Sixty years of trying to assess men's college soccer (Part 1)

College soccer -- the men’s version -- has been going through something of a crisis recently. Caused by the fear that the NCAA might take action that would threaten the very existence of many college soccer programs. The threat still hovers.

It is obviously not something to taken lightly. After all, men’s college soccer matters ... doesn’t it?

Oh of course it does -- but I find it difficult to explain why it matters. So I’ve decided to do some pondering on this tangled topic. Looking back on my own experiences with men’s college soccer, some good, some bad, and some, well, just plain weird.

There’s need for caution here. Setting the right tone is all important. I will try not to mock the sport, or to over-value it -- I’ve done both over the years -- an indication either of my inability to make up my mind, or of college soccer’s worrying lack of identity. Both, probably.

My first clash with college soccer -- it was a clash, you’ll see -- came in the fall of 1960. I’d been in New York for about a year, had prowled about looking for soccer games, had found some ethnic soccer -- mostly Italian -- in deepest Brooklyn.

I’d made inquiries among the ethnics about college soccer, but they tended to answer my queries with comments and gestures that strongly suggested scorn. College soccer, their body-language was telling me, was a joke, nothing that I need bother about.

You know how it is -- the more they tell you not to bother, the more you want to know. Anyway, it seemed important. College soccer was surely American soccer, something that did interest me. So, one Saturday morning in the fall of 1960, I set off to the northern tip of Manhattan to watch Columbia University.

Nice field, not many fans. And all of them sitting down. I immediately felt uncomfortable. Not because of the hard benches but, heck, I’d attended hundreds of games in England, and had only very rarely been seated. The ethnic games in Brooklyn had featured bleachers, but there was always plenty of space where I could stand and -- what I really liked to do - move about. Not here. So I sat, nursing my first grievance with American soccer.

That was merely an irritating beginning to a thoroughly disturbing couple of hours. Things got curiouser and curiouser. The game got under way. Right -- and who on earth was that odd looking guy charging about in a black and white vertically striped shirt, waving his arms about like one of those military-style Italian traffic cops?

Well he had a whistle, so he must be the referee. His flailing arms were signaling, letting us know what he was calling. That was interesting. For a moment or two.

Then I had to fight back the idea that I was suffering from shock-induced visual disturbances ... there really were two of these oddly clad guys running around on the field, one in each half. And no linesmen. My soccer world was rapidly disintegrating.

To preserve reality, I invested the referees with comic value, giggling at their silly (I thought they looked silly at the time) shirts and exaggerated gestures. And I’d never seen a soccer referee wearing a hat before. I was told later that these were baseball caps, allowing me to further amuse myself by viewing them as a clumsy attempt to Americanize the sport.

Two referees, both wearing vaudeville outfits and flinging their arms all over the place -- I simply could not take that seriously. Surely their brand of refereeing would be farcical. A call was made -- an indirect free kick in the penalty area. The ref’s signal was a sort of pushing motion. The coach of the team that was awarded the kick shouted ”That was pushing? Then we should have a penalty kick!” The referee shouted back “Oh no, he wasn’t pushing that hard.”

OK, I’m stretching things here. That anecdote was told to me some years later by a college coach. But it fits perfectly into that game I was watching in 1960, exactly the sort of zany decision I was sure the vaudeville refs must be making.

My soccer aesthetics suffered another brutal blow. Substitutes. I’d never seen a soccer sub before. They were never used in the sport as I knew it, were in fact frowned upon. Yet here they were, checking in, checking out -- I think, horror of horrors, I even spotted a subbed player being allowed to re-enter. There may have been a kick-in instead of a throw-in -- then again, maybe I invented that, or transferred it from a different game.

The worst part of this surreal experience was that the game itself, when I could concentrate on that, was just dreadful. Devoid of subtlety, short of skill, dominated by aggressive running and -- a favorite word of college coaches, I was yet to learn -- hustle. Ugly to watch, a distorted, tortured travesty of the sport I was so fond of.

