Soccer's Year-Round Pitch

January 29, 2015

While a new governance structure and student-athlete benefits have grabbed most of the recent headlines in NCAA Division I, there is a change under discussion in men's soccer that could also shake things up. Men's soccer coaches are lobbying to revamp their season so that it begins in the fall, takes a break in the winter, then re-starts and is completed in the spring.

Under a proposal crafted by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, teams would compete in 13 matches from September to mid-November, be allowed eight one-hour training sessions during a winter off-season, then resume play in March. From then until May, squads would compete in nine regular-season matches followed by conference and NCAA tournament play.

The major impetus for the idea is that it would align the college season with the 10-month schedule of elite youth and professional clubs around the world, allowing college programs to better physically prepare its players to compete for the national teams. Additionally, by spreading out contests, there's hope that the college game's more liberal substitution rules would be adjusted to meet FIFA's standards. But there are also some practical arguments for the split season.

"One benefit is that spreading out the schedule would eliminate many mid-week games, meaning less missed class time, more recovery time between matches, and fewer overuse injuries," says Oliver Luck, Athletic Director at West Virginia University, former President of the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer from 2005 to 2010, and a proponent of the rules change. "It's hard to ask an athlete to run five or more miles during a Saturday match and expect him to do it again on Tuesday. We've had meetings with Brian Hainline, the NCAA's Chief Medical Officer, and he's supportive of the idea."

Fewer weekday games could provide an attendance boost as well. "Some teams draw 4,000 fans for a game on the weekend, but half that number during the week," Luck says. "Additional weekend games could result in increased fan support and revenue."
Moving title matches to May could also expose men's soccer to a larger audience. Currently, the sport's championships compete for fans with both football and basketball.

Still, there are concerns about potential financial repercussions that could accompany such a move. "Some schools may need to hire more sports information staff to cover the sport during the spring season," Luck says. "Additionally, schools whose opponents are not close to their campus may prefer a condensed schedule as it means fewer road trips. There are also questions about facility conflicts. If the men's soccer team plays on the same field as the lacrosse teams, scheduling for that space could become problematic."

The current proposal does not address the women's game, although there have been preliminary conversations about it. "It may make sense for the women's game, and it may not," Luck says. "For example, while female student-athletes would certainly benefit from the increased rest and recovery times, splitting up the timing of the men's and women's championships may generate more visibility for the women's game."

The proposal is not yet in the NCAA legislative pipeline and the earliest it could be instituted is the 2016-17 academic year. "I would say close to 90 percent of the coaches we've spoken to about this are supportive, as are many athletic directors," Luck says. "With this past summer's World Cup increasing the visibility of the sport as a whole, I think we have a great chance to grow the game at the college level."
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