Fifteen minutes into the match, a lone North Carolina State attacker collects the ball at the halfway line and charges headlong into a retreating Clemson University back four. Despite his determination, the no. 9’s heavy touch ends his one-man counterattack as the ball is collected by a center-back who swings it wide to Clemson’s left-back. At this point the lead commentator exclaims: “And now the ball goes out to Charlie Asensio,” his southern drawl emphasizing the middle syllable, Ass-IN-see-o, “the 5’9’’ junior out of Roswell, Georgia.”
A seemingly unremarkable moment in a thoroughly unremarkable 2020 conference game, ending 1-0 to the then number-one ranked Clemson Tigers thanks to a late penalty. And yet the “ah-shucks” Ted Lasso-esque naiveté of the lead commentator, breakneck tempo and ramshackle attacking play, all set in a handsome and historic stadium replete with a school band in the middle of a bucolic campus is a neat distillation of the charm of men’s college soccer. Because of its growing insularity from the professional ranks and international football more broadly, it is one of the last places you can experience the men’s global game as a uniquely local phenomenon in the United States.
Once American soccer’s primary talent pipeline for the national team and the professional game, men’s college soccer has been waning in relevance for years as MLS-affiliated development academies and the international transfer market are starting to supply the dominant share of talent in the United States. Long gone are the days in which you could derisively though credibly accuse the US men’s side of being a “galumphing side of corn-fed college boys” as academy kids-cum-professionals like Brendon Aaronson have emerged as the model for player development.
To illustrate, 17 of the 22 in the 1994 US Men’s National Team (USMNT) World Cup squad played for their collegiate teams, while the other five were born outside the United States. That number is down to 7 of the 23 on the most recent USMNT roster. This is, no doubt, the outgrowth of the homegrown player rule, which was adopted by the MLS in 2007 to incentivize clubs to invest in their academies. As a result, the annual MLS SuperDraft has become a decaffeinated event that, at best, can be said to operate as a net that can catch the occasional late bloomer who didn’t have the necessary talent to break through to the professional ranks earlier.
Beyond its declining sporting importance, college soccer’s growing insignificance in the football’s cultural landscape is more fascinating still. Frozen in amber, it has become a relic of the United States’ footballing past when Americanization of the sport was seen as essential to its popularity.
From its inception, college soccer’s administrative bodies (first the Intercollegiate Soccer Football Association then the NCAA) assiduously tinkered with rules of the game to appeal to an American audience. Football’s foreignness, it has relentlessly been argued, has held it back in the United States; this proposition has a certain logical appeal as football must compete for Americans’ attention in a sports-saturated market dominated by American football, baseball, and basketball. And like its sporting cousin rugby, the American impulse to domesticize soccer was particularly strong on college campuses. As late football historian David Wangerin has argued in both his books on soccer in America, early and mid-century college soccer officials lacked the knowledge and any meaningful affinity for the game to give deference to its established rules and customs.
Wangerin writes in “Distant Corners: American Soccer’s History of Missed Opportunities and Lost Causes” (2014):
Football…was leaving an unmistakable impression on college soccer, not only in the rules by which it was being played but in the appetite for the sort of unremitting and radical change that had shorn the gridiron game of its rugby roots. Elsewhere, American soccer continued to be led by immigrants who saw little need to break with international convention, but the colleges were confronted with a raft of inexperienced players and officials and, lacking the time and resources to train them, found it easier to devise their own rules. By the 1950s, a sizeable rift had developed between the college game and the one the rest of the world played, as assiduous rules committees were turned loose in an effort to Americanize the game.” (p. 127)
Overtime, for example, was established in college soccer 1910. In 1925, college matches were split into 22-minute quarters, which remained until 1972. In the Ivy League in the late 1940s, players were allowed one-armed throw-ins for a time, while in 1950, kick-ins replaced the throw-in altogether. Two rather than one on-field referee was the NCAA standard beginning in 1949. Staggeringly, in 1952, the Midwestern Conference abolished the offside rule, which mercifully only lasted a single season.
While these more absurd efforts of Americanization have been phased out, idiosyncrasies remain. For starters the collegiate season foregoes the traditional 10-month calendar for a condensed four-month schedule from the end of August to mid-November. Games come thick and fast, with an average of four days rest between matches. Besides posing obvious injury and fatigue risks, the fall schedule has made it difficult for players academically with travel and midweek fixtures interrupting class. Of course, one way to mitigate the effects of a packed schedule is to rotate players often and en masse. This is made possible by the crown jewel of college soccer’s quirks: the substitution rule, which holds that teams may make unlimited substitutions, with some restrictions on reentry.
On their march to the men’s 2019 College Cup, Georgetown University used an average of 20 players per match with an average of about 17 substitutions. While the Hoyas are an extreme and rather successful example of excessive player rotations in the college game, there are undeniable implications for game flow, team tactics, and individual player development. The condensed fall calendar and substitution rule incentivize heavy in-game rotation that can lead to disjointed, end-to-end action that can get particularly messy in the final minutes of games. Meanwhile, coaches turning to fresh legs in the latter stages of matches forgo tactical cohesion for physical competitiveness. It often doesn’t make for pretty viewing. Meanwhile, the seasonal structure of the college game translates into training restrictions, as coaches are allowed to train 20 hours per week during the fall season and only eight in the spring, stunting player development.