I fled, determined never to return to college soccer. I had no trouble sticking to that vow for 10 years. I was not, after all, a sports journalist. Not yet, anyway. I was working for a medical magazine.

* * * * * * * * * *

Like I said, I had clashed with college soccer, and I retired, bloodied but unbowed, from the fray. Came 1971 and things were different. I had transformed myself from being a well-paid medical journalist into a sporadically and poorly paid soccer journalist. Soccer had undergone its own, massive, transformation: There was now a promising, nationwide pro league -- the North American Soccer League.

And here was college soccer attempting to exploit the sport’s growing popularity by announcing that its Division 1 soccer final four tournament (two semifinals, then the final) would be played in Miami’s Orange Bowl for the next three years.

Obviously, they’d completely lost their marbles. No way that horrendous caricature of the sport I’d seen 10 years earlier was going to attract fans. But ... well, perhaps and possibly and maybe, it could happen. College soccer might have matured, no? So I went to those three finals in Miami.

The most noticeable thing about them was that nobody -- and I mean nobody -- turned up to watch. The Orange Bowl was an enormous, ugly bucket, an 80,000 capacity stadium, and it was empty. Eerily, echoing, emp-teeeee. I doubt whether the spectators at all three of those final games lumped together totaled many over 1,000.

I spoke to a gentleman, a Miami businessman I believe, who was one of the organizers, and asked him (tactfully, I hope) how he could explain the abysmal attendance. “I can’t,” he replied, “We spent a lot of money on publicity. We had posters in both English and Spanish -- we targeted the Latino community, especially the Cubans.” I became even more tactful (I think). “Oh, well, er  .. I mean . . . I don’t think there’s much interest in soccer in Cuba, you know. They prefer baseball ...”

You read about people whose jaws drop, who turn white, or who stagger backward as though they’ve been struck ... this poor guy seemed to me to do all of that. He had nothing to say -- at least I recall no answer of his.

But it wasn’t just naivety on the marketing front. College soccer in the Orange Bowl was a huge mistake. The sport was nowhere near ready for the big time.

Even so, to my surprise, the caliber of the game had definitely improved. Briefly, Howard University beat St. Louis University in the 1971 final, which was quite a presentable game. St. Louis was recognizably a college team -- still the running and the hustle -- but with a good deal more skill. Howard showed much more skill and subtlety.

The catch was that the Howard players were foreigners -- mostly from the Caribbean islands. St. Louis players, traditionally, came from St. Louis or nearby. In the next two years, the West Coast teams UCLA and San Francisco arrived, each sporting a number of talented Latino players. College soccer -- though still maintaining various eccentric rules -- was definitely opening up. I was impressed enough to make the first big U-turn in my assessment of the college game.

Coming soon: Part 2 - College soccer in the NASL years

19 comments about "Sixty years of trying to assess men's college soccer (Part 1)".
  1. frank schoon, May 13, 2020 at 9:05 a.m.

    Thanks for the memories, Paul.
    Shocked to read about the attendance in 1971 at the Rose Bowl. I remember playing the first round in 1968 against St. Louis at College Park, Md. in front of a crowd of nearly 10,000. Perhaps soccer was more popular on the East Coast as compared to the West Coast at that time, at that...I wonder...  Ofcourse, the crowd of nearly 10,000 was an aberration for in our normal games the crowd was not all that great except for when we played against Navy that always drew a crowd, I think of near 5000. But it is true the college soccer attendance never really had big crowds during those days.. 

  2. frank schoon replied, May 13, 2020 at 10:37 a.m.

    Howard University had a great run with Keith Aqui and Alvin Henderson and coached by Lincoln Phillips....They were an exciting team to watch in those days...

  3. Peter Bechtold replied, May 13, 2020 at 1:25 p.m.

    Yes about Howard; until Lincoln Phillips got into a fight at College Park, pulled his team of Caribbean players--incl. Shaka Hislop ???-- and the UMD AD Jim Kehoe vowed to cancel all sports with Howard (half -a-mile away in DC).

