For decades, college soccer has been a significant stop on the road American soccer players travel to reach the professional game. But as Major League Soccer teams' academies become more influential, players have become more ready and able to turn pro as teenagers instead of 22-year-old.
And when European soccer clubs scout elite, high school-age American prospects, they have no interest in waiting for those players to complete four-year — or even two-year — degree programs.
College soccer also brings a slew of problems upon itself, thanks to the byzantine rules imposed upon it by the NCAA. The clock counts down, the full team can be substituted, and the season is almost comically short — a four-month sprint packed with 20 games. It's no surprise that even the best college players hit walls as rookies in MLS as they adjust to 10-month campaigns.
Yet even if every American pro team at every level ran a full-fledged academy, there would still be a surfeit of potential pro players shut out. Some academy products will still be short of the pro level at age 18. And being able to earn a degree for use after one's playing days still matters a lot.
Enter Sasho Cirovski, the University of Maryland head coach whose pedigree of winning and developing players is almost unequaled in the college game. His 23 years with the Terrapins include two national championships, eight conference titles, and a raft of players who became MLS stalwarts.
Six of Cirovski's players between 2000 and 2009 went on to earn at least 20 U.S. national team caps, including the Union's Maurice Edu and 2014 World Cup players Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez.
Those guys prove it's not impossible for college soccer to produce good players. But it's a lot harder to do than it could be, and Cirovski knows it. That's why he's championing a grand plan to reform college soccer, turning the season into a campaign split over the fall and spring.
The current structure sets 20 official games in the fall and five meaningless exhibition games in the spring. Cirovski's plan would have 13 official games in the fall and nine in the spring, with three exhibition games scattered through the academic year.
Another benefit to that plan is it would eliminate many midweek games, which would in turn cut down on players' time out of the classroom. You'd think the NCAA would like that if it cares as much about college athletes' well-being as much as it claims to.
(That is a screed for a different day, though, and probably a different part of this website.)
Cirovski has strong backing from colleagues across the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Pac-12 — the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference don't play men's soccer — and he's now taking the case to the NCAA's top power-brokers.
At first the reforms would only apply to the men's teams. Cirovski said the women's soccer establishment is watching closely and supports the cause, but wouldn't move the college women's soccer calendar until after the men's reforms are in place.
(That wouldn't just be for gender equity purposes, by the way. College women's soccer has been the path to the pros for almost every U.S. women's national team player of consequence to date. But that's starting to change, too. Lindsey Horan bypassed the college game entirely, signing with Paris Saint-Germain right out of high school. Mallory Pugh is a senior national team regular at 18, and 17-year-old Ashley Sanchez is moving up the ranks fast.)
"This is like a political campaign," Cirovski said, and considering how many people he's had to lobby, it's hard to blame him for the analogy. He has given his stump speech to players, coaches, athletic directors, faculty, college presidents and conference commissioners across the nation.
"Our goal is that the NCAA's voting constituents — the athletic directors, the presidents, the faculty reps — will listen to the student-athletes," he continued. "The men's soccer student-athletes have essentially voted, and they want to play over two semesters. They want to play soccer the proper way, with proper rest and recovery, with proper balance, with proper training and development in between."
College soccer doesn't bring the big TV ratings and revenues that football and basketball do. But Cirovski believes soccer overall has gotten too big on the greater American sports landscape for the NCAA to ignore its potential.
"Everyone that has a chance to really vet it out, to hear about it, to have a chance to talk to the student-athletes about it, and to see the merits of it, is fully on board," he said. "But there are places where it hasn't been properly vetted out. That's one of the things we as coaches have to do this year — to make sure every potential voting person knows all the merits."
Cirovski hopes to have the lobbying work done soon. His goal is to have his proposal voted on at next year's NCAA general convention.
"It's a proposal whose time has come, and this is the year that we have to make it happen," he said. "Twelve months from now, we're hoping we can celebrate a major victory and accomplishment for college soccer."
It would be an accomplishment for much more of the soccer community than just the college game.