by Paul Gardner
So here comes the difficult bit. Trying to make a coherent whole of my dealings with and memories of college soccer since 1960. It’s not easy because there really isn’t anything coherent about men’s college soccer. Not easy? I suspect it’s impossible. But let’s see ...
I first experienced it as an almost comical imitation of the sport. I look at it today -- 60 years later -- and, though I no longer find it funny, I still see it as something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit into the sport’s structure, a sport searching for a role.
For sure, there’s one very obvious oddity. Here is a major soccer operation, involving thousands of young players, that is not under the control of soccer people. It is run by the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has the task of running a whole range of college sports.
The sports that really matter to the NCAA are basketball and football -- the two revenue-producing sports. Soccer is just one among all the others. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any convincing proof that the NCAA is anti-soccer. Its attitude is really one of indifference to the sport’s special needs.
The extent to which college soccer exists as an obedient servant of the NCAA was impressed indelibly into my mind at one of the coaches conventions in the 1970s. I sat in on the annual meeting to which the NCAA sent a representative to update the Division 1 coaches on any new decisions affecting their sport.
A room full of male coaches, the older guys with a lot of experience, and some pretty argumentative types (I know, I’d interviewed them). In came the NCAA rep, a pert young woman about half the age of the experienced coaches. She told them the good news. They were now allowed to print their recruiting materials in four colors.
Subdued, obedient silence. No one leapt up yelling “Are you kidding?” Nothing like that. This was a group of hardened coaches being handed a very skimpy bone. They took it without protest. Where they might have expected news on their attempts to get some more games, a longer season, a ruling allowing them to apply FIFA rules, they got instead four-color fliers.
That pathetic incident says it all. Soccer has no clout in the NCAA, its requirements will not be treated with any sense of importance or urgency.
Nothing as fragile as a glass ceiling stands in the way of soccer getting what it seeks -- it’s more of a solid brick wall. Invisible of course, and also impassable. It has easily repelled the efforts of strong-minded coaches like Steve Negoesco, Joe Morrone, Jerry Yeagley, John Rennie, and Ray Reid to emphasize the importance of soccer. Currently, it is Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski who has taken up college soccer’s cause. I wish him well, but he has an unenviable task.
Anyway, not all of college soccer’s failings can be laid at the NCAA’s doorstep. The sport has had constant problems presenting a united stand, with the coaches of the various divisions putting forth motions for changes that would benefit only their division and would not be welcomed by the other divisions.
Even within Division 1 there has been bitter argument. In 1980, the NCAA passed a resolution limiting the soccer season to 22 games -- at a time when the major Division 1 programs were seeking more games. And the shocking truth was that this motion had been proffered by the Ivy League schools in response to requests by their own soccer coaches.
Brown coach Cliff Stevenson, who was seen as the architect of this betrayal, stuck to his guns. He told me: “My players have to get an education. If you play too many games in a short period, you’re taking the kids out of class too much.” UConn’s Joe Morrone had another view: “Hey, in 1974 Brown beat Boston University 18-1. But in the last two years Brown has lost to B.U. because Boston is recruiting and upgrading their program. Brown is falling behind.”
But Stevenson, I had to admit, had the decisive argument. He repeated something he had told me nearly 10 years earlier: “Nobody ever told me my job was to develop players for the pros.” How does one answer that?
Which takes precedence -- the education or the soccer? Equally important? That is clearly not a practical solution. To be played anywhere near top level, soccer is a sport that demands a lot of time, plenty of games and practice -- tiring physical effort. Such a regimen is bound to interfere with a serious study schedule.
There has been very little straightforward speaking on this problem. The clearest words came in 1996 from Alan Rothenberg, then President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, when MLS announced its Project-40 program of special training (definitely not including college soccer) for outstanding young players. Said Rothenberg: “As long as the NCAA has in place the incredibly restrictive practices that it does, we cannot look to college soccer to produce top-class talent.” He also categorically ruled out any chance of the NCAA adopting a more understanding attitude: “I see no movement whatever on the NCAA’s part.”
Among other factors making college soccer a poor training ground for soccer talent are these: a short season, failure to abide by FIFA’s internationally accepted rules, and the fact that it is, in effect, an extension of the age-bracket system of youth soccer -- meaning that the college soccer player never plays alongside or against older and wiser players and, of course, never with or against professionals.
