Alright football fans, sit down. Class is in session.
One of the first questions that I always get asked about American soccer, aside from why do Americans sing songs from other countries during matches, how are the young players trained. It is a fairly common question that comes with a very uncommon answer in international soccer. Although most Major League Soccer teams do have youth academies, and the U.S. National Team has their own academy in Florida, the most popular path that players take is through attending college.
College soccer, at times, can be both brilliant and aggravating. A system that has both byzantine rules and breathtaking moments, the NCAA College soccer system annoys many in this country because it is inherently anti-football. Yet it is extremely valuable in producing quality players not only for the United States, but also abroad as well. Players like John Harkes, Vedad Ibisevic, Darlington Nagbe, Kasey Keller, Darren Mattocks, Neven Subotic, and Clint Dempsey all played college soccer.
With the Men’s and Women’s NCAA College Cups (the playoff finale for both Leagues) about to kick off, class is in session for College Soccer 101.
#1Why do so many players choose to go to college instead of straight to the Pros?
Despite the many advances that U.S. Soccer, as an institution, has made in recent years it is still difficult to make it as a professional soccer player in the United States. According to figures released by the Major League Soccer Players Union earlier this year, the average MLS player makes $102,661.48 when taking out the Designated Players. On the low end, the average player makes about $35, 125 a year. This also does not include that professional athletes are taxed in every state that they play in and all of the other basic living expenses that a professional athlete can encounter.
College athletics play such a major role in the American sport landscape because it offers kids the opportunity to pay for a college degree by using their talents on the pitch. Even if a player gets a partial scholarship that would mean that $20,000-$30,000 could be taken off of a tuition bill that could cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars after 4 years of school.
#2 Ok I get it. U.S. Soccer still needs college soccer to develop talent. So what is this NCAA and how long have colleges had soccer programs?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a consortium of American colleges and universities that work together to on amateur athletics. The NCAA not only crowns champions in soccer, football, basketball, but also smaller sports like archery, wrestling, and gymnastics. There are over three divisions of colleges within the NCAA for both men’s and women’s athletics with Division I representing the top tier. Divisions are based off of how much investment gives to a particular sport and so certain colleges can be in one division for one sport and another division for another sport. For example, Georgetown University in Washington D.C. plays in Division I for soccer and basketball and Division II for American football. To make things easy on us all, we are going to solely focus on Division I athletics for men’s and women’s soccer (A big apology to my alma mater McDaniel College. Go Green Terror!)
While men’s college soccer was first instituted as an amateur sport by the NCAA back in 1959, it wasn’t until 1982 that women’s soccer had their own championship. Although there have been women’s college athletics dating back to the turn of the 21st century, they were often poorly funded. Also, American culture was much different and less accepting of women’s athletics in the early part of the 1900’s. This all changed with the passage of the Education Amendment of 1972, which under Title IX required that all colleges and universities provide equal funding for men’s and women’s college athletics. This amendment has been a major asset to not only women’s soccer, but women’s athletics as a whole.
#3 So how does the NCAA determine a champion in college soccer? What is this College Cup that I keep hearing about?
This is where things get fun. The champions of men’s and women’s soccer are determined each year by a single elimination tournament called the College Cup. It used to be known as just the NCAA Men’s Division I Championship but that was not a sexy enough name for the suits in the NCAA. In the men’s tournament there are 48 teams, while there are 64 teams in the women’s tournament.
A team can make the challenge cup through channels. First, teams are awarded automatic qualification by winning their regional conference. In addition to being a part of the NCAA, college sports are then subdivided into Conferences that are either based on geography (PAC- 12) on having a history in other sports (the Southeastern Conference). These winners are determined by a single elimination tournament within their conference.
The remaining participants for both tournaments will be given at-large bids by the NCAA Committee. This Committee is made up of Athletic Directors from the various colleges, coaches, and prominent journalists in the sport. These are teams that may have had a really good season, but for some reason did not win their conference championship. The NCAA also releases a weekly ranking of the 25 best teams in the nation, which is often a good indicator of what squads will receive an at-large bid in the tournament,
Once the participants have been announced, the teams are then given seeds based off of their performance this season. For example, the University of North Carolina women’s team has been one of the best teams this year so they will in all likelihood received a high seed like a #1 or #2. On the other hand, a team that may have had a poor regular season but pulled off a few upsets in their conference championship would receive a lower seed. Teams like this are often referred to as Cinderella if they are able to beat a team that is a higher seed.
#4 Who have been the best teams in college soccer? Who are the teams to look out for in this tournament?
