COVID-19: A Potential Silver Lining for American Soccer
By: Alex Kaczynski
The coronavirus has remolded almost every facet of life worldwide since it reached pandemic levels in March 2020. Professional and college sports alike felt the blow of halted competition and the revenue loss from such events. However, unlike professional sports, there will be no resumption of play for the foreseeable future for many college teams.
As of July 8th, after the first big wave of colleges cutting teams, seven collegiate men's soccer programs have been cut. The number could grow even higher depending on the financial situation colleges face after a fall semester with decreased revenues related to the lack of a “normal” college football season. Even now, however, in the three “Power 5” conferences that compete in college soccer (The Big 10, ACC, and PAC-12), only the ACC is playing a fall season, despite all three playing college football. As a result, the top amateur soccer players in the nation cannot compete for an entire season during crucial years for development.
In contrast, every league in America that is officially considered a professional league is playing this fall. The top division, Major League Soccer, is playing its season after a successful “MLS is Back” tournament ended in August, with the second and third division leagues, the USL Championship and USL League One, playing as well. The second league in the third division, the NISA (the equivalent of the independent league in minor league baseball), also played a season this fall.
So, where is the silver lining? In a world game, America has been far behind in terms of success. A significant reason for this comes down to the training and time spent developing young players. The United States Soccer Federation (American soccer’s governing body) tried to solve this problem by creating the United States Soccer Development Academy in 2007, which attempted to place promising American soccer prospects into a professional setting early on in their development. The league disbanded due to the pandemic but has been replaced by a league spearheaded by MLS clubs that acts largely in the same way. This league’s best products, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Gio Reyna, all immediately played professional soccer, bypassing a college career. Although there are players that have played college soccer and gone on to play at a high level internationally, like former Wake Forest and current Leeds United winger Jack Harrison, the earlier a player can enter into a “professional environment,” the better.
With colleges increasingly cutting programs in response to revenue loss, top American soccer prospects can now potentially follow the route of the Pulisics and Reynas, skipping college entirely to play professionally right away, like in the rest of the world. If top prospects start going straight to the pros, college soccer would have to adapt its model to be seen as a viable and attractive alternative for the top youth players. Maryland Men’s Soccer coach and college soccer legend, Sasho Cirovski, has proposed a change that would change college soccer into a two-season sport (fall and spring). This proposal, which has been supported by many college coaches and players, creates a format similar to professional soccer, giving players more time to recover from injuries and more training time throughout the year. While college players would still not spend as many hours training as professional players under this model, it is far superior to the current NCAA framework, which has some periods where teams cannot practice with a ball for more than two hours per week. Such training restrictions are in direct conflict with developing young players.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world of sports for the last eight months and the aftershock might be felt for years to come. Instead of focusing on all of the negative stories resulting from the pandemic, though, it would be nice to look at a potential positive. If more programs are cut, the landscape of college soccer will be changed for good. Whether that results in top prospects entering the professional game early, substantial college soccer reforms, or both, American soccer as a whole might come out as the winner. Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna have shown that young American soccer players benefit from being placed into a professional environment early in their careers. Stars from around the globe have proven this model as well. So while the pandemic has caused dire short-term consequences for college soccer, it may simultaneously be opening the door to new possibilities that create more elite American talent on the global stage.
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