There are huge disadvantages involved here. A college player graduates at age 22 with no experience of the adult game at all. His contemporaries all over the world, most of them already pros themselves, will have been playing in professional leagues for four years or longer.
A less measurable -- but to my mind more damning -- indictment of the college game is its extraordinary insularity. This particular defect cannot be blamed on the NCAA. This is something college soccer has wished upon itself. When I first saw college soccer in 1960 it was an overly physical, hectic, thud-and-blunder type game, with an emphasis on hustle at the expense of skill and artistry.
It is a more sophisticated game now, but a firm underpinning of hectic pace and the hustle is still there. The subtlety and the artistry are still in short supply, simply squeezed out by what looks suspiciously like the machismo of a rollicking robust game?
The pattern for a more skillful game is to be found, of course, in futbol, the Latino style of soccer. But searching for a Latin influence in college soccer renders slim pickings. A few Latino players (mostly American born), a handful of Latino coaches. But no team devoted to playing a Latin style of soccer.
Starting in 1967, I have attended nearly all the annual Coaches Conventions. They mirror college soccer’s aversion to futbol -- it is rarely to be found. Clinics, lectures, demonstrations featuring European coaches are ten-a-penny in the convention. The Scots (who’ve never won anything) and the English (who’ve won a single World Cup, over 50 years ago) are always well represented. But Brazil and Argentina (seven World Cups between them)? Near neighbors Mexico (with an excellent record in FIFA youth tournaments)? Usually absent.
Year after year the convention has presented a menu of arid lectures and discussions, accompanied by clinics featuring fatuous schemes and systems of play that look good in the controlled, theoretical confines of the demonstration hall ... but are unlikely to be of value in the real game.
For those wanting to embrace the full range of soccer, its uplifting beauty as well as its exciting physicality, the convention has always been a deplorable wasteland.
I remain baffled by the way college soccer, and the convention, have managed, for over 60 years, to remain deliberately ignorant of futbol. I’ve just taken a look at the rosters of the teams that played in the 2019 College Final Four: Stanford, Georgetown, Virginia and Wake Forest. A total of 111 players … with only two recognizably Latino names.
I’m sorry, guys, but there is absolutely no excuse for this. Fielding a basically Latino team, playing futbol, can be done in college soccer. Arnie Ramirez did it successfully for 20 years at Long Island University in Brooklyn, from 1979-1998.
He brought in just enough skilled players from Latin America to give his team its Latin flavor; the other players came from Europe, from the Caribbean, or they were Americans. But they all had to be real players. Being a good athlete was not good enough, they had to have a genuine feel for the skills, tricks and subtleties of futbol.
I attended a lot of those LIU games, because the team had the enormous attraction of not playing like a typical college team. There was always good soccer to be enjoyed at LIU games.
So who copied what Ramirez was doing? No one that I’m aware of. Elsewhere, all round the USA, college coaches continued to be satisfied with banalities and platitudes and continued to recruit hustling athletes.
What makes this shameful tale even worse is that college soccer, by opening up to a Latino influence could turn itself into a much more attractive attacking, goalscoring game.
In the 2015 Division 1 final, Stanford beat Clemson 4-0. But that was an aberrant scoreline. A look at the scorelines of the other 20 finals of the 21st century gives a much truer picture of college soccer: eight of the games ended 1-0; three of them, at 0-0, had no goals at all. Eleven games (over 50% of the finals) with an average of 0.7 goals each.
Those figures hide a dire truth, that Division 1 soccer, far from improving, has been getting steadily stodgier. In its first 20 years, between 1959 and 1978, the Division 1 College Cup final game featured 71 goals ... 3.5 goals a game.
One need not pause to wonder why the Division 1 final, played on neutral ground, regularly fails to attract any fans.
Are there no voices within college soccer to tell the world, but above all to tell themselves, that this is not good enough? That their version of soccer is a consistent bore?
It comes down to this. Is there a place within American soccer for a well-organized national youth network (up to age 22, if you please) that has given abundant evidence over the past 50 years that it does not overly care about the quality of the game that it puts on the field? That seems to be quite satisfied to go on turning out just plain ordinary players?
The answer to that is obviously No. What organization, in any activity, anywhere, would accept the inferiority that such a farce must entail?
