Sasho Cirovski on hopes for spring college soccer, players' key questions, and activism in sports

Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski had been leading the D1 men's college's coaches reform movement for a fall-spring season -- the  21st Century Model -- that looked to be on the verge of approval when the COVID outbreak disrupted the college sports world and the NCAA tabled its vote on the proposal and scores of others that were on the docket in April. Cirovski and his colleagues have instead been focusing on how to navigate the short- and long-term impact of COVID. By the end of last week, two-thirds of D1 men's soccer conferences -- including the Maryland's Big Ten -- announced their postponement of fall sports and the NCAA confirmed the cancellation of fall sports championships (besides a possible FBS championship in college football).

Cirovski's three decades of college coaching has included guiding the University of Maryland to 24 NCAA playoffs, nine College Cup appearances and three NCAA titles (2018, 2008, 2005). 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.

SOCCER AMERICA: How are you and your players handling the disappointment of the postponed season and is there anything you've been able to do to keep their spirits up?

SASHO CIROVSKI: Our players were absolutely gutted when the news of the cancellation/postponement came. We always prepared them for the possibility of a shortened, interrupted and/or a potentially postponed season, but the reality was really still jarring. The worst part was that, at the moment of the announcement, there remained too many unanswered questions regarding their eligibility. Will they lose a season of competition? What happens to their financial aid (if they opt out)? What is their ability to play on outside teams in the fall, and whether a spring season with an NCAA Championship will happen? Some of these will be answered soon but the whole thing was handled poorly. The decision to postpone was the right decision, it was one we always felt would happen, but it should have been announced weeks, if not months earlier.

SA: I believe Maryland's semester starts Aug. 31 and the plan is two weeks of online instruction with the aim for in-person classes starting Sept. 14. At what stage was the team when the Big Ten delay announcement came?

SASHO CIROVSKI: The majority of our team arrived on July 6 for testing and voluntary workouts with our Performance Coach and our Athletic Trainer. In late June, the curve was flattening and things looked promising. The players came to campus and got to work. By August 7, over 95% of our players had gone through four weeks of negative test results. The final few players arrived the weekend prior to the announcement. One from Canada and one from Australia. Our team was anticipating a Big Ten soccer schedule announcement on Monday, August 11. It was our preseason meetings and equipment issuance day.

We were excited to start on August 12. Then BOOM ... the decision came and we all got very anxious and tried to make sense of it. Initially, our Athletic Department wanted to shut everything down and send all the kids home for two weeks or so. At the request of our student-athletes, myself and several of the other coaches pleaded to let us keep the kids here and run practices and thankfully, our AD, Damon Evans, and our Sports Medicine folks agreed. We have our full team on campus now and we are training. We trained the last three days and the kids were unbelievably excited! It was great therapy for all of us.

All of our players are in online classes and our plan is to look at it as our non-traditional season and focus on their safety first and soccer development second while we prepare for a spring season.

SA: What kind of activities is the team allowed to have during the fall? Has the NCAA announced regulations for practicing or scrimmaging?

SASHO CIROVSKI: The NCAA has not announced their regulations for postponed fall sports yet, but we are being smart about how we proceed. We are going only once a day and are tracking our workload daily so we gradually build up the players into full training. But since all of our players have completed the full re-socialization guidelines, we are full-go in training. Once we get to a good spot in our training, our goal is to have a full 11-v-11 intersquad scrimmage every Friday.

SA: If as we all hope COVID is under control in the spring, do you think that it's logistically possible to have the fall sports compete in the spring? I imagine it would require creative sharing of facilities and resources (eg: medical trainers) if more sports than usual are active at the same time?

SASHO CIROVSKI: I am very hopeful that next week, between Aug. 19-21, that the NCAA D1 Council and Board of Governors will announce that our fall sports will play in the spring and that we will have a (modified) NCAA Championship. I believe the NCAA Tournament will be reduced slightly and that we will have predetermined "bubble" sites for each round.

While I believe it will be a challenge to fit all of the fall sports into the spring, I 100% believe we can do it and will do it! Of course, it will be a challenge for staffing and sharing of facilities but it's not as complicated as some people make it out to be. We will be creative, we will respect the spring sports and be secondary to their needs. We will support each other and make it work. We have time to plan and work out all of the details. It's the right thing to do for the student-athletes. Selfishly, my genuine hope is that everyone sees the benefit of playing our Spring NCAA Tournament in good weather and that it helps the efforts of the 21st Century Model becoming implemented in 2022.

Maryland won the 2018 D1 College Cup.

SA: Can you imagine an optimal scenario for how this college soccer season could play out?

SASHO CIROVSKI: What is really interesting is that, if for some reason the ACC and a few other FBS conferences actually play college football in the fall (which I don't believe will happen), it's possible that the ACC schools could play out a COVID version of the 21st Century Model over two semesters. In other words, they could play 6-10 games in the fall and then play 6-10 games in the spring leading up to the NCAA tournament. We could have a great test case! But outside of that, I imagine a spring season where we will have a reduced schedule, permissive in nature where teams could play a minimum of six games or a maximum of 14 games or so. The optimal scenario, of course, would be to allow teams to play as many games as possible, which would be 20, three exhibitions and 17 regular season. I think most of us would be very happy with a schedule that allows 2-3 exhibitions and anything over 14 regular-season games.

