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Historic reform plan in college soccer nears final NCAA vote after 7 years of work

In April, the NCAA will vote on a proposal to change Division I men’s soccer's season from a three-month fall campaign to one spanning both semesters.

Georgetown won this year's NCAA Division I men's soccer championship, led by Cherry Hill-born goalkeeper Tomas Romero.
Georgetown won this year's NCAA Division I men's soccer championship, led by Cherry Hill-born goalkeeper Tomas Romero.Read moreGeorgetown Athletics Communications

BALTIMORE — A long-sought effort to bring dramatic change to college soccer is just a few months from potentially becoming reality.

In April, the NCAA will vote on a proposal by Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski to change Division I men’s soccer from a three-month fall season to a campaign spanning both semesters of the academic year, beginning in 2022. The number of games would drop from 25 to 23, the fall half-season would end at Thanksgiving, and the national championship tournament would move to the spring.

Cirovski has been leading the campaign for seven years and has many supporters. He has backing from a raft of coaches and formal endorsements from college soccer’s three biggest conferences: the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12.

Last week at the United Soccer Coaches convention, Cirovski gave an impassioned speech to a room packed with his coaching brethren.

“The college coaches on the men’s side are going to be working hand in hand for the next three months to try to get us to the finish line, to do something that is transformational, an evolutionary and positive change, and a game-changer in this country for not only college soccer, but we feel for soccer in general,” he said.

Cirovski also has widespread support from professional soccer, because the short-season model is a major hindrance to player development. There’s a long history of college players hitting walls in their rookie years because they aren’t ready for a full-length professional season.

Many pro teams, especially those with strong academies, would love to have a strong college landscape for their academy products when they aren’t ready to turn pro at age 18. College soccer should be a natural landing place, but players who end up there are often perceived as disappointments.

Cirovski knows this, and knows he can’t sell insular NCAA bureaucrats on benefiting pro soccer. So he has focused on showing how spreading games out would benefit students’ mental and physical health.

He cited two major studies. The first, published in 2010 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that the injury rate for college soccer players who played two games in a week was 25.6 per 1,000 hours of exposure, while the rate for players who played one game a week was 4.1.

The second study was conducted by the NCAA in 2016. It asked players about demands on their time and whether they prefered a two-semester schedule. Eighty percent of respondents said yes, and Cirovski said “the NCAA seemed shocked.”

The reform would apply only to the men’s game, but the women’s game is watching closely. If the change succeeds, the women will likely adopt the format, too. Division II and Division III might then also follow suit, though they don’t have to.

There are 64 votes to tally, starting with 52 from the conferences. Some have more weight than others. The so-called “Power Five” (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) have four votes each, five FBS football conferences have two each, and the remaining 22 Division I conferences have one each. Conference commissioners account for eight votes, and student and faculty representatives provide four votes.

A majority of 33 yes votes is needed for passage, and Cirovski is counting every one. .

“I do think things are trending in a good way, but we also don’t want to assume we have any votes in the bag until we know,” Cirovski said. “Public support is critical, and in the next three months, we’re going to be asking for a lot more.”

The Inquirer polled the five conferences with Philadelphia schools — the Big East, American Athletic Conference, Atlantic 10, Colonial Athletic Association, and Ivy League The A-10 said it will vote yes, the Ivy League said it will vote no, and the other three said they haven’t decided.

In a statement, the Atlantic 10 said it is "generally in support of the proposed two-semester model for men’s soccer. While there are still many important details to work out, the membership of the A-10 generally believes the proposal benefits student-athletes’ health and well-being and improves the quality of the game overall.”

The Ivy League said in a statement: “We believe there are alternatives that better accomplish the stated intent of improving student athlete welfare. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the stakeholders to design an approach that addresses student-athlete health and safety as well as the ability of soccer player to balance their lives as students and athletes.”

If the Ivies are worried about athletes missing more class time, Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said the two-semester schedule will lead to less missed class time because of far fewer midweek games.

“If we can reduce the classes missed, it’s a big win, and if you reduce the midweek classes that are missed, that’s perfect,” said Gunn, whose Cardinal won three straight national titles from 2015 to ’17. “If you spread out a couple of the impacted times over the course of the year, over two semesters, that’s even better.”