Sasho Cirovski is college soccer’s most passionate advocate, a guardian of the oft-criticized university development system, but the longtime University of Maryland men’s coach appreciates the need to evolve.
That is why, as chairman of the Division I men’s coaches’ committee, he has joined forces with NCAA leaders, MLS officials and the U.S. Soccer Federation to radically change the landscape of the college game.
They have proposed turning Division I men’s soccer into a full academic-year sport, one that would kick off in mid-September and culminate in late-May. If approved by the NCAA, the new calendar would begin as early as 2016-17.
“We have to change the game and do it justice,” Cirovski said. “College soccer has been relevant, but it can become much more relevant. It is doing a good job; it can do a great job.”
For more than 50 years, college soccer has packed a full season into three-plus months in the fall, creating physical and academic challenges and restricting the amount of development time. (Teams are allowed limited practices and exhibitions in the spring, as well.)
Under a proposal formulated by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the number of official team days would grow to 144 from 132. Teams would open training camp in late August, hold two friendlies, then play 13 matches between mid-September and the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Currently, some teams play two friendlies and as many as 24 games between late August and the holiday.)
From late November until late February, teams would go on winter break, restricted to eight hour-long training sessions. Spring training camp would begin in late February and include one friendly. The season would resume in mid-March and include nine regular season matches, plus conference and NCAA tournament games.
Proponents are aiming to submit formal plans to the NCAA this fall and seek a decision in the first half of 2015. With college athletics undergoing rapid change, backers of the plan believe the timing is right.
“We recognize people and parents are focused on college,” said Kevin Payne, the former D.C. United and Toronto FC executive who is consulting on the matter on behalf of the USSF. “Instead of complaining about college soccer all the time, we have to figure out: How do we make it better?”
Others involved in the process include MLS officials Todd Durbin and Jeff Agoos; and West Virginia University Athletic Director Oliver Luck, the former Houston Dynamo president who serves on the NCAA committee implementing a college football playoff system.
Payne, Luck and Rob Kehoe, the NSCAA’s Division I programs director, are scheduled to address MLS’s technical committee at the league’s all-star game in Portland, Ore., next week.
At this time, the changes would affect Division I men’s soccer only. The women’s game and men’s lower divisions would retain their schedules.
Among the reasons for the proposed changes:
*From a player development standpoint, the NSCAA says, “Division I soccer exists in an outdated format that is inconsistent with the growth of United States soccer and with the current youth and professional soccer structures that operate in 10-month seasons.”
In other words, college players are not receiving adequate training over the course of the school year and remain behind contemporaries in many other countries.
*College soccer is failing to retain high-caliber players who are, the NSCAA says, “choosing to forego a college soccer experience in favor of professional opportunities due to perceived college developmental deficiencies.”
Without calendar changes, the fear among college advocates is the USSF will begin advising players to skip NCAA soccer altogether. Already, MLS clubs are signing teenagers from their youth academies, prospects who bypass college or attend for only a year or two.
*Teams are playing too many matches in a short amount of time, leading to injuries and substandard performance. Three games per week is common throughout the season, and some conferences pile three tournament games into four days. The NSCAA cites the NCAA chief medical officer in prioritizing players’ health and safety.
Along those lines, college soccer is criticized for allowing unlimited substitutions and players to re-enter games, contrary to international standards. But those scheduling demands are what make the liberal guidelines necessary. With more time between matches, those rules could someday be changed to meet FIFA requirements, proponents argue.
*Academic balance. A looser schedule in the fall would alleviate work-load pressure and distribute academic demands equally over the entire school year.
*A proper culmination of the season. The College Cup — semifinals and final over three days in December — is barely noticed, even in the soccer community. It is often played in cold weather and in front of crowds smaller than some of the participating teams often enjoy during the regular season.
“All coaches are frustrated,” said Cirovski, who is entering his 22nd season at Maryland. “The championships don’t work.”
College soccer longs for a marquee weekend, like other secondary NCAA sports (lacrosse, baseball and hockey). A College Cup in May would expand the location options and, in theory, create an annual destination for soccer fans.
Also, without scheduling conflicts with college football and basketball, postseason soccer matches in May would have a greater opportunity to appear on live TV. On the current calendar, few soccer tournament matches are televised until the College Cup – out of sight, out of mind. In the spring, college sports currently filling TV slots are softball, baseball and lacrosse.
Proponents appear to have the backing of most head coaches. Skeptics worry that, in an era of belt-tightening at many institutions, athletic departments may choose to do away with the men’s soccer program if the proposed changes lead to increased costs through staffing and facility demands. Some schools would have to adjust stadium availability, particularly those that house soccer and lacrosse in the same venue.
The change would also impact the MLS draft, which is held every January – a month after the college season ends.
If the draft remained at the same time of the year, just before training camps open, would players be tempted to turn pro halfway through the college season? Or would they not become eligible for MLS until the summer? If so, they would miss out on four months in a pro environment and perhaps never figure into that season’s plans. Moving the draft to June would have the same effect.
The larger question about college soccer is whether it’s necessary at all. For most players, who do not have realistic pro ambitions, it’s perfectly fine: four years playing the sport they love while earning a college degree and, in many cases, receiving a substantial scholarship.
For those players with special talents, college soccer has long been viewed as detrimental to playing development, largely because of the short schedule and limited practice time mandated by the NCAA. Personal development, however, is not something an MLS academy can provide. College, proponents say, turns out more mature and responsible individuals. The same cannot be said of many American prospects who turned pro after high school and have struggled to adapt to the adult world of pro soccer.
Said Cirovski: “A college education is important for life-long success and happiness. This [proposed] schedule allows student-athletes to fully maximize the soccer experience and the life experience. It’s time has come.”