SA: Did the USA's struggle to contain COVID contribute to your starting goalkeeper, international student Niklas Neumann, a rising sophomore, returning to Germany and signing with third division KSV Hessen Kassel?

SASHO CIROVSKI: Yes, it absolutely did. He is living in a country, Germany, that demonstrated strong national leadership that inspired a united community response to contain the virus. As Niklas was evaluating his options, he was looking at the potential postponement of our season coupled with the fact that as a country we were doing a terrible job of showing unity of purpose in our efforts. It seemed safer for him to be in Germany and be able to play soccer. In addition, the starting goalkeeper for his team in Germany got injured, so the opportunity became a bigger deal and he chose to stay. It's hard to argue against that.

I must add that it's an embarrassment that we as a country got caught with our pants down in tackling this virus in a serious and united front. It's really exposed our divisiveness as a country. However, I remain hopeful that with new strong and compassionate leadership after November, we can begin to become a United States again!

SA: Has the COVID interruption affected the status of other international players on your squad?

SASHO CIROVSKI: Well, besides Niklas, we have one other player strongly contemplating going home, but the rest are committed to staying here for now and are hopeful that we can play in the spring.

SA: As a leader among men's college coaches, what sense do you have about how they're coping around the country and are there any strategies for long-term planning that could help in navigating the challenges?

SASHO CIROVSKI: I'm incredibly proud of the tight-knit men's college coaching community we have created. I will tell you this, it's been really hard dealing with the uncertainty and the rollercoaster ride we have all been. However, having worked together on the 21st Century Model has really brought us very close together. We have shared many concerns with each other and the ideas and support generated between us has been inspirational. We are very worried about the economic fallout and what that means for our programs, players and staff.

We have worked on a regionalized approach to scheduling as a show of our commitment to cost savings across the board to mitigate the risk of programs being cut. The long-term plan remains the same. We must pass the 21st Century Model because it is the right thing to do for the players and for the game. We want to make college soccer the destination for the best 18- 23-year-old student-athletes in the world. We want to create a product and a championship experience that becomes our version of March Madness.

One example of how close-knit a group and how supportive we are of each other came when Bucknell's men's soccer coach Brendan Nash reported in June that a significant percentage of donors during his program's fundraising quest came from college soccer coaches.

SA: One of the disappointments of the COVID interruption was that the NCAA tabled what looked like a promising movement you were leading for a split-season format that could benefit men's college soccer in many ways. Is there a possibility for a silver lining related to that now that there could be men's soccer in the spring? Could this create a prototype for the quest to move forward?

SASHO CIROVSKI: Yes, there could be a silver lining. As I mentioned earlier, I am hopeful that through this cloud that we are under, some rays of light are shed and somehow, the 21st Century Model can be clearly shone on and appreciated for its purpose. I'm hopeful that some teams get to experience a COVID-inspired split-season version of it this year and the rest of us experience a full spring season, and that we all get to play a spring NCAA Tournament in good weather.

We will get through this! We will pass the 21st Century Model! Wear a mask, wash your hands and physically distance! It's not political ... it's a virus! We will be together soon.

SA: Not only has the nation been struggling with a pandemic -- police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement has placed a spotlight on racial inequality and systemic racism. One of your former Maryland players, Zack Steffen (while with Fortuna Duesseldorf) reacted to the police killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matters on German television. Based on your statement in June, you believe that the sports world has a role to play to address racial prejudice and inequality ...

SASHO CIROVSKI: I believe it's very important as a program to be clear that we stand united with our black players past, present and future. As I said in the statement, our program is diverse in race, religion and point of view -- and our unity makes us believe in the ability to find togetherness and push back against people who try to divide. I believe it's very important that the fight for racial equality does not lose momentum.


3 comments about "Sasho Cirovski on hopes for spring college soccer, players' key questions, and activism in sports".
  1. Mike Lynch, August 16, 2020 at 3:46 p.m.

    Excellent interview Mike - Sasho shares many good points and insights, especially, "The long-term plan remains the same. We must pass the 21st Century Model because it is the right thing to do for the players and for the game. We want to make college soccer the destination for the best 18- 23-year-old student-athletes in the world. We want to create a product and a championship experience that becomes our version of March Madness."

  2. Russell Payne, August 16, 2020 at 7 p.m.

    Sasho , thanks for your opened mined interview. Your leadership is inspiring. My son Russell has been inspired by your leadership in the sport. My wife and I thank you for your guidance of Russell. You molded him him into a very good soccer player and coach. Keep up the good work moving college and US soccer forward.
    Bill Payne 

  3. R2 Dad, August 18, 2020 at 3:02 p.m.

    "I believe it's very important that the fight for racial equality does not lose momentum." 
    Within the context of college soccer, what does this mean? Quotas for players of a certain race? As long as everyone keeps talking about "societal problems" and generalities, no concrete policies will result. This is a guaranteed way to ensure  NO changes will occur and this is all just virtue signaling. 
    I'm not in favor of quotas, but the corporate song and dance around this issue does not clarify but obfuscate.

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