The 2014 college soccer season came to a close without a storybook sunset. A spotless blue sky arched over the towering North Carolina pines in the distance. The midday sun beamed onto the field at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, detailing each individual blade of grass. The temperature rose into the 50s and sent coats underneath the seats. Mother Nature summoned everything she had left to produce one last beautiful day for the beautiful game. It was a proper goodbye before the soccer passionate packed it up and headed indoors for the winter.
At the same time, the University of Virginia’s men’s soccer team were saying hello to their 7th College Cup. They defeated the UCLA Bruins in the final 4-2 on penalty kicks after the Cavaliers’ head coach George Gelnovatch saw his players execute his gameplan flawlessly. In order to stifle UCLA’s quick passing, the Cavaliers spent the majority of the game with 10, and at times even 11, men behind the ball. Virginia wanted penalty kicks from the beginning. The Cavaliers bend but don’t break tactics frustrated UCLA. The Bruins lost their composure and squandered clear chances. When the match came down to PKs, the Bruins already defeated themselves mentally. Two spot kicks rattled off the crossbar and the Cavaliers went back to Charlottesville with the trophy.
Yet for this cup final being a battle to the end between two of collegiate soccer’s powerhouse programs, match attendance barely crept past 8,000. To give this number some context, the average home attendance for Division I-FCS football is around 8,000 as well. While it might be unfair to compare college soccer to the moneymaking schemes of college football and college basketball, it still brings up a much more important question. Where exactly does collegiate soccer stand within the American soccer system?
If you even just have a passing interest in the United States men’s national team or the MLS, then you’ve probably heard the conversation about what American soccer needs to do in order to compete with the world’s best. These conversations however focus almost exclusively on expanding the professional game, while college soccer is left out of this dialogue. The MLS’s Homegrown Player Rule is making the leap from youth academies to the pros a more appealing option than going to college and maintaining amateur status for another four years. Europe is also beginning to notice soccer’s increase in popularity in the states and has started to take more kids overseas. College soccer is in jeopardy of becoming only a chance for student athletes to live out the final moments of their competitive soccer careers. Stepping-stones into the professional game are being found elsewhere and college soccer seems to exist outside of the American soccer pyramid.
So how can it be brought back into the fold? College soccer needs to look more attractive and student bodies around the country can play a big role in accomplishing this. The lazy Sunday atmosphere that accompanies college matches won’t cut it anymore. We need to get loud and show these players we care. Soccer is starting to build large followings on college campuses. Access to European matches is easier than it’s ever been. Students are picking clubs and learning more about the sport each day. This easy access has made us picky though. Why try to brave the cold and wind when we can watch the world’s top talent on our computer screens? This is a particular problem at my school, the University of Pittsburgh. Matchdays see huge gaps of empty bleachers at Ambrose Urbanic Field. Maybe this is because of specific circumstances related to my school like Cardiac Hill and indifference in general to our mediocre athletic programs. Still, I attended games at 10 schools this season and Duquesne was the only one that had a decent student turnout.
I’ve realized that the only way to develop an understanding of the game’s organic flow is to see it in person. Watching the game on a computer doesn’t show how players utilize space or the communication it takes to construct an organized back line. If you enjoy watching the Barclays Premier League on NBC and are looking to take this interest to the next step, then supporting your school’s team is the logical choice.
I’m also not going to act like I don’t know what us college students love to do. We like to get drunk and make asses of ourselves. Well, I’m presenting a way that we can do this and be constructive at the same time. Soccer support is all about being as obnoxious as possible. Drums, chants, and costumes are a few ideas to get your student section started. If we come together and give our schools legitimate fanbases, then young players might start believing that college soccer will prepare themselves for the atmospheres of the MLS and top leagues in Europe.
A spike in student turnout will help shine light on two very important things college soccer is doing to promote the sport in America. The college level is the first chance that European tactics can be infused into the American style of play. Many collegiate coaches rely on recruits from Germany and England to give their stateside players a deeper understanding of the game. Soccer pervades every aspect of European culture and kids learn how to play within a system from a young age. The American style, based on speed and individual skill, melds with the systematic adaptability of the Europeans to create a comprehensive product.
The other thing that college soccer is doing right is allowing this mixture of skill and system to be seen by impressionable eyes. Tickets to matches are free almost anywhere. It is a great way for the family to spend a Saturday. I was amazed by how fixated these young children were to the actual play. For these little soccer stars the college athletes are role models. They look on analyzing the proper technique and try to emulate it in the backyard.
Later when I look back on the 2014 college soccer season, my lasting impression will not be of Riggs Lennon’s Virginia teammates rushing the field to congratulate him for slotting home the decisive penalty in the College Cup final. Instead, it will come from a mid-season match between Saint Louis and George Mason in Fairfax, VA. A group of ten-year-old girls dressed up in their soccer uniforms unfold a large George Mason banner. Their tiny arms struggle to hold the banner up in the air and large chunks drag along the bleachers. Yet the girls are relentless in their passion for the game in front of them. They start a call and response. “GEORGE!”…… “MASON!” A boys youth team on the other side of the stands joins in. Together they make the only noise in the park. When next fall rolls around, take inspiration from these little girls and do your part in making sure the college level is a vital part of soccer becoming America’s sport of the future.