In the latest edition of the Experts’ Roundtable series, AthleticDirectorU chats with a quartet Men’s Soccer sport administrators on a variety of topics, including Xs & Os, student-athlete diversity around the sport, transfers and more.
Tactics, training, and scouting opponents are all part of the DNA of coaching Division I soccer. Do you talk Xs and Os with your head coach? How do you bring that element into your overall performance evaluation of your coaching staff?
Tanya Vogel – Athletic Director – George Washington
As a former coach, I do my best to avoid talking Xs and Os with all of my coaches. It’s our job to determine a coach’s acumen for the tactical part of the game during the hiring process. I feel that the last thing a coach wants or needs is their supervisor to be questioning their system, their starters, their subs, etc. As for their performance evaluation, we spend more time talking about their recruiting, scheduling, personnel and player management than tactics.
I never question training, scouting or strategic in-game tactics with the head coach. I have never participated in the sport of soccer at any level, but can honestly say that I would not discuss Xs and Os with my head coach even if I had. In terms of evaluation, the expectation is that, year in and year out, we’re achieving success at as high a level as possible. It’s not entirely relevant to me if we average three goals a game or just one. If, at the end of each regular season, the head coach puts our program and student-athletes in a position to compete for a championship on a consistent basis, that would be considered a job well done.
Our Department has complete trust in Coach Yeagley when it comes to personnel, playing time, and strategy. We do often discuss all of these components of the program, and our discussions reveal Coach’s thoughtful approach, his detailed planning, and thorough preparation. Coach is not only a strategist when it comes to Xs and Os, but he is also a psychologist when it comes to player development and the team’s mentality.
John-Michael (Hayden) and I talk Xs and Os often – it’s a tremendous platform as the sport administrator to learn and see how he and our entire staff prepare for opponents, think strategically, and manage our team between matches. It’s insightful to see these coaching mechanics in motion and fun to see the passion of our staff. From a performance evaluation standpoint, preparation, player development, team chemistry, and overall team improvement are themes we prioritize with our coaches in their performance reviews. Sitting in with John-Michael and our assistant coaches in their environment is helpful to inform that evaluation process.
Division I men’s soccer is a sport that draws above average participation from international student-athletes. What positive impacts does that roster diversity bring to the sport of DI men’s soccer? Your school?
Vogel (George Washington): Roster diversity in any sport adds value to the individuals on the team and to the collective. Our students within the soccer program are exposed to various belief systems and cultures because of the diverse backgrounds of our student-athletes. It’s not unique to the sport of soccer; however, because of the global popularity of the sport, it’s highly likely that our men’s program will have 3-4 different countries represented in a given year. For our guys, this means that they have an opportunity to learn about and appreciate difference without having to leave the US.
GW sits in the heart of our nation’s capital which attracts students, faculty, staff and fans from all over the world. Sponsoring a sport that draws high quality international student-athletes mirrors what the city and our institution does, so it’s a natural fit.Due to the global reach of the sport, soccer has the ability to draw international students, faculty and staff together on any campus.
Reed (Washington): I think it represents a great impact and adds a dimension that you might not have in a number of varsity programs. Student-athletes often report that one of the things they really enjoyed about their college experience and something they’ll miss after graduation is the time they’ve gotten to spend with their teammates. One of the benefits of the college experience generally is having the opportunity to meet and interact with people who are not like you and who come from different backgrounds and experiences. To have the opportunity to engage in that experience, while also going through the grind, successes and failures of an competition season can only make that experience even more impactful.
Harper (Indiana): Indiana University prides itself in being a great place for international students to study, and the attraction of soccer at IU helps contribute to bringing a variety of international students to campus. We believe the benefits are reciprocal in that IU is a great place for international students to grow and learn, and the diversity of views that they bring to the institution also provide great benefit to domestic students as well.
Banker (Louisville): The diversity of the sport is one of my favorite traits of Division I men’s soccer. Our University of Louisville men’s soccer team has student-athletes from 10 different countries across five continents. The friendships and bonds formed among teammates is one of the values of college athletics, but so is the learning and exposure to new backgrounds and cultures. That’s where the universality of soccer and diversity within many Division I soccer teams across the country is an asset. It makes the world a smaller place and college soccer is a community unto itself.
I see our men’s soccer student-athletes, including our international student-athletes, at the conclusion of games connecting with opponents who are former teammates from their home towns and countries. Long-time friends who may have played together at youth levels but not have seen each other in years. This is a wonderful byproduct of a sport that is truly global. We also see the cultural influences and connectivity on our campus across our sport programs. One of our senior men’s soccer student-athletes is from Japan and he has become a mentor and source of support for one of our freshman women’s basketball student-athletes also from Japan. Moving to the U.S. from any other part of the world is major life event for a young person. Those connections and collaborations among student-athletes are invaluable.
Through 2017-18, the four-year APR average for Men’s Soccer across Division I is 983. But the four-year RETENTION average for men’s soccer during same time frame is 969—only the sports of basketball, FBS and FCS football, and baseball are ranked lower for retention than men’s soccer across all male sports. Is the frequency of transfers in Division I men ‘s soccer an issue that needs closer attention? Is the transfer portal exacerbating the sport’s retention challenges?
