Choosing to play a sport in college is not only a great honor but a strategic life decision and one that is preceded by years of preparation and sacrifices (both academic and athletic). Soccer (notice that we don’t call it football) is no different. Making that decision can be complicated especially for first time parents or parents of players who have a genuine shot at football professionalism. The decision-making process is long, arduous, and overwhelming. Preparation is the key.
Playing soccer in college is a very viable path to continue enjoying a variation of the beautiful game albeit at an amateur level. In some rare cases, that choice could still be an excellent option to reach professionalism (Daryl Dike) while getting “compensated” (free tuition, room and board) for it. Unfortunately, most college soccer players who become professionals do so by cutting short their academic years. In fact, the number of college soccer players who complete a college degree (Andre Shinyashiki) and find professionalism afterwards is decreasing at rapid rates due to the growing professional competing paths: USL-1, USL-C, MLS, MASL, playing abroad, etc..
If the family (and the player) have a desire and options (scholarship offers) to play at the college level, be selective about it. With an increasing dilution of soccer talent in college soccer programs, college coaches recruit aggressively; however, don’t rush into a final decision. First, figure out the main motivation for pursuing college soccer instead of any other alternative. Once the decision to pursue college soccer is final, then select the program that best suits your needs.
If the main reason to pursue a college education is to use college soccer as a bridge to professionalism, give more weight to the college soccer program reputation and track record over academics in your decision. If it’s the other way around, research the academics thoroughly based on future academic interests and expectations. Soccer often can be an excellent vehicle to pursue an education at a prestigious school that would otherwise not be available purely on academic merit.
There’s not a formula that fits all families. Once the decision is made, do your due diligence to avoid surprises and maximize the college (soccer included) experience. Below are some additional soccer factors to consider.
Soccer…not football (differences):
College soccer is different than normal football. It’s as American as it can be: dramatic, physical, and win at all cost emphasis. Wins are needed to help the program be ranked higher, systematically leverage the ranking to get into the College Cup tournament at the end of the season, and get better future recruits (it’s a self-benefitting mechanism). Similarly, matches cannot end in a tie during regulation. Therefore, there is drama until the last second of the game and most (if not all) programs are driven by immediate results which inevitably impact the product on the field.
Some would say that, the brand of “football” played at the college level is not the most aesthetic. The NCAA rules do not help its perception either. Allowing up to eleven substitutions only encourage the game to be more athletic-based than regular technical football where less than half of those subs are allowed.
Playing with/against older players makes the game more reliant on experience than pure talent. It’s very rare for freshmen to receive an adequate amount of playing time. Since the year 2016, an influx of older foreign players who have given up professionalism in their respective countries, has migrated towards NCAA programs in pursuit of a free education and a last chance to professionalism in the United States. Let’s analyze some other NCAA rules further:
NCAA soccer is governed by 17 rules similar to FIFA’s football laws of the game; thus not much change in quantity. The main changes are on quality:
Season duration: It’s a compressed fall season with 18 to 20 games in a 10 week period. In the same period, non-domestic football clubs play (on average) half of that amount of games (without injury prone overtime periods). Lack of proper recovery often leads to player injuries.
Roster size: On average, D1 schools carry 30 players but roster size is unlimited making it difficult for all players to find an adequate amount of playing time.
Number of subs: There are eleven subs allowed per game; in some cases, the same sub is allowed to re-enter the field during the same period (2nd, overtime). It’s very common for players to not be used for entire seasons especially young ones (thus the concept of red-shirting).
Overtime periods: If the score is tied at the end of regulation, overtime (two ten minute halves) is required. Then, the golden goal rule applies. Longer games with a shorter season (sometimes played in turf fields) magnifies the probability of injuries.
Fields: For different reasons (ex. climate, financial, maintenance, etc.), some college soccer fields are turf. Stats (and personal experience) show that turf fields are more prone to injuries for soccer players.
Game clock: The clock stops a lot (ex. injuries, goals, issuing of cards, etc.). It’s extremely American. In fact, the count-down clock is anti-football and sometimes annoying. What some people consider the most American aspect of it is the ten second public announcement type of countdown at the end of each period.
Scholarships: In rosters of up to 30 players, there can only be 9.9 scholarships per team and the money (depending on the school) is not always guaranteed. The talent spectrum in any roster comprised of 30 players varies significantly.
