The University of Cincinnati dropped men's college soccer from its long list of 19 sports for which it offers scholarships to student-athletes on Tuesday, effective immediately.
COVID-19 was the excuse, and it’s easy as a soccer fan to be outraged over the beautiful game being the first to get the axe, especially with other schools likely to soon follow suit.
But this might be a good thing in the long run for men’s soccer in the U.S.
News of Cincinnati discontinuing men’s soccer came as a huge blow to fans of a Bearcats program that’s been around since 1973. Cincinnati director of athletics John Cunningham was hired by the school in December and made the decision a month after 19-year head coach Hylton Dayes resigned.
— Cincinnati Bearcats (@GoBEARCATS) April 14, 2020
“This was a difficult decision, but one made with the long-term interests of UC Athletics at the forefront,” Cunningham said in a statement. “During this time of profound challenges and widespread uncertainty, I have engaged in a comprehensive and thorough review of UC’s sport offerings and long-term budget implications of supporting the number of student-athletes currently at UC. Based on this review, and in consultation with President (Neville) Pinto and other University leaders, UC Athletics will no longer sponsor a men's soccer program.”
The Bearcats men’s soccer program had operating losses of $726,498 in 2019, according to ESPN’s Mark Schlabach. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said the program might’ve been dropped even without the pandemic. So it makes some sense for UC to drop men’s soccer now, especially with FC Cincinnati providing the city with a pro soccer team as of 2019.
Nonetheless, your heart goes out to the young men whose dreams of playing soccer for the Bearcats have been squashed. (Fortunately, current players will be given the option of a free transfer or finishing out their academic career with their current scholarships.)
“Every kid that grows up in Cincinnati wants to play soccer for UC, but it’s just being taken away now,” said Will Lonneman, a sophomore midfielder for the Bearcats, on a WCPO Cincinnati podcast.
The First Of Many
The sad reality is Cincinnati might only be the first of many universities to drop sports like men’s soccer.
On his podcast “Nothing Personal With David Samson,” the eponymous former MLB front office executive, once president of the Miami Marlins, said he expects more universities to stop offering certain sports during the ongoing pandemic, which is likely to hinder sports for months, if not years, to come.
“They look at who is funding who,” Samson said. “Cincinnati is not the last school where this is going to happen. When you’re thinking about college athletics, just know that those sports are in jeopardy. They’re in jeopardy because of coronavirus. They’re in jeopardy because of this shutdown, which is completely necessary.”
The loss of a soccer program in America is never great news; the more opportunities for athletes to continue playing soccer, the better.
But when it comes to men’s soccer in the U.S., college ball isn’t a path to improving the national team — if anything it’s a detriment to it.
In the long run, the loss of men’s NCAA soccer programs across the country could actually help the USMNT and Major League Soccer.
A Path To Go Pro
In most sports in America, the typical pattern for success is as follows: play in high school (or AAU/travel teams) until college, make a name for yourself at the university that appealed most to the 18-year-old you and then, if you’re good enough, you go pro.
Soccer doesn’t follow this mold. Recent events suggest many MLS clubs would be happier without college soccer altogether.
While there are certainly examples of American soccer players making it big in MLS and the USMNT after playing in college (think Clint Dempsey, DeAndre Yedlin and Stuart Holden), the truth is NCAA players in MLS are becoming rarer by the year. More common are the Landon Donovans and Tim Howards or the Christian Pulisics and Weston McKennies who eschewed college to begin their pro careers as soon as possible.
Men’s soccer in the U.S. is moving more and more away from the traditional American model of sports and toward the European model of development.
Our research has shown there is no correlation to men's college soccer success and the typical hotbeds for talent around the country. Clubs like the Philadelphia Union have actively opted out of the MLS SuperDraft. Why would an MLS club want to find its talent from the lottery of a draft taken from a pool of college players who trained maybe 20 hours per week for the last two-to-four years? Why not instead invest in their own academies where youngsters train like it’s the fulltime job elite soccer requires?
The truth is, when it comes to developing players for the USMNT and MLS clubs, NCAA soccer isn’t really much of a factor. The sooner it is out of the equation completely, the better of U.S. soccer will be, as the best players opt to attend academies or go pro instead of remaining amateurs in college with strict training limits.
Similarly, with the U.S. Soccer Federation recently shuttering its Development Academy because of COVID-19, whatever the USSF eventually replaces it with will undoubtedly be better than the old DA, which was started in 2007 and produced the likes of Christian Pulisic, Yedlin, Jordan Morris and Darlington Nagbe.
A Place For Men's College Soccer
None of this is to say men's college soccer is inherently bad.
Most college soccer players don’t have realistic dreams of playing professionally and only a miniscule fraction even make it to the professional level. Most men's college soccer players do it for the love of the game and, for most, not even a scholarship. Such institutions should never go away.
Plus, NCAA women’s soccer is still the primary reason why the U.S. women’s national team is the best team in the world. If universities begin to drop women’s soccer programs, then we might start worrying.
But if there are fewer top-level NCAA men’s soccer programs, it’s not going to hurt MLS or the USMNT; if anything, it’ll help.