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'Stuck in neutral': College soccer still grappling with uncertain future

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Men's college soccer sees a switch to spring-fall as vital. As Charles Boehm reports, not everybody's on board.

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. – As American soccer evolves, the college game has slipped into a tenuous position. As many look beyond it, a group of its biggest proponents is fighting for the sport’s future.

Is college soccer doomed to irrelevance and decline?

University of Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski presented an argument last month on behalf of a group of coaches dedicated to turning the college season into a two-semester sport. Cirovski called college soccer “the pulse, the glue and the heartbeat of soccer in this country” at panel discussion on the topic earlier this year.

That April panel expounded on the value of the college game over the years, listed the significant problems dogging it today and urged the spectators packing the lecture hall to carry the discussion out into the wider soccer community.

“We are in the crunch time right now to see whether college soccer rises, or dwindles,” said Taylor Twellman, the ESPN commentator and retired star who served as the event's moderator.

Acknowledging the problem

NCAA soccer's shortcomings are known to many. An entire season and championship tournament is crammed into less than four months in the fall, at a time when other sports dominate the country's attention, culminating in a College Cup weekend too often played in frigid, mostly-empty venues in early December.

An overemphasis on speed, fitness and physicality – fueled by nearly-unlimited substitutions and other significant rulebook quirks compared to the global game – grinds down players and makes for ugly soccer, especially in higher-profile postseason matches.

“It's a survival contest,” said Cirovski, noting that he and other coaches “have to play master psychologist” with their players at the business end of the campaign to “mentally and physically [try] to put [players] in a place where they can believe they're going to feel really good, even though they're exhausted and dead.”

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Yet despite the best efforts of the U.S. Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer to circumvent it, NCAA soccer remains a key ingredient in the formation of top players. Nearly half of the United States' 2014 World Cup squad (11 of 23) and each of the last five MLS rookie-of-the-year award winners spent time in the college system. As with other American scholastic sports, it occupies a hallowed cultural niche and presents players with useful challenges.

“There's pressure. The kids know, your colleagues know: Did you play well? Did the team win? Did you play poorly?” said legendary UNC women's coach Anson Dorrance, part of Cirovski’s panel. “That's part of growing up as an athlete. If you're only playing club, it's anonymous. I don't think you develop that emotional maturity that you need to play a college sport.”

But the enormous revenue generated by American football and men's basketball relegates soccer, along with myriad other sports, into the role of red-headed stepchild in the eyes of the NCAA. Federal Title IX gender-equity laws helped fuel the meteoric rise of women's college soccer. Of the NCAA's 351 Division I universities, 206 have men's soccer, while 334 play women's soccer.

Leading NCAA executive and former Houston Dynamo president and general manager Oliver Luck pointed out the grim reality: Among Division I's “power five” conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC), only 31 member schools carry men's soccer programs – virtually none in the south or southwest.

“It's an Achilles heel for [soccer] not to have enough men's programs in states like Texas, Louisiana, across the Southeast into Florida,” said Luck, whose oldest child Andrew is a star NFL quarterback and youngest, Addison, began his college soccer career at Yale this fall. “The talent down there is enormous.”

College soccer has failed to adapt to the rise of “early specialization,” prompting many players with professional ambitions to bypass the NCAA level entirely.

Time to change the paradigm

Unfortunately for college soccer's advocates, the most pressing need is the most difficult one to attain.

Cirovski is the standard-bearer of the movement to overhaul the NCAA soccer calendar to a two-semester, spring-fall schedule, a shift providing for more recovery and training time between matches and a more enticing championship tournament in late spring.

“It's a global sport, it's a beautiful sport, but we're stuck in neutral.”

Speaking with rising passion, the Terps coach reeled off the many advantages of a longer, less frenetic season. Currently, teams often play twice per week, sometimes twice per weekend, leaving limited time for training and developing after travel, play and recovery. New proposals would have teams mostly only playing once per week.

