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College soccer coaches pushing for split season

By Philip Hersh Chicago Tribune (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 7:01 PM

The Northwestern men’s soccer team has hit the ground running.

The Wildcats had their first practice Wednesday, exhibition matches in New Jersey on Saturday and Tuesday and will have another exhibition game this week leading to their Aug. 29 season opener.

And they won’t stop running until at least the first week of November, squeezing in 17 regular-season games in 9 1/2 weeks, an average of nearly two per week.

Essentially the same schedule will hold for all Division I men’s and women’s soccer teams. Their season has become a version of “Survivor” instead of a means to develop talent, minimize the chance for injury, maximize the chance for academic success and create a high-profile NCAA tournament final four — called the College Cup in soccer.

That is why Northwestern coach Tim Lenahan has joined a group of Division I men’s coaches pushing for a radical but sensible overhaul of the college soccer calendar that would have games in both summer/fall and spring, with conference tournaments in the spring and the College Cup in June instead of December.

Two top women’s Division I coaches, Anson Dorrance of North Carolina and Becky Burleigh of Florida, both endorsed the idea in telephone interviews last week.

“I think the whole world thinks the schedule we play now is crazy,” said Burleigh, who has an NCAA title and four Southeastern Conference coach of the year awards.

“It’s a physical grind, and the game suffers.”

Women’s college soccer will be asked to join a proposal to change the calendar. The pitch could be made to the NCAA as early as January’s annual convention, then passed a year later and implemented for the 2016-17 season. Any timetable will depend on how fast the NCAA can sort out its recently passed governance restructuring, aka the Rich Get Richer, and the O’Bannon ruling, aka Some Athletes In The Five Rich Super Conferences won’t be as poor.

These are the basics of the men’s proposal in its current incarnation:

Thirteen regular-season games (plus two exhibitions) over 12 weeks in the summer/fall, with eight regular-season games (and one exhibition) over six weeks in the spring, before conference tournaments. Almost all midweek games will be eliminated. There will be 22 days of summer preseason practice rather than 16.

College men’s teams can now play up to 20 games (three of which can be exhibitions) in the summer/fall and up to five playing dates for exhibition games in the spring.

“You can’t practice the way things are,” Lenahan said. “With two games a week, it’s game, recovery, preparation, game.”

That lack of practice, especially on advanced technical skills, has contributed to a feeling young men should not go to college if they want to become elite international players. That threat to the existence of top-level college soccer is a big reason motivating the calls for change.

“For a player looking to become a pro, under the current format you are not training to get better, just training to prepare for the next opponent,” Northwestern junior forward Joey Calistri said.

Calistri, last season’s Big Ten scoring and points leader, has played in the Chicago Fire Academy program during school offseasons since 2010. That will eventually give the Fire a chance to sign him under the MLS’ homegrown player rules.

“The men’s game is being attacked from all quarters under the claim it is not developing players for the U.S. to compete at the highest level,” said Dorrance, whose teams have won 20 NCAA titles. “They feel like the only way they can start to gain the credibility they want as a player development platform for top U.S. players is to play basically a nine-month season.”

That feeling is reflected by the changed makeup of U.S. World Cup teams. According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, in 1990, the first World Cup appearance for Team USA in 40 years, all 22 players had college experience; in 2002, it was 17 of 23; in 2014, just 12 of 23.

“There is a growing concern that the top high school aged players are avoiding college and are instead choosing speculative professional contracts, or involvement with extended youth academy and semipro teams in order to further their careers,” West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck wrote to Division I athletic directors in a letter advocating a changed calendar.

That concern, Luck wrote, had been expressed by domestic pro leagues, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC noted the failure to qualify for the last two Summer Games, where all but three players must be under 23.

Luck, who spent five years as president and general manager of a Major League Soccer franchise, the Houston Dynamo, is part of the working group that began discussing the issue in November. Members of the group have talked about the proposed changes with MLS and the USSF.

Some feel the change will allow the men’s college game to abandon nearly unlimited substitution in favor of something closer to the international elite model of three per game. The physical wear and tear caused by the compressed college schedule has made such substitution a virtual necessity for men and women.

Potential sticking points involve the current timing (January) of the MLS draft and the signing of homegrown college players at about the same time to prepare for the upcoming MLS season.

Homegrowns like Harry Shipp (Notre Dame / Lake Forest) and Chris Ritter (Northwestern / New Trier) both signed with the Fire in January, soon after their final college seasons. Should the college season be split, such players and those taken in the draft may have to choose between going pro immediately or finishing the college season, which could result in college teams losing their best players before conference and NCAA tournaments.

“We are keeping a close eye on the proposal,” Ali Curtis, MLS senior director of player relations and competition, said in an emailed statement. “It is premature to comment on any potential changes to our draft system until additional progress has been made.”

Another possible problem with split men’s and women’s seasons would be logistical, involving use of a field shared by soccer and lacrosse. Yet North Carolina, which has men’s and women’s teams in both, has managed to make that arrangement work.

Moving the NCAA tournaments from late fall will get them away from the holidays (especially the travel nightmare of Thanksgiving week), the NFL, college football, college basketball and the NBA and NFL regular seasons. Playing most regular-season games on weekends will make it easier on fans.

But the biggest selling points of the changed calendar should be the health and academic progress of athletes.

“We travel a lot, especially midweek, and that means we miss classes and aren’t able to take a lot of classes we would like in the fall,” Calistri said.

In his letter to Division I athletic directors, Luck said NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline had given “preliminary support” for the proposal.

A May survey of 180 men’s soccer players from 20 schools, with responses anonymous, found 77.5 percent “fully supportive” of the split season and 8.4 percent “supportive with concerns” that included the MLS draft, conflict with summer internships and jobs and academic time issues caused by having more full practice/game weeks in the spring.

The 205 Division I men’s schools would need an exception to change the calendar because NCAA rules are standardized for all divisions of men’s and women’s soccer. That is why the 327 Division I women’s schools also will be asked to support the proposal when it is formally presented.

“The college experience is such a part of the American culture, guys are going to choose college even if (pro leagues) are developing minor league systems,” Lenahan said. “We need to create a college system more conducive to development as a player and a student.”


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