Vogel (George Washington): I believe we need to continue to keep our eye on the transfer situation in all sports as we work to better understand what the cause is for this trend. For men’s soccer, the frequency of transfers appears to mirror the frequency that our youth players are changing club teams. Additionally, as participation on high school teams decreases, students may not be used to the more traditional “loyalty” to one program that we used to see. I don’t attribute the retention challenge to the portal, as the issue was there before the portal existed.
Reed (Washington): It’s too early to determine whether or not the transfer portal is having an effect on APR scores. With that said, I do think the retention concerns may center more around professional opportunities and scholarship limits. The continued growth of the MLS and the timing of their combine and draft present a very attractive option for student-athletes with professional aspirations. This, combined with the limitation of having only 9.9 scholarships to spread over a roster of 25-30 athletes means very few student-athletes are receiving full scholarships meaning it may not be financially feasible to stay in school.
Finally, I know this question concerned retention, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that APR concerns are indicative of any concerns about academic success. Here at Washington, the team GPA of our men’s soccer program is among the highest in the department. We’ve also had great success encouraging then subsequently supporting former men’s soccer student-athletes who’ve left early to pursue pro careers in returning to complete their degree via our Finish Line program.
Harper (Indiana): Transferring and retention are issues across all sports that should continue to be discussed. One thing that our program really works hard to assess in recruiting is the student’s overall fit with the institution and the culture of the program, which I think are key components to a student finding success at an institution and wanting to stay. Additionally, developments within the professional ranks in soccer continue to be something that impact a number of our players and their futures. At Indiana, we have a program called “Hoosiers for Life” that enables any student who leaves IU for a professional opportunity, or other need, and leaves in good standing to return and finish their degree tuition free. A few soccer players have taken advantage of this program and have finished their IU degrees after concluding their professional careers.
Banker (Louisville): Clearly retention is the more prominent challenge for Division I men’s soccer’s APR profile. Men’s soccer is a sport that is availed to the one-time transfer exception which means a men’s soccer student-athletes have a path of least resistance to transfer and find a new program, coaching staff, and potentially more playing time without sitting out. Transferring is not innately evil or problematic though. A fresh start, a need to move closer to home, or a right turn on which degree program interests the student are all legitimate variables to prompt a transfer. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published data in 2018 showing 38% of all college students within a 6-year cohort transferred at-least once. So non-athlete students are making the same decisions about staying or going as their athlete peers.
If a one-time transfer exception should continue to exist in men’s soccer – perhaps we consider embedding a GPA or percentage of degree benchmark that sits markedly above the minimum as a pre-requisite to qualifying for the transfer exception. From an academic perspective, college men’s soccer seems to mirror college football more and more as it pertains to the academic enrollment timeline. Men’s soccer and football student-athletes are enrolling in more summer school courses as a means to graduate by December at the conclusion of their final season (as opposed to the following spring term when graduation in four years would traditionally occur). The MLS Draft is in the winter and related professional opportunities are available at that time–these present incentives for men’s soccer student-athletes with professional aspirations to wrap up their collegiate experience and move-on.
Interestingly, the transaction of professional soccer athletes moving from team to team isn’t described as a “trade” like an NFL or NBA player moving teams might be. Professional soccer athletes are “transferred” between clubs under the respective football (aka soccer) associations’ designated transfer windows. You wonder how the sport-specific semantics at the highest level seep in to college soccer’s psyche and landscape – making “transferring” a normalized occurrence customary to the sport at all levels including Division I men’s soccer. This is what soccer coaches and athletes know.
I don’t think the transfer portal is exacerbating the transfer frequency in Division I men’s soccer – transfers were happening in men’s soccer at a notable pace before the transfer portal emerged. The retention conundrum in men’s soccer should continue to receive closer examination. Transferring in men’s soccer will not vanish though. One could argue if your sport’s APR landscape is going to have either a macro eligibility issue or a macro retention issue, you might lean toward the latter challenge.
Interest in soccer in the United States is seemingly growing. The 2019 Women’s World Cup drew significant tv ratings in the US; MLS tv ratings are up from last year; professional leagues in the US are expanding (e.g., St. Louis announced MLS team), and social media traction, according to Adweek, are increasing at a marked clip—MLS’s social channels generated 2.2 billion impressions during the 2019 regular season, representing a 38 per cent increase on the 2018 campaign, while social interactions were also up 27 per cent. How is the growth and interest in soccer at all levels impacting DI men’s soccer?
