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College Soccer Seeks Rule Changes, Greater Relevance

As soccer gains in popularity across the U.S., the college game faces criticism for its compressed schedule and outdated substitution policy. Brooke Tunstall talked to coaches about "fixing" the game.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
August 31, 2014
12:01 PM
AS THE COLLEGE SOCCER SEASON kicks off this weekend, it does so at a pivotal moment for the sport at the NCAA level as the college game strives for greater relevance within the American soccer hierarchy—as well as on campuses and within local communities.

Despite producing the bulk of the players on Major League Soccer rosters and the core of almost every U.S. national team roster, including this summer’s World Cup, college soccer continues to be criticized and blamed, perhaps unfairly, for more than its share of American soccer’s shortcomings.

The season is too short, critics, say. The games are too helter-skelter and there isn’t enough practice in the off-season. After years of talking about making changes and doing little to make them happen, the college coaching community has heard the critics and proposed some major changes to address their shortcomings and find greater relevance. The hurdle: these proposed changes are coming at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and chaos about the future of the NCAA, which governs college sports, including soccer, in this country.

American Soccer Now surveyed several college coaches from top and mid-tier programs to speak about the proposed the changes, what brought them about, and what the sport will look like going forward as it tries to navigate the NCAA and American soccer waters that are currently anything but calm. To get them to speak freely, all the coaches contacted for the survey were quoted anonymously.

As anyone who has read a sports page the past few months knows, the NCAA is under siege both externally through a series of lawsuits challenging its rules on amateurism and revenue distribution and internally with the so-called power conferences constantly pushing for more autonomy and the ability to make rules that are better suited to their big-business athletic departments.

“I don't know how the NCAA changes will affect soccer and I think even the smartest people that are in these conversations have no idea what college sports in general and college soccer in particular will look like five to 10 years from now,” said a younger college head coach.

In this sea of uncertainty, college coaches find themselves stuck having to listen to prominent figures in American soccer like U.S. national team boss Juergen Klinsmann and youth technical director Tab Ramos frequently call for the top players to either skip college soccer or leave early. But while the college soccer community hears these calls, they know few at the NCAA care about the problems of the U.S. national teams and MLS.

For all the progress the national teams and MLS have made the past quarter century, they’re still heavily reliant on college soccer. Consider that there are currently about 500 players listed on the rosters of league teams, according to MLSsoccer.com, and of those, 58 percent played college soccer for at least one season and 36 percent of them played four seasons before turning pro. Of the 68 players to have seen time for the U.S. under Klinsmann, 40 are former college players and 15 played four years.

“For all the growth the league has had, a lot of that’s been on the back of college soccer,” said a prominent coach. “They like to talk about how their product has improved but U.S. Soccer is always talking down college (soccer), saying it’s not the best for development. Well, where do they think these improved players are coming from? We’re getting better players coming into college soccer, but we’re also putting out better players.”

The trick for college coaches was to find a solution that gives the college players more games and practice, giving them less reason to leave college and thus allowing the coaches to play a greater role in the development of pro players. But they also have to make a case to the NCAA about why this is important, not to pro soccer or the national team but to the NCAA’s dual (and often conflicting) missions of pushing education and revenue generation.

“We have the only sport where kids turn pro early to get more practice,” said a veteran coach. “Football, basketball, even hockey and baseball, kids turn pro and it’s because the money is too good to turn down. In MLS, no one is signing for set-for-life money. But the top players are still leaving. Why? Because they need, or they think they need, more games and more practice hours and they think they’ll get that turning pro.

"In the NBA, if a kid wants to turn pro, no college is going to compete with that money. But for (the money) our players are turning pro for? We should be able to offer an alternative.”

THE COLLEGE COACHES think they’ve found a solution, coming up with a proposal for a longer season and more practice that will also reduce travel, thus keeping the student-athletes in class more, while also increasing the chances of college soccer holding some events that turn a profit.

Under the proposed change, which is just for Division I men’s soccer, the current college season—18 regular season games played in the fall followed by the postseason—would shift to 13 games between the start of the fall season and Thanksgiving with the season resuming with practice in February and games in March, with nine more games played before conference and NCAA Tournament games begin in the spring. The amount of training would also increase.

