For all the talk about shifting the focus to help future pros in college football and basketball, college soccer is the one place where there is a real dilemma about it. Right now the NBA and NFL have no plans coming in the near future that would displace the NCAA as the best route for aspiring pros. And while relationship between MLB and college baseball has its tensions, especially with overworked pitchers, the two have reached a stable equilibrium, if not a shift toward the increasing importance of college baseball with the new slotting rules.
Leander Schaerlaeckens of Fox Sports is in the middle of a four-part series about college soccer and its place in the professional development pipeline. The first piece, about the problems with college soccer, reached a pretty bleak conclusion. The combination of liberal substitution rules, short season, uneven competition, and limited training time create a style of soccer that does not translate to the professional game.
The second piece, about solutions, names a few possible fixes:
If the college soccer spring season of a mere half-dozen games were expanded – teams currently can’t fly to away games then, either – and MLS-affiliated college players were allowed to play in the MLS Reserve League during their off-seasons – on an amateur basis, of course – it would solve a great many problems. But both of those measures would entail significant rule-changes from the notoriously intransigent NCAA.
Schaerlaeckens’s pessimism is countered by what the NCAA has done to help soccer development, even at its own expense. Proposal 2009–22 changed the rules regarding prospects playing on the same team as professionals. That is why homegrown players can continue to play on academy teams and academy players can appear in reserve league games without affecting anyone’s eligibility. Without that rule change, the gap between academy and first teams Schaerlaeckens bemoans earlier in the piece would be even greater. Allowing college players to play in the reserve team is as simple as expanding the rule for prospects to current student-athletes.
More games in the spring nonchampionship or exhibition season are not likely to happen. Neither is a more radical change, to eliminate that nonchampionship segment and expand the championship season to the entire academic year with fall and spring seasons of maybe 30 games total followed by the NCAA tournament in May or June. Higher costs, more missed class time and an already busy spring calendar for the NCAA make it a long shot. Money is also a major obstacle to increasing scholarship limits, which would improve the quality of athlete attracted and create more games between highly competitive teams.
Allowing players to play in the MLS Reserve League over the summer and the changes to college soccer rules that Schaerlaeckens advocates are well within the realm of possibility. That alone will not make college soccer once again the default choice for top prospects, but it will help maintain its role as the volume producer of talent and second chance for diamonds in the rough and late bloomers.