College soccer coaches pushing for split season

Notre Dame

Notre Dame's Andrew O'Malley (center) holds the trophy after beating Maryland 2-1 during the NCAA champtionhip game at PPL Park. (Evan Habeeb / USA Today Sports / December 15, 2013)

The Northwestern men's soccer team has hit the ground running.

The Wildcats had their first practice Wednesday, exhibition matches in New Jersey on Saturday and Tuesday and will have another exhibition game this week leading to their Aug. 29 season opener.

And they won't stop running until at least the first week of November, squeezing in 17 regular-season games in 91/2 weeks, an average of nearly two per week.

Essentially the same schedule will hold for all Division I men's and women's soccer teams. Their season has become a version of "Survivor" instead of a means to develop talent, minimize the chance for injury, maximize the chance for academic success and create a high-profile NCAA tournament final four — called the College Cup in soccer.

That is why Northwestern coach Tim Lenahan has joined a group of Division I men's coaches pushing for a radical but sensible overhaul of the college soccer calendar that would have games in both summer/fall and spring, with conference tournaments in the spring and the College Cup in June instead of December.

Two top women's Division I coaches, Anson Dorrance of North Carolina and Becky Burleigh of Florida, both endorsed the idea in telephone interviews last week.

"I think the whole world thinks the schedule we play now is crazy," said Burleigh, who has an NCAA title and four Southeastern Conference coach of the year awards.

"It's a physical grind, and the game suffers."

Women's college soccer will be asked to join a proposal to change the calendar. The pitch could be made to the NCAA as early as January's annual convention, then passed a year later and implemented for the 2016-17 season. Any timetable will depend on how fast the NCAA can sort out its recently passed governance restructuring, aka the Rich Get Richer, and the O'Bannon ruling, aka Some Athletes In The Five Rich Super Conferences won't be as poor.

These are the basics of the men's proposal in its current incarnation:

•Thirteen regular-season games (plus two exhibitions) over 12 weeks in the summer/fall, with eight regular-season games (and one exhibition) over six weeks in the spring, before conference tournaments. Almost all midweek games will be eliminated. There will be 22 days of summer preseason practice rather than 16.

College men's teams can now play up to 20 games (three of which can be exhibitions) in the summer/fall and up to five playing dates for exhibition games in the spring.

"You can't practice the way things are," Lenahan said. "With two games a week, it's game, recovery, preparation, game."

That lack of practice, especially on advanced technical skills, has contributed to a feeling young men should not go to college if they want to become elite international players. That threat to the existence of top-level college soccer is a big reason motivating the calls for change.

"For a player looking to become a pro, under the current format you are not training to get better, just training to prepare for the next opponent," said Northwestern junior forward Joey Calistri of Deerfield.

Calistri, last season's Big Ten scoring and points leader, has played in the Chicago Fire Academy program during school offseasons since 2010. That will eventually give the Fire a chance to sign him under the MLS' homegrown player rules.

"The men's game is being attacked from all quarters under the claim it is not developing players for the U.S. to compete at the highest level," said Dorrance, whose teams have won 20 NCAA titles. "They feel like the only way they can start to gain the credibility they want as a player development platform for top U.S. players is to play basically a nine-month season."

That feeling is reflected by the changed makeup of U.S. World Cup teams. According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, in 1990, the first World Cup appearance for Team USA in 40 years, all 22 players had college experience; in 2002, it was 17 of 23; in 2014, just 12 of 23.

"There is a growing concern that the top high school aged players are avoiding college and are instead choosing speculative professional contracts, or involvement with extended youth academy and semipro teams in order to further their careers," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck wrote to Division I athletic directors in a letter advocating a changed calendar.

That concern, Luck wrote, had been expressed by domestic pro leagues, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC noted the failure to qualify for the last two Summer Games, where all but three players must be under 23.

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