The world of college athletics serves a something of a minor league or a feeder system to its professional brethren. Each sport provides opportunity for its athletes to gain an education through their special skill set, but it also provides a door and opportunity for them to hone their craft before moving onto the professional landscape. And in all four major sports, athletes can be seen dotting the professional ranks after playing in college leagues and competition.
While not considered one of the four major sports in America, soccer is clearly experiencing a period of major growth. Since the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup (20 years ago), the game has gone from something of a failure in the country to one with loyal fans and a blossoming reputation. It's been something of an intertwined relationship with the European leagues and an influx of success at both the national, international, and club level.
But while the professional ranks are growing, the college game is something of an enigma. It has a number of prominent alumni both domestically and internationally, but it doesn't have the same appeal or drawing power of some of the other sports. Where the pro ranks swell with attendance and supporters' groups, the college game quite simply doesn't have the same drawing power, national prominence, or interest.
Part of the problem is the structure of the college game. 48 teams make the NCAA Tournament, colloquially known as the "College Cup." 23 of those spots go to conference champions, and 16 of the 48 receive national ranks and first round byes. The selection of teams includes a mathematical formula of RPI, strength of schedule, and record over the final part of the season. Consider it a lot like the hockey tournament's Pairwise Rankings, only with a lot more teams.
While that seems fair enough, the problem with the selection of teams is that soccer programs in college only play 20 or so matches between the middle of August and the end of October. By the time the majority of students arrive on campus, the soccer season is a quarter of the way over. By the time they get settled onto campus for their second month, it's winding down and closing things out.
Compare this to the worldwide schedule. Most association leagues play one match per week for over 35 weeks. The season starts in the fall and ends in the spring, with various tournaments and open championships interspersed throughout the calendar. Throughout the same time period, development academy leagues and reserve squads compete with youth players designed to compete at the next level. Major League Soccer, the top flight of the United States and Canadian soccer pyramids, goes from March through October with a span of 30-35 matches. Playing less matches over a much shorter amount of time, the college game seems almost like a short snippet of the international game with which everyone is now growing accustomed to.
As a result, the NCAA can arguably change its structure surrounding soccer in order to make the games more compelling and more competitive. Instead of playing 20 games in about 10 weeks, the college game can only benefit from a significant expansion, both on and off the field.
In America, we recognize soccer as a "fall sport" because of its timeline in the high school and youth season. But the reality is that it's a year round sport, and some of its best memories have been made across some of the oddest times. During its qualification for the World Cup, the United States defeated Costa Rica in a blinding snow storm that made for some exciting, made-for-tv drama. Being able to play some of those games in inclement weather is what makes for compelling attendance and audience. Beyond that, southern schools being able to host also increases the chance for expansions, for open championship challenges, and more, all of which can play out in front of a television audience that is becoming more and more exposed to the sport.
From a developmental standpoint, the different environments can truly help the athletes. While the United States' pro league plays across spring, summer, and fall, the European leagues play across the winter. That means that no matter where they play professionally, athletes need to be willing to put their bodies through a number of different meteorological patterns. If it's in the summer, they need to be able to acclimate to heat. In the winter, there's bitter cold and wind, regardless of where they play.
As for the media side of things, yes, soccer already struggles for ratings in a crowded marketplace. That is to say that they don't really have anything on television. Pitting it against any of the football leagues is a war they simply can't win, but, like the Mid American Conference, they can play matches any time of day during the week in a largely untapped market place. There's also the option of playing morning games on weekends before football kicks up and, as the college season winds down around Thanksgiving, December becomes a fertile playing ground before college basketball really picks up around February or March. Expanding the season comes with expanded issues surrounding academics, but there's a lot of opportunity to make it appear like the academies or professional leagues around the world. And in that comes the opportunity for substantial growth.
It's a tough draw, but if nothing else, adapting to the world game would create more opportunity for development, and as that happens, more American collegiate soccer players could break through on the world scene. An influx or flood of American collegiate talent would increase the spotlight the world game can give onto the collegiate area, much how the NHL highlighted the college game as players matriculated to the next level. And with more opportunity to see them across multiple climates, the college game can insert itself into what's fast becoming a fifth major sport in America.