Vogel (George Washington): Not too long ago, we would claim that our best male athletes in the US were playing American football, basketball or baseball. As the interest in soccer grows and exposure to the game increases, we are seeing some of our best athletes choose soccer. Additionally, with the increased media exposure along with professional opportunities, the quality of athlete continues to rise. I think it’s important to note that 20 years ago it was nearly impossible to watch the sport on tv or live. Our current D1 men’s players have grown up in a world where they have access to watching the best players in the world on any of their devices, at any time of the day. This exposure, at an early age, has created a new generation of player with more creativity and nuance than we saw in domestic players previously. I remain optimistic as we have better athletes with a higher level of exposure to excellence…and outstanding coaches to help them reach their potential on the pitch. It’s a great time to become a D1 soccer fan!
Reed (Washington): I think it is fairly common knowledge at this point that participating overall in the sport of soccer is increasing at a high level. What’s been interesting to me is how many of the conversations I have with my men’s soccer staff now resemble in some aspects of conversations I’m having with the men’s basketball staff. We are now having conversations about whether or not a student-athlete will depart early for the pro ranks. Or whether or not a student-athlete is so talented, that they may opt to pursue professional opportunities and bypass college altogether.
Harper (Indiana): Having interest in soccer increase at all levels is great for D1 men’s soccer because it can both create a deeper talent pool in youth programs while also providing additional opportunities in the professional ranks after college.
Banker (Louisville): A rising tide lifts all boats. The soccer drumbeat in the U.S. continues to grow louder and college soccer can be a beneficiary. Many of the professional teams and leagues have (or will be) developing their own youth academies where future college soccer student-athletes may be discovered. It’s been well chronicled that the development of young players and a better organized national system in the United States is important for both the growth of the sport in the U.S. as well as the long-term success of our men’s and women’s senior national teams. College soccer can certainly be an important player in that national blueprint.
College soccer still holds a niche in that we couple the athletic opportunity with an education. We see rising soccer prospects choosing college soccer over a professional opportunity that may fizzle in a year or two.
It’s important for the relationships between the professional clubs and universities with soccer programs to remain positive and mutually beneficial. Since Louisville City FC advanced to the USL Championship game this past week, we (University of Louisville) will be hosting the USL Championship game this Sunday (November 17) at our Lynn Soccer Stadium on campus. We’ve hosted prior USL championship games which included world-class players like Didier Drogba playing on our pitch. We’ve held friendlies between Louisville City FC and our men’s team. We are talking about future collaborations with pro teams and both our men’s and women’s teams. It’s an exciting time for soccer in the States and it’s important for college soccer to be central to that fervor.
If you could change one thing about Division I men’s soccer, what would it be and why?
Vogel (George Washington): Many of us believe there is a new day coming in Division I soccer that will allow for a less condensed schedule spanning over both semesters. I appreciate all of the work that has been done by our coaches and sports scientists to help us better understand which direction we need to go. Of course there will he challenges to overcome and logistics to work through, but I look forward to our membership making good decisions in the near future to bring common sense change to the sport.
Reed (Washington): More and more soccer student-athletes are coming into college with professional aspirations. As noted above, increased professional opportunities be it MLS or abroad mean the proliferation of involvement of agents and other individuals who are trying to get involved with student-athletes. This involvement can not only have a negative effect on their careers in the long term, but also jeopardize their eligibility in the short term. There have been increased efforts in terms of advising, education, disability insurance and the like for football and basketball student-athletes. I think it’s time to bring a similar level of support for our soccer student-athletes.
Harper (Indiana): There has been a lot of good discussion about the possibility of moving D1 men’s soccer to what has been called the 21st Century Model, which would reduce the overall number of games in the academic year and redistribute the games throughout fall and spring segments. I think the adoption of that model could improve students’ overall experience and welfare and positively impact the sport.
Banker (Louisville): The academic-year (or “21st Century”) model for men’s soccer has caught our eye. This model would stretch the championship season across both the fall and spring terms and eliminate the spring non-championship segment as a compromise. The overall number of games would not increase and overall number of weeks under the new model would be comparable to the time demands and season length under the current two-season format. What is compelling about the model to our institution are the health, safety, and academic benefits. The model would create less mid-week games which means more recovery time for student-athletes between games that would be scheduled on weekends. Less midweek games also means less missed class time and less travel which would enhance student-athlete well-being. The medical and soccer communities have presented compelling data (including student-athlete injury trends) to support why this modernization is worth exploring.
Hosting the Men’s College Cup in late spring (as opposed to December) might present an opportunity for an enhanced championship experience and playing climate conducive to the sport. Extending the championship season in to the spring could also incentivize student-athlete retention that begets graduation. It’s our understanding there have been conversations with MLS and others in the soccer community on how such a change at the college level could work as college soccer interfaces with the professional level including finding a pathway for soccer student-athletes who are draft eligible.
Implementing a new playing season model that moves the post-season from fall to spring would be a marked change and come with questions that need sorting. It could be the right change at the right time though. We’ve expanded participation time-frames in basketball and football with the addition of summer access. We’ve found ways to minimize missed class-time and mid-week travel in sports like wrestling through recent adjustments to its playing season rules. Playing seasons do evolve with the sport. This proposal seems more about the ‘when’ (in moving weeks and games) as opposed to simply asking for more games and playing-season weeks. It might be soccer’s turn for a modernized playing season.