Currently, this is just a proposal that college coaches are pushing. It needs to be formally proposed to an NCAA conference, ruminated and debated and then voted upon. If the rules changes are approved—and while most coaches are optimistic, it’s far from a slam dunk—the earliest these changes would be implemented would be the season beginning in the fall of 2016.

It’s not a huge increase in games but, proponents say, it will have major trickle-down effect that will help player development and allow the teams to put a better product on the field—especially by allowing teams to play once a week.

“Our season, it’s so compact right now,” said a West Coast coach. For all the talk of us playing too few games, one of the big problems is we actually play too many games because we’re cramming it into the fall. This change will allow us to have one game a week. We play twice a week. Sometimes we play two (games) over a three-day weekend or have four games over 11 days. That’s bad for the kids, both in terms of play and as student-athletes. This will get them in the classroom more during the week and enable them to be not so fatigued during the season.”

A major complaint of college soccer is its substitution rules, which allows for unlimited subs—as opposed to three in pro soccer—and re-entry in the second half. “It ruins the flow of the game and completely changes tactics. It’s a much more chaotic game and relies more on fitness than skill,” said a coach.

Added another: “When you have so many games in a short time, it’s tough to avoid (all the subs.) When you play twice in three days and travel on the off-day, you can’t rely on just 14 players. You have to use your bench more. If we’re playing once a week, we can change the sub rules and get more in line with the rest of the world.”

A promise to play something closer to international soccer isn’t what’s going to get this proposal approved by the NCAA presidents, who will vote on it once it’s formally presented sometime in the next year.

“There are two major pitches to get this passed: One is we show how this is better for the players as student-athletes, how it enables them to miss less class, and will hopefully see fewer top players leaving early. And the other is it gives us a chance to create an event in our College Cup (college soccer’s final four) that could be profitable. Any time you can put a potential revenue stream on the table, you get their attention.”

The NCAA Tournament is currently held after Thanksgiving with the College Cup in mid-December. Often the games are held in frigid temperatures. Always they compete with “college football, the NFL, the start of college basketball, final exams, and the winter holidays. How are we going to get enough fans to make a profit going up against all that?”

Said one coach whose team went far in the NCAA Tournament last year: “The biggest thing we need to do is make the College Cup profitable. And the best way to do it is to have it in the spring when the weather is warmer and we aren’t competing with football and college basketball. Look at the College World Series. That’s become a profitable event. Look at lacrosse—they sell out NFL stadiums for their final four. You want to tell me lacrosse is more popular than soccer? But they play in the spring and we don’t. That’s why we need to change.”

The proposed changes might just be needed for college soccer’s survival. Currently the NCAA mandates that all Division I programs have a minimum of seven different varsity sports for both men and women or six for men and at least eight for women. But with the autonomy the power conferences—Southeast Conference, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac 12—have been granted, they could change that rule and only focus on the sports that generate revenue.

“These changes could definitely impact college soccer negatively and could cause some programs to be eliminated or scaled back. On the flip side, some programs could also benefit and be seen as a potential revenue stream if the attendance and support was there from the community," said one coach in the heart of a power conference.

But that uncertainty underscores the need to put on a better product, something some coaches don’t think their colleagues are doing enough of. “Put out a good product on the field and sell tickets,” said one coach in an urban market. “I ask myself after every game if I would spend $20 and three hours of my life to come watch my team play and compete. I don't think enough coaches ask that question.”

“It’s not just the product on the field,” said another coach. “We need to do more to create a better atmosphere, a better in-game experience. That’s not about the NCAA, that’s about us reaching out to our student body, our alumni, our community and getting them involved in the program and engaging them in our product.”

Still, the lynchpin for college soccer’s blueprint is expanding to a longer schedule. For all the optimism, not all coaches are convinced they will be approved by the NCAA.

“I'm not confident the proposal will pass, and if it doesn't college soccer will continue to get attacked by other soccer groups as standing in the way of us developing as a soccer nation,” continued one coach. “While I disagree with that view, it will have more validity if we don't make some change.”

Meanwhile not all college coaches are convinced a longer season is the solution.

College soccer is “in a no-win (public relations) battle because college soccer does things differently,” said another coach via e-mail. “The fact that we actually produce top/great players while never seeing the cream of the crop (of the best players, who pass on college soccer) is incredible and maybe should point to the fact that what we're doing works.

"Instead it's a conform-at-all-costs theory we're going with."

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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