Coaches hope to radically alter college men's soccer season

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Virginia men's soccer won the first of its six national championships in 1989, sharing the title with Santa Clara. The NCAA declared the teams co-champs after 90 minutes of regulation and 60 minutes of overtime produced a 1-all deadlock.

Wind chills that early-December afternoon at Rutgers University approached 30-below.

Extreme, to be sure, but emblematic of college soccer's longstanding challenge of contesting its postseason on the cusp of winter.

A proposal to radically overhaul the Division I men's season would eliminate that challenge, decompressing the schedule and moving the NCAA tournament to the more player- and spectator-friendly spring.

Most important, coaches believe, the changes would improve training and development, upgrading the college game and funneling higher-quality players to professional leagues and United States national teams.

On its face, the concept makes sense. But in these stormy times in college athletics, passage is far from assured.

College soccer shoehorns its season into three-plus months, from August until mid-December. Teams have limited practices and play exhibitions during the spring, but essentially it's a one-semester sport.

William and Mary, for example, has two friendlies and 18 matches this season from Aug. 18 to Oct. 29, followed by the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and, perhaps, NCAA tournament. So the routine is a match on Saturday followed by one on Tuesday or Wednesday, with another the following Saturday.

Three games in eight days. At the World Cup this summer, the U.S. played its three Group G matches in 11 days.

The college postseason is more hectic, with one day off the norm between conference and NCAA tournament semifinals and finals.

What coaches such as Virginia's George Gelnovatch, a volunteer assistant for the Cavaliers in the aforementioned Ice Bowl, advocate is 13 matches from mid-September until late November, followed by a winter break, late February training camp, and, finally, nine matches, plus conference and NCAA tournaments, from mid-March until late May or early June.

"It's one game a week, which is kind of the way it should be," Gelnovatch told VirginiaSports.com's Jeff White. "You get to train more all year-round. You still get the (winter) break. There's less missed school, because you're not traveling mid-week, and the costs are equal."

Additional time between matches might also allow college soccer to revise its virtually unlimited substitution rules. With FIFA, the sport's international governing body, limiting sides to three subs each, the college game is far out of step.

Not to suggest that the NCAA be as Draconian with substitutions, but better-rested athletes would make slowing the college game's revolving door more feasible.

Absent change, college coaches fear their programs will lose appeal to the most aspirational players, much like high school teams have struggled to retain players drawn to more competitive club programs. Conversely, the coaches believe a broadened season would enhance the college game's value to U.S. Soccer, producing players better-suited to, and more available for, U.S. teams.

Indeed, the Washington Post's soccer maven, Steven Goff, reported this week that the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, along with Major League Soccer officials Jeff Agoos and Todd Durbin, and West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, a former president of MLS' Houston Dynamo, are involved in the effort to alter the season.

But change, targeted for as soon as 2016-17, will not come easily.

Among the primary reasons university presidents agreed to the four-team playoff that debuts this year in major college football was that it did not creep too far into the second semester — this season's championship game is Jan. 12, the Monday some schools resume classes after the holidays.

Moreover, a catch phrase of the current NCAA reform movement is "student-athlete welfare," with administrators calling for athletes to have more time for academic and social pursuits. So while a lengthened season might not increase the number of games, and might reduce missed class time by eliminating midweek travel, a schedule that would extend for most of the academic year will be a hard sell.

"This is a reasonable and well-considered plan to improve college soccer's ability to compete for talent and remain a valuable, even unique part of the American soccer development structure," John Infante, a former NCAA compliance official at Loyola Marymount and Colorado State, wrote on his blog. "It also has virtually zero chance of ever being enacted."

If Infante is right, and if the NCAA continues to occasionally stage national soccer semifinals and finals at northern venues, you'll see a repeat of last season, when Notre Dame won the national championship in snowy Chester, Pa., where the 18,500-seat stadium was two-thirds empty.

Teel can be reached by phone

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at dteel@dailypress.com.

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