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.
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.”
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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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