The spring season in college soccer is typically a low key and off the radar time for coaches to evaluate players and experiment with formations and player personnel. By rule, the results don’t matter.
A pilot program launched by U.S. Soccer with six schools — North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, Virginia, Georgetown and Duke — turned this notion on its head for the recently completed spring season.
Not only did these schools suddenly have something to play for; they were able to toss out the NCAA’s quirky substitution and clock management rules in favor of something more closely resembling FIFA standards.
“I feel like this tournament gave us a better initiative to work hard in the spring and gave us important games that mattered,” said Virginia forward Raheem Taylor-Parkes, a former Union Academy and Bethlehem Steel FC player from Florida. “Playing for points and playing in front of scouts without the typical NCAA rules gave it more of a professional feel.”
The standards-based approach as U.S. Soccer Development Academy Director Jared Micklos referred to it was an opportunity for U.S. Soccer to take a closer look at a level in the game — in between the development academy and the professional ranks — where the pathway is painfully disjointed.
Doing Something is Better Than Waiting on the NCAA
Though the spring program was intentionally done on a small scale, Micklos said he was pleased with the play on the field and the feedback and data collected from the competition, which North Carolina won with a 5-0-0 record while outscoring opponents 13-2.
“Limiting substitutions forces players to think differently, coaches have to coach the game differently,” Micklos said in a recent interview with BrotherlyGame. “It brings stability to the game and gives the game back to the players.”
In addition to more limited substitutions — teams were allowed seven subs at specific stoppages and no re-entry — U.S. Soccer had scouts present and provided a coaching education workshop on the eve of the last day of competition at Wake Forest.
“Playing under FIFA rules was fantastic, and every game was competitive as each team presented different challenges,” UNC head coach Carlos Somoano said in a statement to U.S. Soccer. “In the future I hope U.S. Soccer and college soccer can expand on our relationship to build our sport and help our student athletes gain valuable experiences.”
Taylor-Parkes, who has been outspoken with his support for a proposal to expand the college season to two semesters, said the spring program is a step in the right direction toward reform.
“It’s the most logical thing to do,” Taylor-Parkes said. “Extending to a full year instead of playing two to three games a week squeezed into the fall season would help immensely.”
Taylor-Parkes is one of several Philadelphia Union Academy alums who participated in the program, which more closely resembled game play in the free-flowing, possession style of the Development Academy than it did the jagged and too often predictably frantic style of a typical college game.
In addition to Taylor-Parkes, Philadelphia Union Academy alums in the competition included Wake Forest teammates Justin McMaster and Joey DeZart and North Carolina teammates Will Campbell and Jack Skahan. Virginia forward Jerren Nixon also spent time in the Union’s youth system before heading to Charlottesville.
“The fact that U.S. Soccer put their name on it made it more professional and the setup was good,” said McMaster, who found the back of the net in the final game against the Cavaliers, which won on a goal assisted by Taylor-Parkes. “I also thought because U.S. scouts were there, people were a lot more motivated to prove themselves.”
Born in Atlanta, Ga., McMaster grew up in Jamaica before joining the Union Academy when he was 15 and has received call-ups to both Jamaican and U.S. youth national teams. His last call-up was in January as part of the first ever Youth National Team Summit Camp.
He had a pair of goals and three assists as a freshman on a team that sent five players to the professional ranks, including Philadelphia Union homegrown Mark McKenzie. McMaster said seeing so many players around him go to the professional ranks is good motivation.
“I realize how close it can be and it’s very much possible if I perform,” he said. “I know that people are watching me and it’s very much possible.”
DeZart, a Jackson, N.J. native who also earned call-ups to Jamaican youth national teams while he was still in the academy, said the program was also important for showcasing himself for the fall season playing against top teams.
“Getting the coach’s trust is a big part of it,” he said.
After getting limited time his freshman year in a midfield with two current MLS players Ian Harkes and Jacori Hayes, DeZart started the first 14 games of his junior season before going down with an injury. The biggest difference he noticed from the spring program: fitness.
“It was just a lot different from a fitness perspective,” he said. “But I liked it and really enjoyed it.”
That so many players at the college level — like DeZart, McMaster, Taylor-Parkes and so many others — essentially take a couple steps backwards from playing at a high level with FIFA standards in the Development Academy (with a season stretched out across the fall and spring months) may be one of the most frustrating aspects of soccer in the U.S.
Sure, the Premier Development League is there to fill in gaps in the summer — DeZart and Will Campbell are rostered with Reading United and Taylor-Parkes with the Lakeland Tropics — but every year that goes by that the two-semester proposal doesn’t find movement with the NCAA (even what seems like an easy fix allowing referees to keep time was tabled at the committee level last month) is another year that college soccer loses more relevancy in the world’s game.
U.S. Soccer, of course, doesn’t have jurisdiction over NCAA to force the issue any further. For the pilot program, they simply worked within existing NCAA rules for the spring season (no air travel, five play days, etc.) without much direct collaboration.
Perhaps, expanding the program to other regions of the country is the answer (for now) to the issues impacting a key development period in the life of players not only destined for the pro game, but those who end up moving on to the amateur ranks, which play an important role in growing the game at the grassroots level.
“The next step is to have discussions about how this could apply to much more than six schools, who could take ownership of it and who could run it,” Micklos said. “We thought it was a good test.”
The standings and game scores can be found on the U.S. Soccer website.