In the men’s tournament, the University of St. Louis holds the all-time record with ten NCAA Championships. But St. Louis has not won a tournament since 1973. More recently the two most prominent programs have been the University of Virginia and the University of Indiana. The University of Virginia is perhaps the more recognized program. Under Coach Bruce Arena the Cavaliers winning 5 NCAA titles in 6 years from 1989 to 1994. At the University of Virginia, players like Claudio Reyna and John Harkes helped create a dynasty which provided American soccer some identity when there was no professional league to speak of. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the University of Virginia is that they have qualified for every NCAA Tournament since 1981, one of the longest streaks in all of college athletics. UVA comes into this tournament with a very potent squad, having just finished second in the ACC Championship to the University of Maryland.
The other major force in men’s college soccer is the University of Indiana. The reigning NCAA Champions, the Hoosiers have won 8 NCAA titles, including three in the past ten years. What is most interesting about this team is Coach Todd Yeagley. Yeagley, the former Columbus Crew player, seems to have fallen into the family business. His father, Jerry, coached the team for over 40 years and won 6 NCAA Titles. Todd also led the Hoosiers to victory over Georgetown University in the 2012 College Cup. Although they stumbled a bit this year, going 8-11-2 they did win the Big 10 tournament and will look to defend their title come Thursday.
As for women’s team, without question the most dominant team in NCAA history has been the University of North Carolina Lady Tar Heels. A 21-time NCAA Women’s Soccer Champion, a 19-time ACC Regular Season Champion, and a 19-time ACC Tournament Champion, the Lady Tar Heels have had an incredible impact not only on Women’s soccer, but on American soccer as a whole. Just look at the names who have played for this team. It reads like a virtual “who’s who” of great women’s soccer players. Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs, Cindy Parlow, Tisha Venturi, Carla Overbeck, Kristine Lilly, Siri Mullinix. All of these women have made a lasting impact on the women’s game and helped push the U.S. Women’s National Team to the success that it has enjoyed for the past 25 years. Full credit goes to coach Anson Dorrance, who has coached the team since 1977 and has been instrumental in the development of the women’s game. The fact that he has not been inducted into the United States Soccer Hall of Fame is a travesty.
#5 Who are some of the other teams to look out for in this tournament?
Despite Indiana and the University of Virginia being two of the staples of NCAA Men’s Soccer, neither is expected to make a deep run in this tournament. The top team in the nation this year has been UCLA, which just lost to the University of Washington on Sunday in the Pac-12 Championship. A three-time tournament champion, the Bruins come into the tournament with a record of 11-3-4 (W-D-L) and are currently ranked as the #1 in the top 25 of NCAA Men’s Soccer. They play a very tight 4-4-2 and gives up very few goals.
The other team that is worth taking a look at is the University of Maryland. Although the Terrapins are ranked ninth in the nation, they feature the best player in college soccer in Forward Patrick Mullins. The Hermann Award winner, which is given to the top college soccer player each year, Mullins has scored 14 goals this season and may end up being the #1 pick in this year’s MLS Superdraft. The Terrapins are a three-time NCAA Champion (1965, 2005, and 2008) and are looking to build off of last year’s semifinals exit against Georgetown University.
There are plenty of other of teams that are worth watching out for. The University of Michigan, Duke University, Clemson, the University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County are all very excellent teams and all should have a chance at making deep runs in the tournament.
In the women’s tournament, the Lady Tar Heels major foe is the University of Virginia. Although they do not have the history of their ACC counterparts, the Lady Cavaliers have had an amazing season this year posting a record of 20-1-0. They have already beaten the Tar Heels earlier this season 2-0 at Chapel Hill (the home of the University of North Carolina,) and have only allowed 13 goals this season. While the North Carolina may historically be the best team in women’s soccer, the Cavaliers are a very good team and look poised to winning their first-ever NCAA Women’s College Cup.
The other traditional powers in women’s soccer should also be in the mix for the Women’s College Cup. UCLA (3-time finalist,) Portland (2-time Champion,) Florida (1998 Champion,) and the University of Notre Dame (3-time Champion) will all be in the tournament and will all be looking to take down Virginia and North Carolina. It will also be interesting to see how newcomers like Florida State and Virginia Tech, two teams that are ranked #3 and #4 respectively in the women’s soccer top 25, respond given their newfound success.
So your homework assignment this week is to tune into the College Cup on Thursday and take notes on the matches. I expect a full report on the 11pm match on Thursday between UCLA and the winners of Clemson-Elon to be in my office by 5am the next morning. And please avoid doing keg stands with the Terrapin supporters.