The Washington Post's Steven Goff wrote a story 18 months ago called "Is men's college soccer about to undergo big changes? Many hope so." In the piece Goff quoted from multiple sources, and the nut of the whole thing was this: college soccer has to change in order to stay relevant.
Just last week, MLSsoccer.com revisited the issue through the lens of efforts led by college coaches, notably the University of Maryland's two-time College Cup victor, Sasho Cirovski. The reformers are looking to address issues that they believe arise from the sport's scheduling.
The college regular season currently runs from late August until late October, with the first 10 days of November usually home to conference tournaments. After that comes the NCAA Tournament for those teams that qualify, with the College Cup (soccer's version of the Final Four) played on the second weekend of December – the one after MLS Cup – at a predetermined host location.
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This year's location was the erstwhile Sporting Park (now Children's Mercy Park) in Kansas City, and even though a Jordan Morris-led Stanford had a higher profile than any college team I can think of since Bruce Arena's Claudio Reyna-led Virginia squads of the early '90s, it was a sparsely attended affair.
And more to the point, it came at the end of another typical college campaign: Teams often play two or three times a week for the duration of the season, squeezing as many as 25 games into 2 1/2 months. The practice workload is thrown in on top of that, and then once the year's done … well, there's not much.
"Complete frustration," said one MLS GM, who's been involved in the college game on one level or another over the years. "Getting it to be better is something a lot of people have worked hard on, and a lot of people are still working hard on, and it's still not moving forward. Or if it is, it's moving at a glacial pace."
The idea of "moving forward" is to extend the season's length not in terms of games, but in terms of when and how the games are played, and how often teams are allowed to practice. As Goff outlined, the season would still run from August until November, but then there'd be a spring season that goes from March until May. Training days would also increase by almost 10 percent (132 to 144), while the NCAA's liberal substitution policies would be curbed.
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Spreading the same number of games out over seven months instead of four would be less taxing on the players physically and, many have argued, better academically as well.
It would also allow for more nuance and variety in the type of player that succeeds in the amateur ranks. While MLS has entered an era of genius No. 10s and goalscoring wingers, the college game still largely emphasizes, well, being large.
"Look at how many of these players are the same," explained a USL coach this weekend, referring to the Combine invitees. "You see this defender every year. This year there are three of him, and last year there were six. You see this forward. You see this guy who can run, but what else can he do?"
The crop isn't entirely monochromatic, and it's telling that two of the outstanding players at the Combine thus far – Stanford's Eric Verso and Maryland's Tsubasa Endoh – are skillful thinkers first and foremost. But by and large, MLS teams are getting those types of players from their own academies or overseas scouting, rather than via the college route.
"Until the college game changes, that's always going to be the case. These guys are good, but are any of them going to start over Mauro Díaz? Over Federico Higuaín? Over Kaká?" an MLS coach offered, with a laugh. "The college game doesn't prepare them for that, and I'm not sure it ever really will.
"It could get better, though, and it should. You don't need to be Kaká to be a good player."
Academies, USL and the SuperDraft
Implicit in the above section is this: The MLS academy system has changed the way creative, skillful players get into the league. Just about every team out there has at least one or two guys that they can point to as a potential No. 10 of the future, and many of them have skipped the college route to sign Homegrown deals, then cut their teeth in USL.
That's the path for playmakers. The path for central defenders and fullbacks has been a little bit different.
"You can still find backline quality here, and now you have the option to let them grow in a professional setting for a couple of years before you throw them into the fire," said a technical director of an MLS club with a full USL reserve side. "We know these guys might not be able to get it done in 2016, but who cares? The physical tools are there, the mental tools can be sharpened, and maybe in 2017 you have a guy who can give you 15 games. Maybe he can give you 30. Maybe, by 2018, he's a starter.
"That's what makes it different now than it was two years ago. So do we still need a draft? I don't think it's essential, but it's a tool you can use to get more players in, and now with the [USL] teams you have the time to turn an OK pick into a good one."
If there's a worry, it's that defenders in college aren't often asked to carry the ball forward or initiate strings of possession by playing through the midfield. There's still a lot of long ball and a lot of running.
"Yeah, and that's exactly what you coach out of them as soon as you have them," said the technical director. "Teams that can't do that are going to start to suffer a little bit. Maybe even this year."