Soccer, also known as football, is still and likely always will be the most popular sport in the world. With the sport’s simple yet elegant gameplay, its universal appeal has attracted players and fans from all over the globe. Although soccer may be a big deal in other parts of the world, it has taken the American population quite some time to come around to it. However, in 2018, 7% of Americans reportedly cited soccer as their favourite sport. For context, 9% of Americans preferred watching prime-time baseball, one of America’s most longstanding and beloved sports. American soccer is on the rise, as well as college soccer, as a result of that. So if you are interested in pursuing a soccer career and gaining a degree simultaneously, there is no better time to do so than now! This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide on soccer within the American collegiate system, offering valuable insights on how to navigate it successfully. 

How American College Soccer Works

College soccer is split up into 5 separate divisions, NCAA Division I, II, and III, NAIA, and NJCAA. NCAA Division I has 31 men’s conferences and 31 women’s. In Division II, there are 23 men’s and 24 women’s, and finally, in Division III, there are 44 men’s and 47 women’s soccer conferences. The divisions are divided into numerous conferences because in Divisions I and II, just over 200 teams compete, and in Division III, there are over 400. Conferences help organise the season by providing a structured schedule of games for each team and allowing teams to play each other multiple times throughout the season, facilitating a more cohesive and competitive atmosphere. With each conference having roughly 8 to 14 teams, the college soccer season typically runs from August through to November. 

When the season commences in August, this is when the non-conference season begins, which means that teams will often play a series of non-conference games against opponents from different conferences, which can last anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months, depending on the division and conference. 

The second part of the season is what’s referred to as the conference season, and this is when teams enter into their respective conference schedules and play numerous home-and-away matches until the season is concluded with a conference tournament, where the winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA championships. 

Finally, the postseason takes place after the conference tournaments and the top teams from each conference go head-to-head in a single-elimination tournament to decide the national champion. Division I typically has 36 men’s teams qualify for the tournament and 64 women’s, Division II has 38 men’s and women’s teams qualify for the tournament, and finally, Division III has 64 men’s and women’s teams qualify. 

The rules in the NJCAA and NAIA are the same as the NCAA regarding how the seasons are split up as well as the conferences. However, NAIA and NJCAA only have two men’s and women’s divisions. Only 16 men’s and women’s teams in the NAIA qualify for the postseason in each division, while in the NJCAA, only 8 teams qualify from each division. The NAIA and NJCAA may operate on smaller scales than the NCAA. Still, they offer opportunities for student-athletes who may not have been recruited by NCAA programs to showcase their talents and transfer to an NCAA program in the near future. 

The Steady Growth of Soccer in the United States

Soccer has seen significant growth in popularity in the United States over the last few decades, with the USL and MLS playing critical roles in the development and expansion of American soccer. The MLS and USL’s growth has coincided with the growth of college and American soccer as a whole. There are many reasons why the MLS and USL have been so successful in breathing life into American soccer, but one of the most apparent reasons is the MLS investing in already well-established stars from the European leagues. The first significant name that the league managed to sign in 2007 was David Beckham, who served as a league ambassador and played for the LA Galaxy for five and a half years, today, Beckham is an owner of the MLS team Inter City Miami! Numerous European stars have showcased their talent in the American soccer league, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, and many more! The growth in American soccer over the last couple of decades has also brought recent growth to college soccer. According to the NCAA, the median expenses for Division I men’s soccer programs have increased by 44% in the last decade and 55% for Division I women’s soccer in the same timeframe. The recent expansion of soccer in the United States is more reason to consider the college pathway as a soccer athlete. With more opportunities to go pro as a soccer player and more money being put into college programs than ever, now is your time!

Image: Ron Chenoy

Scholarships and Title IX

In all of America, there are currently over 1,400 men’s college soccer programs and over 1,500 women’s college soccer programs. These programs span five divisions, including NCAA Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA, and NJCAA. Title IX, a federal law in the United States, ensures that all educational institutions receiving federal funding provide equal opportunities and resources for male and female students, including sports and athletics. As American college football teams usually have over 100 players and women’s college football teams do not exist, other sports such as soccer, tennis, and golf provide considerably more scholarship opportunities for female athletes. See the tables below for information on soccer scholarships in American colleges:

From College to Pro

The number of college soccer players who make it as professionals can vary from year to year. Although there is no exact number, according to the NCAA, roughly 1.4% of college men’s soccer players get drafted by the MLS, and about 1.2% of women’s soccer players get drafted by the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Although this may sound low, in recent years, there has been an increase in American players who have successfully made the move to Europe after their college careers. For example, Vedad Ibišević attended Saint Louis University and, in his Freshman year, led his team to the quarter-finals of the NCAA tournament with 18 goals in 22 games! He managed to earn the NCAA Freshman of the Year honours while also being named a First Team All-American. Ibišević eventually caught the attention of Vahid Halilhodžić who was the manager of Paris Saint-Germain at the time. After signing with PSG, he only played four matches across his two seasons in Paris. However, his success came when he scored 18 goals in 17 Bundesliga games playing for the German side Hoffenheim!

Image: Jan Huebner

Another example is the supremely talented Carli Lloyd, who attended Rutgers University. During her 4 years there, Lloyd became the only student to earn First-Team All-Big East Honors four years in a row, and she is also the university’s all-time leader in points and goals. Throughout her impressive professional career, she has played for a myriad of NWSL and WPS teams, including the Chicago Red Stars, Atlanta Beat, New York Flash, and Sky Blue FC, to name a few. Lloyd also played for two teams in Europe, Manchester City Women and the French team, Olympique Lyonnais, who she helped win the 2017-18 UEFA Women’s Champions League. She is also a FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and a four-time Olympian! Needless to say, the American college system has produced some of the best soccer athletes the sport has ever seen. While the odds of turning pro may seem slim, take it from the two athletes listed above, with dedication and a winning mindset, anything is possible.

Image: Fernando Vergara / Associated Press

The American collegiate system is one that fortunately caters to all playing levels, and an incredibly valid motivating factor to attend college in the States is to improve at soccer. If you are curious about where you stand regarding college and your chances, we have free consultations available. In these consultations, we work to evaluate your current academics and sports CV and provide you with the information you need to better understand what scholarship you could qualify for. If you’re interested, please fill out our free consultation form, and we will be in touch promptly to book you in for a free consultation!

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