I am a fan of college soccer.
It starts on the field: For example, college is often the first time many players get to consistently compete against older players.
But what often gets overlooked is the way that the college experience helps players mature off the field. For most of them, college is their first crack at living on their own, making new friends, doing their own laundry, and taking care of essentials like setting up internet, making their own meals and paying rent. They are experiences that force individuals out of their comfort zone and are invaluable for the psychological development of a player.
But even with all this, there are still changes that can be made to the college game to enhance player development, as well as improving the quality of play. In fact, University of Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski is currently leading a push to build support in the college ranks for some of these initiatives.
Here are the tweaks that I think are most essential and which I believe would bring a multitude of long-term benefits to the NCAA game:
1. Split Season
A split season with the championship held in the Spring. Cirovski and the other college coaches are already diligently working on this proposal.
This would allow for more training time with the players and it allows for proper recovery between games. Training plus recovery will lead to better performances by players, thus increasing the overall level of play. Not to mention that it would certainly help the players' ability to be better student-athletes, since they will not miss as much class time in the Fall.
2. Limiting Substitutions
There are too many college games in which the physical dimension of the game is overly pronounced because you can take players out of a match to rest them. When they get to the next level this obviously doesn’t happen.
Limiting substitutions forces players and coaches to better address the mental side of the game and the in-game decisions that players need to make as they fatigue or recover.
The substitution rule in college (currently college teams can sub up to 11 players at a time with one re-entry per player in the second half) does not have to be identical to the one in the professional ranks (only three subs, no re-entry), but it definitely needs to be reduced from where it is now. Reducing re-entry will improve players because they learn how to coordinate their physical abilities with their soccer playing abilities.
3. More quality games
Somehow we need to get more quality games for college teams. Eliminating double-round play in conferences would help.
If a good team is playing in a weaker conference, it has to play those teams twice if that league requires teams to play each other both home and away. By only having one conference game between teams, colleges can schedule more teams outside their conference and create a more challenging schedule that can help to lift the level of their players and bring about real improvement.
The most important element to improving college soccer is the role of the coach. It is not about tactics and over-coaching your players. But the coach needs to create a culture where their players love to play, want to play, and figure out a way to play everyday. Coaches need not be present. Coaches who demand this from their squad produce players who are better prepared for the next level.
At all levels we have to get players to play on their own, to enjoy the game and not just wait for the next organized training session.
As a coach, whether at a club or college, you can create structured and unstructured training sessions that can teach players how to play on their own. It is vital for development.