I hate the idea of college soccer withering away. There must be a place for it in the overall U.S. picture. A place that acknowledges the importance of getting a good college education, but also serves the sport of soccer by ensuring a soccer education that improves their performance.
But I cannot see the sport even beginning to become relevant until it radically reorganizes its own house. That means paying attention to the soccer it plays, taking measures to encourage a much livelier, goalscoring game, that welcomes creativity and originality, that abjures the game-killing rigidities of defensive formations.
A massive first step in that direction would be to embrace futbol, to start seriously recruiting Latino players. And coaches. A move that would also have the healthy benefit of defending college soccer from accusations of discrimination against Latinos -- and how can such accusations not surface in the face of what looks almost like a 60-year ban on Latino players?
College soccer can no longer claim importance as a farm system for pro players. No one of any knowledge or importance still believes that. Perhaps the college coaches themselves do. If so, it is but a measure of what I have already pointed out: that college coaches have lost touch with reality over the past decades.
College soccer can survive, should survive, as a widely played example of the sport at its lively best (it is far from that at the moment), a nationwide point of contact for Americans (and that must include the so-far excluded Latinos) that boosts soccer’s popularity and acceptance within mainstream American life.
What Alan Rothenberg said in 1996 about the NCAA’s lack of interest in soccer was 100% true: “I see no movement whatever on the NCAA’s part.” Unfortunately, the same criticism can be leveled at college soccer itself: virtually no movement whatever. For 50 years, inertia has ruled college soccer.
It defies explanation. From this group of several thousand young players, college students, which one would expect to be at the forefront of promoting and popularizing soccer, the game has received nothing. It is worse than that. College soccer has proved itself a burden for the sport. Far from providing a key step in the development of young players, college soccer offers four years that inhibit their growth.
I do not see how there can any longer be doubts. College soccer -- those thousands of bright youngsters, those promising players -- has turned into a solid, inert obstacle to progress.
I believe that most soccer people know that. They may not wish to admit it, but deep down they know that college soccer is a very dull affair that is damaging the sport it should be enriching.
College soccer people themselves act as though unaware of that reality. They live a shaky not-quite existence, caught between the lure of being a breeding-ground for pros, and the perhaps less exciting attraction of providing a sound academic education. A sort of dreamland existence.
Any equivocation over those different aims should long ago have been settled. The colleges cannot produce pro players. Which means that what is in doubt now is exactly what role the colleges can play in American soccer.
I think I’ve made it clear enough that I do not think that college soccer, as currently operating, has any role to play. A conclusion that I adopt reluctantly. But let us listen to Sasho Cirovski, who I have mentioned several times as the man who is now making the case for college soccer.
This is how Cirovski sees things: “I would love nothing more than to have U.S. Soccer officially recognize the importance of college soccer . . . [to understand] the pivotal role that college soccer plays in the fabric of the American soccer landscape ...”
What on earth is the man talking about? Pivotal? We are back in dreamland. Cirovski outlines a future for college soccer. But he is dreaming. It is a nice dream -- but it should not be a dream. It should be reality. Cirovski is talking about the potential of college soccer.
But that potential has been lying dormant for 50 years. That it is still only a dream is a reliable measure of college soccer’s inertia. Dreams that have been lying around, unrealized, for 50 years are nothing more than pipe dreams.
Yes, college soccer should be important to the sport, maybe it should even be “pivotal,” but it will never be that as long as it continues to be a turgid, defense-oriented version of the sport. A version that college coaches appear to have gladly adopted as their sport.
I’m forced to the conclusion that college soccer is its own worst enemy. It fails to recognize its own weaknesses, even its own strengths. Right now, college soccer seems rather fond of importing large-size Scandinavian players. But not many smaller Latinos. As long as that absurd -- and rather unpleasant -- bias continues, college soccer can forget about being pivotal to any aspect of the sport.
Is there hope? Well, in condemning the goalscoring drought in the abysmally dull recent college finals, I omitted -- deliberately -- to mention the scoreline of the most recent 2019 edition. It was 3-3. Six goals! You have to go back nearly 40 years to find more goalscoring than that (1980: USF 4 Indiana 3).
So maybe a new spirit is abroad in the college game? I wish ... but I doubt. Because my 50-year experience is that college soccer specializes in false dawns. There always seems to be a reason to trust the sport to get things right. And it never does. Nothing changes. How utterly sad.