What role does Division 1 men’s college soccer play in advancing the American game? That simple question lingers for U.S. Soccer as three-term president Sunil Gulati (Cheshire, Conn.) bids adieu and a new leader emerges at the Annual General Meeting on Feb. 10 in Orlando, Fla. But whoever takes over the United States Soccer Federation will encounter a fluid modus operandi for Div. 1 men’s college soccer.
As Major League Soccer has grown and has started to peel off Homegrown Players early in their college careers (or even before they begin), the NCAA’s talent level has decreased. Young Americans also are heading overseas in greater numbers, and the days of the MLS Super-Draft supplying impactful players en masse are long gone.
That’s at least how Ed Kelly, the 30-year head coach at Boston College, sees the game evolving, especially as fingerpointing and blame showers down after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
“College doesn’t really have a direct influence on our future of going to the World Cup,” Kelly said. “It comes from the U-17s and the U-20s and moving on up in the system. Look at (John) Hackworth’s U-20 teams where kids are signed as Homegrowns and in other pro leagues — they’re the ones producing the results.”
Neil Roberts, the 33-year head coach at Boston University from Braintree, Mass., holds a similar opinion. As he sees it, college soccer now plays a decreased role in filling out professional rosters.
“We can still produce talented kids at a professional level — and we do — but we’re not going to produce the No. 10, the center forward, the special player,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be very difficult to do that any more. (Christian) Pulisic is a perfect example, where he’s exactly where he should be and not in college soccer.”
But college soccer, essentially a U-23 development league, isn’t going anywhere. And if coaches such as Kelly and Roberts have their way, it could take on a new complexion.
They’re among a growing group of coaches pushing for a 10-month season that mirrors the academic calendar, rather than the 3½-month season that currently exists. Under their proposal, there would be fewer games in the fall, midweek games would be eradicated, they’d pause for winter break, games would be added in the springtime, and conference and national tournaments would occur in May and June.
Ray Reid, the 21-year head coach at UConn, put the logic behind such a shift rather succinctly: “You’re playing too many games in a condensed period, and there’s no time for training and recovery.”
Kelly added that the academic-year model would reduce missed class time, and take everyone out of the constant “play mode.” The injury component, especially after it greatly defined BC’s 2017 campaign, also was present on Kelly’s mind.
“I came out one day and we had seven starters on the bench at practice, then guys are playing through them,” Kelly said. “One of our center backs hasn’t really played in two years. There’s basically no time to recover.”
Chad Riley, head coach of a Dartmouth team that’s made four consecutive NCAA tournaments, isn’t quite so convinced that the spring season is a good idea, though.
“There’s the logistical challenge that we can’t ignore,” Riley said. “Can you play on a grass field in March up here in New England? When do the players get drafted? I get the arguments for it, but nobody has convinced me how we overcome those hurdles.”
As of now, the MLS SuperDraft occurs in the middle of January, so players would be selected during the middle of their college season if the academic-year model went into effect. There’s also the question of having enough fields on campus to support soccer programs playing alongside spring sports, such as lacrosse, plus if enough support staff exists.
Bobby Clark, who coached at Dartmouth from 1985 to ’93 and just retired from Notre Dame after 31 years in the profession, raised another possibility. He agrees that the season needs to be lengthened, so he’d start the season earlier than the current set-up of late August, take away conference tournaments to place more value on winning the league and end in December, with the College Cup always played in warm weather.
That arrangement, Clark said, would maintain the abridged spring season as it currently exists to let players focus on “development” after the “results” portion of the fall.
“I love the teaching part of those spring games,” Clark said. “It’s the time when we make most progress and when we set up the team for the next season. If you play competitively all the year round and you don’t have a JV team or a second team, some of your players don’t ever get an honest shot.”
While perspectives of the schedule vary, there is solidarity in the idea that Div. 1 men’s soccer needs to part ways with its current substitution model.
As the rules exist now, coaches can sub in as many players as he or she deems fit, there’s no reentry in the first half, and a player can re-enter once in the second half. That system is a far cry than professional and international-level soccer, in which competitive matches are limited to three subs for each team and no re-entry.
“People have to stop hiding behind it saying, ‘That’s not college soccer,’ or ‘We do things differently,’” Reid said. “College baseball doesn’t take a pitcher out in the fourth (inning) and then put him back in the seventh inning. That’d be crazy.”
Riley, however, said all he’d like to see change is the elimination of re-entry, while Roberts wants the rules to align with the modern game.
“It impacts the pace of the game so much,” Roberts said. “You can’t get a back tired, because once he gets tired he comes out and someone else comes in.”
Whichever changes do come upon a new USSF president, Clark said it’s important to consider the end goal of college soccer. For him, college players measure success in life beyond sports, unlike their European or South American counterparts in high-level academies who measure success through first-team football.
He pointed to Matt Besler, a center back with Sporting Kansas City and the U.S. national team who attended Notre Dame on a pre-med track. Clark said he graduated in 3½ years, and the pro soccer part was a “byproduct.”
“College soccer should be producing doctors, lawyers, coaches, teachers, accountants, businessmen and then maybe top soccer players,” Clark said. “They’re all byproducts of what we’re doing.”
It’s a perspective, simply, where college soccer is oriented around being a student-athlete, not necessarily a pro.
“Are we going to be the only avenue that makes the best players? Certainly no,” Riley said. “The thing this country has to realize is the countries that do well have good relationships between their federation and top league, and college soccer needs to have a piece. Families here in America want to send their kids to college.”