SOCCER AMERICA: The NCAA does not have history of
regulating soccer in a manner that soccer people believe benefits player development. One thinks of its 1990 mandate that banned collegiate players from playing club ball during the academic year in
the collegiate offseason -- and the failed attempt by collegiate coaches to repeal that regulation. Do you really believe that the NCAA will approve this proposal that would spread competitive games
over longer period?
SASHO CIROVSKI: I’m an optimist and I think we’re going to push this over the finish line. It will be a game-changer in the history of soccer in this country. I think this can create the best U-23 league in the world.
SA: One of the obstacles to passing NCAA legislation that Division I coaches believe would make college soccer more conducive to preparing players for higher levels has been getting the support of D2 and D3 programs. I also heard that women’s DI programs haven’t fully supported the split-season quest. Do all levels and both genders of NCAA soccer have to support this for it to be approved?
SASHO CIROVSKI: No. When we started this process over five years ago, we met with senior leadership at the NCAA -- everyone from the medical people to the academic people to the legislative people -- that was one of the key questions that was asked. And the answer was, no. This could be an NCAA Division I men’s soccer only proposal.
SA: So when the Division I Council convenes in April 2020 it will be voting to change only D1 soccer?
SASHO CIROVSKI: It is a NCAA Division I men’s soccer proposal. It does not involve D1 women, or D2, D3 men or women.
Strategically, once we knew that the women were kind of split on it, and potentially looking into their own proposal of just expanding the fall season, we decided it was best to proceed alone. I think that was a smart decision. But I do think the women’s Division I coaches support the men doing this and that they're are eager to see how it goes after implementation.
The new format moves the championship from December, when it’s been plagued by inclement weather, to the spring, which would greatly expand site selection to areas most likely to draw higher attendance.
SA: What makes you confident that it will pass?
SASHO CIROVSKI: Last April, in the joint group meetings with three power conferences – the Big 10, ACC and Pac-12 -- the concept was passed by all three conferences for official submission. By Nov. 1, all three conferences will have an official proposal in. All three conferences will be supporting the proposal for the April 2020 vote by the Division I Council.
The Division I Council has representation of every conference in the country. It is a weighted vote. The power conferences have more votes than some of the smaller conferences. The Division I Council has 64 votes and we need a simple majority. We need 33 of the 64 votes. And there are many convincing reasons for the change, not the least of which is that the current season is way too compressed. It's not healthy. In fact, we are in violation of sport science best practice principles for soccer.We have a simple message. It’s good for the student-athlete. It’s good for the game.
SA: And you’re also making the case as a benefit on academic side, right?
SASHO CIROVSKI: Yes, the academic balance. The faculty rep in our Big 10 committee fell in love with the idea and has really championed our cause with the national Division I Faculty Athletic Representatives, the FAR group. And they came out this summer in full support of our proposal. That’s a major victory. Although it’s only one vote on the Division I Council, it’s a huge symbolic win for this.
In the first semester, for incoming freshman we’re dealing with 20%, 30% or more freshman. You’re talking about eight midweek games and potential conference and national championship playoffs during final exam period. It’s just a really poor way to start college. Soccer athletes start with some of the highest GPAs coming into college and leave with some of the lowest. We feel strongly this is a much better academic balance.
(Editor’s note: A D1 college soccer team plays a regular season of 17-19 games in 10 weeks, in addition to a couple exhibition games in the week prior, and NCAA postseason games.)
SA: What are the arguments against making this change?
SASHO CIROVSKI: We’ve got over 92% of the coaches supporting this, so it’s very few coaches who oppose it. But I think some coaches have been cynical about it because they never imagined it becoming a reality: “OK, great idea, but there’s no chance.”
But now that it is a reality – that there will vote on it – I think a lot of coaches are rolling up their sleeves and going to work in their own campuses, gathering support from their administration.
SA: Will there be challenges, such as facility availability?
Sasho Cirovski has coached the University of Maryland to 24 NCAA playoffs, nine College Cup appearances, three NCAA titles (2018, 2008, 2005), six ACC titles and three Big Ten crowns. Nearly 50 players coached by Cirovski at Maryland have been drafted by MLS clubs and his former Terrapins who played for the U.S. national team include Zack Steffen, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, Clarence Goodson, Robbie Rogers, Maurice Edu and Taylor Twellman. (Photos by Maryland Athletics Greg Fiume and Matt Brown)
SASHO CIROVSKI: I think with change there are always going to be challenges. That’s why we’re holding out two years before implementation. People can have enough time in scheduling, in redistributing staffing on campus, to be fully prepared going into the 2022-23 season. Also, that’s when the new cycle of the championship site selection begins. This will be a fresh start and we’ll have enough time to get proper site selection.
There are some advantages. For example, it gives Division I women better flexibility in scheduling when we’re only playing one game a week and reducing the midweek games. As far as the spring goes, some places share with baseball, some share with lacrosse, some share with track. When you’re talking about really one competition a week, that’s not that hard to find time for the game.
In some cases, with [artificial] turf fields, you can do a with lacrosse-soccer doubleheader. Those that share with baseball tend to be [artificial] turf, so there’s no issue with field-use damage. The logistics really aren’t that hard. That’s what colleges do on a daily basis. They have good people who can figure those things out. The message we keep sending to all of our campuses is that the top priority is the student-athlete well-being.
SA: I have to admit that I didn’t think this movement would to get nearly as far as it has, based on the historic inability of college soccer coaches to convince the NCAA to make changes that would benefit a non-revenue sport …
SASHO CIROVSKI: I’m really proud that we’ve gotten here. A lot of people, even my own friends and some of our coaches told me I’m crazy, it’s never going to happen, why waste your time.
We've gotten this far thanks to the fact that we’ve had a highly committed group of coaches and administrators, including Rob Kehoe, our program director of college soccer programs through the United Soccer Coaches, working very hard.
In the Pac-12, guys like Kevin Grimes and Jeremy Gunn were heroes. In the ACC, Carlos Somoano, with the help of Mike Noonan, Jay Vidovich and Mike Brizendine, have done fantastic work. In the Big Ten, guys like Tim Lenahan, and especially Todd Yeagley -- it was his FAR who really moved the needle at the Big Ten office and nationally, getting the Faculty Athletics Reps on board. That's just some of the people who have been really instrumental in pushing this along.
The reason I’ve spent my entire life trying to make college soccer better is because I know it’s not perfect.
SA: That you’ve been working to try and improve a part of the American game that has been heavily criticized because it’s different from how the rest of the world approaches soccer reminds me of U.S. Soccer’s attitude toward high school soccer. Instead of helping find solutions to the flaws of high school ball -- which isn’t plagued by pay-to-play and has other benefits that club soccer doesn’t provide -- U.S. Soccer has completely dismissed it.
SASHO CIROVSKI: My genuine hope is that if we pass this at the NCAA level -- when we start showing and proving to people that this good for the student athletes and good for game -- it touches the high school model.
The club model has become so stretched out. The great majority of kids playing in club teams -- whether it’s the Development Academy or ECNL, or any of the travel team leagues -- are spending more time in the car than on the field.
The travel is taking away the free time to do the additional training with the ball. It’s a gross mistake to eliminate the scholastic soccer in this country. It’s part of the fabric of our society -- and it does have benefits for player development.
High school is now the only place for most lower-income kids to play soccer. And the great thing about the college and high school models is that they’re essentially the residency programs that are so highly touted – because the kids are very close to where they play and practice.
We will pass this.