“We have to do this game justice,” he said. “In our model, you play only one midweek game in a month. You play only on weekends. You get proper training and development, proper periodization, proper competition for positions by your players.”

The frantic fall schedule puts an emphasis on the spring season for player development. Yet even that is subject to what NSCAA executive Rob Kehoe called a “restricted structure” thanks to NCAA rules written with other sports in mind.

“The winter/spring is [limited to] eight hours [per week] and you can only have two hours on the soccer ball. So you have six hours dedicated to running and lifting and those things, and two hours that relate to playing soccer. Then you have five games,” he said.

“College soccer just does not meet the standards if we're going to develop [players].”

Roadblocks within the system

Cirovski's ideas have already earned the endorsement of U.S. Soccer, MLS and other entities, but they still must wind their way through the NCAA's interminable process of consideration and approval, a governance system which Luck refers to as “byzantine.”

Thanks to the efforts of Luck, Cirovski and others, the split-season proposal has won sweeping support across the men's game. Yet the movement must win over non-soccer figures who hold final say, and who have a significantly different set of financial and logistical priorities.

“If you asked athletic directors at the 200-plus schools that have men's soccer programs, they'd be split. Less than 50 percent would be supportive,” said Luck, who previously served as AD at West Virginia University. “Why? It's a change. And logistics, and finances, and fields.”

Cirovski and Kehoe suggested that a longer season could actually change the revenue picture for the better. More desirable weekend dates drawing bigger crowds and thus more ticket sales while spreading road trips out across the school year would lessen disruption to academics. And more money could eventually lead to more D1 programs.

“I think we have the potential to be a revenue-producing sport,” said Dorrance, noting the huge crowds and TV ratings for Women's World Cups and other major U.S. women's national team events. “If we don't make money, let's lose less.”

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As soccer's most prominent booster in the upper echelons of NCAA leadership, Luck remains one of the linchpins of the split-season gambit. He sees the vision, though he believes it will take years to achieve.

“We always focus on our revenue sports, which are traditionally football and men's basketball, and as a result, a lot of the other sports have sort of just survived,” he said. “I believe that men's and women's soccer can begin to move, as baseball has at many campuses, towards being a revenue sport; at the worst, (it can be) a revenue-neutral sport … but we haven't given it the focus.”

Forging a consensus

The split-season concept has yet to fully win over women's players and coaches, however.

An NSCAA poll of coaches and players, including 3,300 Division I men's and 4,500 women's players, recently revealed that 70-plus percent of D1 men favored a two-semester season, while only 17 percent of D1 women's players supported it. In terms of coaches, 90 percent of D1 men's coaches supported the idea, compared to 50 percent of D1 women's coaches.

Dorrance, an iconic figure who's led the Tar Heels to 22 national titles in his 37 years in Chapel Hill, offered a warning to those of such a mind:

“The men's game is in jeopardy at a college level, and I think we have to ally with them. I don't think we want them to go out on their own, because basically, right now, we're 10 years behind the men. And if we don't jump on board with them and push this thing through, we're going to be suffering from the same lack of relevance.”

Dorrance noted that both genders face a troubling reality: The persistent dysfunction of the U.S. youth scene is handicapping the quality and potential of players that move on to the college, professional and international levels. Youth soccer’s pay-to-play “tournament culture,” he explained, prioritizes games over practices and college recruiting above all. He called the split season “an advantage at every conceivable level” in that regard.

“Our player-development prospects will go through the roof,” said Dorrance, who led the U.S. women’s national team to victory in the first-ever Women's World Cup a quarter-century ago.

At its core, the toughest task facing Cirovski, Dorrance & Co. is convincing those from other backgrounds – especially those skeptical athletic directors – to embrace a bold vision that may seem like little more than fantasy.

“We have the largest group of kids playing this sport of any sport in this country – the No. 1 participation sport,” said Cirovski. “We have to start talking about it.

“We have to start the conversation.”

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