  4. Peter Bechtold replied, May 13, 2020 at 1:36 p.m.

    Yes about Howard; until Lincoln Phillips got into a fight at College Park, pulled his team of Caribbean players--incl. Shaka Hislop ???-- and the UMD AD Jim Kehoe vowed to cancel all sports with Howard (half -a-mile away in DC).

    Actually, I checked: Shaka Hislop played for Howard 1987-91.

  5. frank schoon replied, May 13, 2020 at 2:21 p.m.

    Peter, what happened?

  6. David Felsen, May 13, 2020 at 10:11 a.m.

    Thanks for sharing, Paul. Looking forward to seeing where this goes!

  7. Arnold Ramirez, May 13, 2020 at 10:21 a.m.

    Great article Paul. Whe I played Freshman  soccer at NYU in 1962 we had kick ins instead of throw ins. The game was divided in four quarters of twenty minutes each.

  8. Randy Vogt, May 13, 2020 at 11:21 a.m.

    I started as a college ref in 1986 and by then, the uniforms were all-black and an orange shirt eventually became the ref's alternate color. Some college games had two refs, other games had three officials and the two-ref system in college soccer was phased out over many years. Now if only we could have official time on the ref's watch instead of on the scoreboard. In the annual rules survey, approximately 90% of the college refs want it on their watch while only half the coaches agree.

  9. humble 1, May 13, 2020 at 11:41 a.m.

    Thank you for this series.  I am reading in interest.  I never forget when my son began playing soccer in 2010 and showed his passion for the sport and I took a look to see what colleges he could play for in in D1 in Texas - and - there were two - and I'd never heard of one - even though it was in my city.  What gives?  Slowly I've learned why this is, more by osmosis than any particular explanation, because it really does not exist and most folks do not look into this until their child is in High School.  In 2016 the men's 'College Cup' D1 final was in Houston, we decided to watch, online.  The stadium was noticibly empty.  The game was a complete bore.  Finish 0-0.  Two extra times - 0-0.  Pentaties - always exciting. I'd tried to follow the players through the game, yet, players came on for pens I did not recogonize.  Come to find out - they had not played!  I went back just to look at the subs, one team - over 20 subs in regular time - not counting change overs or subs for pens.  WTF?  This is not soccer!  Yet our univerisities have some of the best facilities in world, bar none.  So, I guess, very little has changed.  But, do not give up!  Looking forward to part 2.  My boy continues his march to play college soccer, because with all it's warts, the big secret is even for boys, it's the largest amatuer league in the world for U18 and up, and, you can get an education while playing!  Thank you.

  10. frank schoon replied, May 13, 2020 at 12:01 p.m.

    Humble, so true,LOL

  11. Ric Fonseca, May 13, 2020 at 3:22 p.m.

    It is very interesting to read this piece, especially the part PG describes UCLA as being made up of Latino players.   Well, pilgrims, he is completely incorrect as the Bruins were more like a mini-UN team made up of Latino players, Ethiopians, several Germans, and English futboleros.  In 1970 the UCLA Bruins played St. Louis in that freezing NCAA final in Edwardsville, losing 1-0 to the Billikens of St. Louis, in '71 we didn't make it out of the Far West final and travel to Miami, but did so the next two years, '782 and '73.  In fact, there was a great big hullaballo about the Far West teams, UCLA, USF, sometimes San Jose State and Stanford were all full of foreign players, and while there may be some truth to this, they were in fact and deed, tru-blue and bonafide student athletes (which included Sigi Schmid) and many of the alumni went on to professional careers, many MDs, dentists, professors, and several of our Ethiopian players entered political life and I heard that one served as Ethipia's member of their United  Nations delegation; another was recruited by Detmar Cramer and obtained his FIFA Coaching license, and yet another, Berhane Andeberhan is a member of US Soccer's Coaching "faculty", some are now retired oncologists, family medicine practitioners, engineers, etc.  But back to the point, PG is spot on describing the Orange Bowl, just as a local Los Angeles writer for La Opinion (Spanish language daily) describered the Los Angels Coliseum's as a gigantic pot boiling  some peas, so vast it was, that it took some time efore folks went to see Liga MX teams play, say Chivas vs Club America; or even when the LA Aztecs (that Club America bought during their last years of existence) were able to fill the stadium or get at least anywhere between 20-35,000 fans.