Any high school student/athlete in good academic standing is eligible to play soccer in college. In fact, in normal years, most college coaches attend important tournaments such as former DA (now MLS next) showcases, Dallas Cup, GA Cup, etc. to recruit high-school aged players. It’s important the players display their best soccer at these high caliber events. However, per NCAA rules, coaches can’t contact potential players/families until the beginning of their junior year (more below). Note: There are ways to get around this rule by leveraging a club/high school coach for communication.
Per NCAA rules, June 15 is the first day that college coaches can reach out to potential players (including emails, texts, calls, etc.) entering their junior year in high school.
This is the time when coaches will be in their best behavior for recruiting purposes and their sales pitch will be in full display. If there’s enough interest, they may eventually want the player to visit the campus during the player’s senior year These visits will be at the program’s expense (official visits) for players only; however, the number of paid visits is limited per NCAA rules. Official visits can only take place after August 1st of the student/athlete prior to the start of the HS junior year. Unofficial visits (paid by the family) follow a similar scrutiny.
At any point, if the player continues to have serious aspirations to play in college, they should not sign any type of paperwork with an agent during their high school or college years. It’s okay to talk and receive advice from agents, scouts, etc. In fact, the genuine agents will advice the player to go to college if they deem that to be the best route instead of forcing trials that could only delay/prevent a potential free (or tuition-reduced) education.
Also, do not get compensated to play (sponsorships, one time gifts, etc.) soccer (there’s a recent NCAA rule change, please read this). Any financial compensation received from the school, could render college soccer eligibility void per NCAA rules. Note: There’s a loophole that some universities use as they are able to recruit international players who were professionals in their respective countries. Furthermore, if there’s a desire to supplement the short college fall soccer season, there are plenty of high level amateur leagues. For example, in DFW, we have “The Roja league” which offers great fall/winter and summer competition for college students without compromising NCAA eligibility. Other amateur leagues include the famous Premier Development League (or USL2).
Other aspects to consider
Once contacted by college coaches and the player and family are fully engaged comparing multiple soccer programs, there are many aspects to consider that can differentiate one soccer program from another. Here are a few to consider:
The rapport between player and potential coaching staff is instrumental. Coaching staff will do anything to recruit the player so genuine “chemistry” is often hard to discern. Speak to former and current players and their respective families for a broader opinion. Specifically, talk to those players who may not be getting much playing time. See what they like about the coaching staff and what they don’t.
There are some unscrupulous coaches out there. In our recruiting process with Johan, we were heavily recruited by an assistant coach who, throughout the recruiting process, omitted to disclose the fact that the then current Head Coach was months away from retirement. No insignificant piece of information but it spoke volumes about his character. He is now the Head Coach of that same program. Johan received a full-ride offer from that D1 program so no sour grapes but character is definitely hard to gauge. Always ask the question about the coaching staff tenure and plans to move on. You’d be surprised what some coaches are willing to share.
Character may be hard to gauge; however, technical and tactical teaching ability is easier. Watch the brand of soccer the interested college team plays and see if it’s appealing. During visits, players will be invited to watch a game. There are a lot of quality college soccer coaches; some are just awaiting an opportunity to be promoted to USL, MLS, etc. On the other hand, NCAA does not require minimum coaching credentials; thus, there is a significant amount of coaches without the proper coaching licenses or experience in charge of developing potential professional soccer players . That’s alarming. There are programs who incorporate former players -as part of the scholarships offers- as staff members. These former players have no coaching credentials in most cases.
Has the player soccer always been playing at sea level or in beautiful Colorado? College soccer is not the time to move to a contrasting high altitude, or cold weather location. If the player has been playing in the Texas heat since youth, consider the repercussions of playing in cold weather (college soccer is a fall sport). After all, over half of the season games will be played at home. Do your research and select a program that fits the player’s desired playing conditions for a smoother transition. Moving away from home, is already enough of a change. Don’t add any more complexity to the move. Equally important to the weather are the program soccer facilities.
