This is the second part in a series of columns analyzing the current climate of college soccer—its role in the development of the sport in America, its drawbacks and limitations, and the future of the game amidst a growing trend towards youth professional development.
Part 2: Where has college soccer gone wrong, and how do we fix it?
As the autumn season slowly withers into the colder and harsher climes of early winter, so too does the men’s collegiate soccer season descend into weeks of bitter competition across the nation.
Over the next few weeks, teams will be competing in conference tournaments, hoping to earn invitations for postseason action. The Ivy League enters its final weekend of regular season play with much still at stake—championship aspirations for Harvard, at-large NCAA berths to claim for others.
While the next month of games will undoubtedly feature a multitude of individual accomplishments and team achievements (culminating in the 2009 NCAA College Cup on Dec. 11), many soccer supporters will be unsatisfied yet again by the conclusion of another collegiate campaign.
Many will be dissatisfied, you see, because the collegiate version of soccer is inherently flawed. With its confounding interpretations of the “Laws of the Game”, its oft-dissonant attitude with the professional game, and frequent listless play, college soccer has rightfully been accused by many critics as a bastardization of the beautiful game played the world over.
It has also, however, wrongly been utilized as a scapegoat for all the woes of American soccer development. College soccer is neither a productive cog in the American soccer pyramid nor an antiquated system as its detractors often demonize it to be.
With a few corrections (some common-sensical) and a renewed realization of what college soccer should be, the collegiate version of the sport can rightfully assume its place alongside youth club development and Major League Soccer (MLS) player academies as a viable alternative for individuals looking to better their sporting, and more importantly, intellectual talents.
Who’s rules are these?
Here’s the scenario: A soccer aficionado is visiting the USA and is taking in his first game of collegiate soccer. The unassuming visitor is excited by the athletic talent on display and the fervent collection of frat boys on the sideline. The home coach prepares to make his substitutions, bringing two players off the field. The home team is tied and our visitor is eager to see what the new players will bring to the field. But wait, weren’t these two bench players on the field just minutes ago? He glances at the clock—why is it counting down? And why does no one seem nervous that the game is still tied with two minutes to go?
This fictitious visitor is aghast because the NCAA, in all its wisdom, has decided that the laws FIFA has cultivated for years have been deemed inadequate by college soccer’s governing body. With its unlimited substitutions, running clock, and short season amongst other things, the NCAA has effectively watered down the game and harmed the development of its top soccer prospects.
While I won’t get into a discussion as to what style of attacking soccer works best, it cannot be argued that the rules currently set in place have significantly diluted the play on the field. Unlimited substitutions have enabled coaches to throw in wave after wave of players for short spells to disrupt the opposition. Instead of carefully building up an attack through efficient passing, players often deploy “punt and sprint” strategies, electing to launch the ball downfield and sprint towards it, knowing full well that a sub on the bench will gladly reprieve them for a few minutes.
The short season and restraints placed on coaches also hamper the development of these student-athletes, and adversely affect their academic responsibilities—two things the NCAA is supposedly mandated to protect. Coaches are only allowed to train their players for 20 hourseach week during the 132 day soccer season. The season, running from September through December, ensures two things: games towards the end of the season will frequently be played under inhospitable conditions and players will have often play as many as three games in 7-8 day stretches, significantly detracting from their responsibilities in the classroom. College soccer players are asked to do yeomen’s work for one semester and then have no structured form of training the next. Contrasted with the development structures abroad, where amateur soccer players are trained year-round, USA collegiate soccer pales in comparison.
And I haven’t even mentioned the inanity of hearing an announcer count down the seconds of the game. Or the fact that many schools who boast their soccer program as the most successful squad on campus still fail to attract fans to the stands (the NCAA offers no assistance with its lack of advertisement either).
Surely, there must be a way.