In 2014, I suggested a raft of changes to pull college soccer into line with the rest of the American pyramid. Embedded within all that – the partnership with MLS, the coaching licenses, the USL competition – was a plea for a change in rules. Limit subs, spread the season across 10 months and see what happens.
Now, allow me to call in the cavalry. We have statistical proof backing up those assertions.
In recent years, the Virginia men’s program has generated a deserved reputation as a forward-thinking innovator in statistical analysis within the largely staid world of higher thought in college soccer. The Cavaliers’ improbable 2014 national championship was a monument to pragmatism, and its masterful rope-a-dope of a vastly more individually talented UCLA side in the title match is one of the great monuments to gameplanning in recent memory. On individual talent, the Cavaliers probably shouldn’t have even been in Cary. They (deservedly) won the whole thing.
Longtime Hoos coach George Gelnovatch deserves his praise, of course, but don’t cut the analytical side from the equation.
At the time, Virginia employed numbers specialist Oliver Gage, who whipped up a stirring after-action report (titled, aptly, ‘Defense Will Win You Championships, But Not Friends’) following the Cavs’ shootout win over UCLA in the title game. In it, Gage lays out how Virginia neutralized Leo Stolz, neutered the Bruins’ dangerous ground game around the area and punished UCLA’s wantonness. It is the blueprint of the underdog and a stunning riposte to all us cynics who would have written off Virginia in the pregame.
Soon after the title game, Gage’s smarts earned him a similar gig with the Houston Dynamo. That’s where A.J. Barnold steps into our story.
Barnold, who’s currently diving into similar numbers for Virginia, recently put out the shingle for his new analytics blog, and I highly suggest you peruse the curtain-raiser. It is insightful to an actionable degree. Barnold breaks down the differences in passing volume and length between MLS and the ACC in 2015, and the conclusion is hard to miss.
For 45 minutes, MLS is a better passing league (of course). And then college soccer falls off a cliff.
This might be the most important table in how we understand what college soccer’s liberal substitution policy and three-month season are doing to player development. And the news is not particularly cheery.
As Barnold noted, college soccer teams substitute players at a rate 375 percent greater than that of professional leagues, and they already pass significantly less. But as college teams dive deeper into the second half of games, the quality plummets to the point that, by the 75th minute, teams are averaging about 45 passes in a 15-minute span. That is… not good. Bad, in fact. Good attacks can (and should) aspire to accumulate half that in a single buildup.
The key takeaway here is not difficult to trowel out of the loam. College teams are poorly conditioned by a short season and hamstrung by substitution rules that allow reentry. One reason Cyle Larin’s explosive 2015 with Orlando City was so incredible was precisely for this reason. College players tend to fall off a cliff somewhere in the summer months of their rookie year, when their college-conditioned legs suddenly have a wall to push through. Larin somehow brooked the convention, but he is startlingly rare. Simply put, college players aren’t ready for the big show quick enough.
It’s comically easy to arrive at the fix and considerably harder to engineer it from an institutional standpoint. As a non-revenue sport, college soccer is swimming upstream against the bloat of the football-obsessed NCAA. But the closer our development systems mimic the professional institutions into which they feed, the more prepared our players will be. And as long as college soccer is a branch on the tree – and make no mistake, it’s still very involved – we’ll desperately need change.
The vitality of future college soccer players everywhere very literally depends on it.