    One last tid bit about the refs, it had to do with that '72 game we played against St. Louis: the officials were dressed exactly as PG described them, and it was in the 2nd Half when one of them (running a two-man system) halted the game, and demanded that our striker (the future FIFA Coach) change his shoes as he deemed them to be dangerous, a factoid pointed out to him by members of the St. Louis bench.  and so, while we were scrambling to find a "safer pair of boots", the game continued, without our striker, Shoa Agaonafer, until one of our subs exchanged boots, and he was allowed to re-enter.  To this day, some of us would still claim that the refs were a tad-bit biased against a West Coast team - and will even go so far as to admit that they "cost us the game," due to their very lackadaisical lack of crowd control.... which is yet another tidbit to tell y'all about.  And now I can't wait to read PG's Part 2.... 

  12. Mike Woitalla replied, May 13, 2020 at 7:02 p.m.

    Ric, That's not what Paul wrote. It was "the West Coast teams UCLA and San Francisco arrived, each sporting a number of talented Latino players."

  13. Bob Hartmann, May 13, 2020 at 4:35 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner:  I've been a fan of yours for over 50 years and appreciate your candor with regards to all things soccer.  I remember driving down to that fina game in Miami from Orlando  (I'm pretty sure it was during that time) with my father (I was 14 at the time).  I remember that my father remarked  that one of the St Lousi players must have been very nervous because he had on one red sock and one blue sock!  Eventually we realized that it was a fashion statement.  About 4 years later I had the opportunity to be in the Olympic pool with Lincoln Philips as one of our coaches.  He was very soccer savey and a real class act.  Looking forward to part 2.

  14. Kent James replied, May 15, 2020 at 4:14 p.m.

    I took a C coaching license with Lincoln Phillips in the early 1980s.  I couldn't agree more with your assessment of him.  Very impressive man; calm, knowledgeable, and he had presence...

  15. David Richardson, May 13, 2020 at 4:43 p.m.

    The Baltimore bays and Baltimore Comets both hada direct line to Howard back in the day.
    Phillips played goalie at one time and many of his players ended on the rosters including bot Aqui and Henderson.

  16. Arnold Ramirez, May 13, 2020 at 11:21 p.m.

    Ric Fonseca should  read the article again because he incorrectly stated that Paul was wrong. 

  17. Ric Fonseca, May 14, 2020 at 11:53 p.m.

    Gentlemen, thanks for your comment on my article, but since I was the graduate assistant/team manager, I just pulled out the 1972 team photo and counted 20 players that rostered seven Latino players, from which - if memory serves me correct, only 18 players made the travel roster including six Latino players. The 1970 team was also comprised of 21 players  and 5 Latinos, and the majority Ethiopians two Englishmen, and several US born players. At first read, one could surmise the author implies the team was made up of Latinos, but yes, on second and third reading I can see where I "misinterpreted" the statement. Also, I forgot to also include UCBerkeley, coached by Bob DiGrazia; and BTW, the UCLA Coach and AC were both Englishmen; one Bruin was later drafted by the LA Aztecs, and another was drafter by the Texas team, only to be traded to the Aztecs for I believe six players.  All I can say, is gracias mis amigos, and PLAY ON!!! 

  18. Ric Fonseca, May 14, 2020 at 11:57 p.m.

    P.S.  I cannot comment on USF or USB, or San Jose State or even Stanford, I remember them as having very strong teams, Coach Negoesco did recruit very heavily overseas, while UCB and San Jose state relied on a strong foreign student student body.  OPh, I also remember someone telling me that Coach Julius Menendez (San Jose St) had also been an Olympic Boxing Coach and trained Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) before he was hired as SJSste Univ.

  19. Larry Chen, May 20, 2020 at 2:56 p.m.

    I played youth soccer in the 70s-80s in upstate NY. I enjoyed reading Part 1 & looking forward to reading your multi part series.

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