discussion the need for “substitution” reform. How do we expect to compete at the professional levels with other teams in the coutry if our college rules allow for unlimited subs with the only stip based on re-entry? Basically, a college coach can elect to throw in a fast guy at the 35th minute mark and let him put pressure on the back four for the remainder of the half. Then, the starting forward/striker goes back on at the beginning of the second half. It devalues the required skillset of a good coach, does not allow for the organic drop in quality because players get tired, and loads teams with so-called “athletes” which may not be overly talented.

    • It’s well-known, though, that there are ‘pro-oriented’ programs that make as little use of these rules as practically possible. If you change the schedule, that will be even more true, as the extent to which teams do use it is influenced by them playing 2 games per week.

    • Oh this substitution this is overblown. College coaches, don’t really take advantage of any substitution rule. For all I care, that whole argument can go away.

    • Adam,

      It’s certainly a point that’s frequently discussed by college coaches. Oliver Luck said it was a frequent gripe that Dominic Kinnear had at Houston Dynamo — that there were good players in college, but they weren’t used to playing 90 minutes.

      Ian

      • The professional game has left both College Soccer and Dominic Kinnear whose over reliance on it sees his Houston Dynamo at the bottom of the standings while teams which worked the transfer market are at the top

    • Ponchat,

      That’s one coach/school AD quoted in the story. I have spoken to others who are onboard. The proposals have been kicked around by a working group for most of this year. I think we’ll hear more coaches beginning to talk in the coming weeks as the plans are finalized, support gathers and the new season gets under way.

      Ian

      • I’ve spoken to others too. None really think there ever will be a change nor really think about it. It’s typically “business as usual.” I’m in the “college soccer business.” There is absolutely ZERO wrestling around with this topic.

        Even if there were…there are major hurdles. And, they are the hurdles that matter — ADs, presidents, the NCAA/NAIA, and conferences. None of which truly cares about development OR college soccer. So…how, when, where, what, and why would there start to be any changes for the betterment of the sport? The NCAA/NAIA struggle enough to figure out how to operate their own organizations properly when they aren’t even thinking about what’s best for development AND the student-athlete’s well-being.

  5. Ian, your may have omitted a letter in stating that the proposal was discussed at the “NCAA Convention” in Philadelphia. I believe it was the NSCAA (National Soccer Coaches Association of America) Convention that you were referring to. Also, a great resource for a follow-up on this piece would be Rob Kehoe, NSCAA’s College Programs Director. I think he could give you solid information on rationale and status of the proposal.

    • Of course… thanks for picking that up. Thanks also for the suggestion.

      Ian

  6. This is the high school vs club soccer debate taken up a notch. Will kids who play for their high schools end up being pro & national team players? Probably not. Those better players are mostly in the Development Academy system where they’re not allowed to play for their high schools. But high school soccer isn’t going away, and it’s a great system for the kids, schools, and communities. (I LOVE high school soccer! My son loves it. He probably won’t ever be a USMNT prospect, but he’s definitely got a shot at playing in college somewhere.) I’m afraid if the college game takes on a year-round schedule, the excitement and school spirit of the short college season will be washed out. I don’t have a good solution, but maybe just the D1 or top D1 schools can move to a year-round schedule to become fertile soil for Jurgen & USMNT, because right now, players know if they want the best shot at being considered by Jurgen & US Soccer, they shouldn’t spend their 18-22yr-old time in NCAA soccer. (Just like Ari Lassiter, son of Roy Lassiter. He just left Cal Poly SLO after his freshman year & signed a pro contract in Sweeden)

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