A little over two decades ago, a group of college coaches approached the NCAA to propose a change in college soccer’s seasonal calendar to address issues of fatigue that came with the condensed calendar. Led by famed University of Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, these reformers argue the single-semester is holding it back as a developmental league and more importantly making student-athletes’ sporting and academic lives nearly impossible in the fall semester. They proposed redistributing the traditional four-month fall season across the full academic year, with 12 regular-season matches during the fall and 8 regular-season matches during the spring. Twenty-two years later their proposition has become a formal movement in the 21st Century Model that has garnered overwhelming support of both college coaches and players. Having said that, a formal vote on the model has been tabled by the NCAA this past spring. In the meantime, the United States has embraced a more orthodox model that gives professional clubs control over player development, furthering the risk of college soccer becoming close to irrelevant in sporting terms.
And yet watching it has never been easier. As I write this, ESPN and its NCAA conference affiliates will stream 14 fixtures in the first week of September, with eight of those matches streaming on September 6th alone. This will give the most dedicated football hipster an opportunity to follow the Celtic v. Real Madrid Champions League match with Nashville, Tennessee’s own “Battle of the Boulevard” between the Belmont University Bruins and the Lipscomb University Bisons. The paradox is while college soccer has never been less important it has also never been more visible.
Let me get this out of the way. Unless you are an alumnus of one of the schools in contention, one would be hard pressed to find a single compelling reason for a casual football fan to watch men’s collegiate soccer beyond one’s own curiosity. There’s simply far too much good football on television to justify spending two hours watching what is effectively a U-23 competition. But if curiosity does get the best of you, what can you expect to see?
At its best, men’s college soccer has the propulsive end-to-end dynamism of a lower league English match sprinkled with a little Latin-American and African-inspired flair for good measure. Not totally bereft of international influence, many top Division I program rosters have a blend of European, African, Central and South American transplants mixed in with mostly white Americans who played for travel teams or development academy clubs in their youth. Make no mistake, there is some professional-level talent playing in the college game. Seattle Sounders forward and capped American international Jordan Morris famously played four years at Stanford before becoming professional. Leeds United standout Jack Harrison played a season at Wake Forest University before moving to New York City FC on a homegrown contract. University of Virginia’s Daryl Dike has brought his unique brand of bully ball to the EPL Championship with Barnsley and now West Bromwich of Albion. Even the aforementioned Asensio, a solid-if-unspectacular fullback who stands out for his consistency, decision-making, and endurance honed while in Atlanta FC’s academy, was drafted and signed to a one-year guaranteed contract by Austin FC this year.
At its worst, however, men’s college soccer can feel like a poor simulacrum of the men’s professional game. Women’s professional and college soccer, college basketball, and American college football have entertainment value precisely because they watch like a slightly different species to the men’s professional game – tactically unique, more collective, and more deliberate. Their beauty lies in their heterodoxy. Men’s college soccer, on the other hand, watches like a poorer version of the original where athleticism often outstrips technique. Players are often found breaking the elementary rule of playing from a spot – killing the ball and passing from that location to take advantage of space and time to maintain possession. Instead, a headless chicken-like urge to play vertically takes over as players use their yard of space to bomb forward. The phrase “heavy touch” is uttered so much by commentators it can feel like a verbal tic. Fifty-fifty balls abound leading to mini scrums, rapid changes of possession, and a general ambiance of dash and desperation in which individual artistry is drowned out in the frantic run of play. Indeed, while the quality of the average college footballer has steadily improved over the years partially thanks to MLS academy kids matriculating into college, the game’s rhythm continues to flatter speed and strength over skill.
Twas ever thus, though. In watching the men’s college game, one sees a whole universe of time-weathered traditions, ideas, and legacies of efforts to Americanize the sport discussed above. Insulated from FIFA and buoyed by a self-importance bordering on arrogance, the NCAA liberally tinkered with rules to assimilate the sport to the nation and not the other way around. College soccer is an expression of those early and mid-20th-century men’s pretensions and the ideology of exceptionalism and experimentation that animated the sporting landscape in a modernizing United States. The sum of these efforts was to nurture a hard-running, choppy, concussive version of the sport that mimicked American football and baseball in spirit and flow if not structure. College soccer has, as a result, become an expression of Americana – an artifact of an inward looking culture trying to shed its association with its European past for something more “authentically” modern and American.
And now college soccer limps on as an afterthought, or a problem to be fixed, or, in the words of coach Cirovki, “the laughingstock of the soccer world.” The uphill battle that reformers like Cirovki face is an indication of the ways in which experiments can be hardened into institutions and how difficult it is to abandon institutions. The 21st Century Model may very well be adopted soon enough. Other changes could follow that create the right kind of structures that raise the quality of players and programs that make college a consequential pipeline to professional soccer. In the meantime, however, the college game stands as a nostalgic reminder of the power of culture and institutional inertia to impede the development of sport. One of the last preserves of American exceptionalism in the global game.