If the weather is favorable, does the school have facilities with natural grass or turf? If having their own facilities is important to the player, a college visit is a must. Some players prefer to walk out of their dorms and be 5 minutes away from the practice fields. Yet others prefer the commute on a bus to training every morning. Does the school only have turf fields because of their geographic location? If so, have you been injured on that type of surface before? Are you accustomed to that playing surface? Statistics show a higher incidence of injuries playing on turf fields. In some cases, and based on the player’s position (ex. goalkeepers), avoiding turf fields could be a determining factor in the college program selection.
Does the school have its own soccer specific stadium or do they share it with the American football program? What is their attendance like? For some players, playing in front of family, classmates and other athletes is important and could be a deal breaker when making a decision.
Just looking at the statistics, it is becoming less and less viable for players to obtain a professional degree (3.5 years) and realistically become a professional football player afterwards. It’s safe to say that if players have any aspirations to play professionally, playing more than 2 years of college soccer greatly dilutes (almost kills) those aspirations. However, for goalkeepers college may still be the most logical step in their careers since they have a different soccer longevity. That said, for other positions, college could be a temporary tangent to professional football that may ultimately shorten a career in soccer but cultivate other life professional possibilities. Every player’s path to soccer professionalism is unique.
The flip side is that there are programs/entire conferences (big 10) that guarantee the soccer scholarship money for the duration of a player’s enrollment at the university (provided the enrollment is interrupted by a bona fide reason). In those cases, the player can play a couple of college soccer seasons and secure scholarship money for life. Do your research, it is worth looking into it.
As mentioned earlier, regular season runs from the end of August to mid November (playoffs included). The spring semester is mostly used for training and scrimmages. If professionalism is a goal, this should not be overlooked. A college player can go several months from January to June (July is pre-season) without playing a significant number of competitive games. In a sport where repetitions to master technical aptitude is critical, reducing on the field time, truncates their soccer development significantly. Ask coaching staff what soccer activities are planned for the spring “season”. Some programs play friendlies against USL, MLS sides with USL, MLS sides dominating the outcome of those games. Is the juice worth the squeeze?
A close friend of ours recently selected Georgetown as his college soccer destination due to its recent success. It’s an important factor to consider. Flip side is that past history may not necessarily be a reflection of future performance; however, recent past history could be. Winning becomes a tradition in some programs (ex. Stanford, Indiana, North Carolina). Do your homework.
Does the school have a good track record sending college players to the draft and then on to MLS. If so, that may be an important factor to consider in the decision. In some cases, college coaches have a close relationship with MLS clubs (SMU->FCD)
There have been players who have tried out professional football in a foreign country and didn’t like it. Below is an interview (in Spanish) of Jacobo Reyes’ (2017 U17 MNT WC participant) of his one-year college soccer stint at the University of Portland. He first became a professional in Mexico, then joined the University of Portland (somehow) and then quit college soccer to continue his professional career in Mexico. Players jumping ship in the middle of their soccer college experience could also be an indication of some form of instability.
By NCAA rules, playing in college will not earn players a salary; however, it earns you a free (or significantly tuition reduced) college education which in most cases is much better. If possible, select a school that has a good academic program AND a good soccer program. It’s the best of both worlds. However, remember that most soccer programs can only offer 9.9 scholarships but the good news is that coaches can be very creative in offering financial packages that cover most (if not all) the cost (asking former players to become part of the coaching staff upon graduation). On average, soccer rosters include about 30 players. That said, most kids do not get full rides but if you can secure a full ride, perhaps that offsets some of the factors listed above.
In conclusion, selecting a higher level university only for academic purposes is important. Trying to combine that with a selection of a soccer program is more convoluted. In the end, it’s a very personal decision and one that must be analyzed carefully. Becoming a professional soccer player doesn’t negate anybody the ability to pursue a college education but the cost of it will be out of your own pocket instead of the school’s. Some players, like Johan currently, pursue a college education, albeit at an slower pace, while being a professional player. That’s also another route. Invest in yourself!!!
Aside from the love for the game, the most important aspect of pursuing college soccer may turn out to be the completion of an academic degree with obvious (albeit not guaranteed) long term financial benefits. At some point, it becomes a win-win situation; free higher education and the continuity of the sport the player loves. I will leave you with this thought: In some cases, maybe the family and the player are not totally convinced of the best decision to make. Consider taking a gap year to be more comfortable with the final decision…as always, reach out if you have suggestions or new topics you’d like to see discussed. Until next time #theGomezway