It’s time to start respecting college soccer

Football and basketball will always be king of the college sports world. Baseball is a national pastime, while postseason hockey tends to thrill even casual sports fans. Soccer has been the newcomer, at least in terms of fan interest, in American college athletics, but with the games’ popularity beginning to explode, it’s time to start respecting the sport. 

Soccer has always been a tough sell in America. With the more violent and action-packed game of football being played in the fall, the low-scoring contests on the soccer pitch have been largely disregarded. Over the past decade, the game’s popularity has begun to increase. In 2014, 5.1 million people tuned in to watch USA take on Belgium in the Round of 16. However, the US national team has been declining since that game, struggling to even attain international relevance, and the MLS has not gained a lot of traction among American soccer fans, who tend to prefer the more competitive European leagues. 

College soccer is by far the best non-international option to grow the game in America. Many people prefer college sports to professional sports, and soccer is no different. The MLS game is played at a slower pace, with too many 0-0 draws, and it’s slowly becoming a place for aging European stars to enjoy one last ride, but the collegiate game is played dynamically, with the speed and offense that make the game a little more entertaining. Yet, ESPN and other major sports channels would rather televise football preview shows and old reruns than a high-octane ACC soccer clash. If you Google “top college soccer games of 2019”, about half of the top results are about college football. While there are still some low-scoring games, the natural collegiate rivalries in soccer make games more exciting than the MLS, and parity is increasing rapidly.

This past year, ten top-5 teams lost to unranked opponents, many in high-scoring battles. Underdogs often build their teams to survive sustained attacks from more skilled opponents, but they feature dynamic playmakers on offense that can turn a game in an instant. UCLA outlasted #3 Akron in a 3-2 thriller this year, and unranked Memphis stunned a top-five SMU team with a 4-3 overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, unranked Wright State, making their first ever tournament appearance, took down perennial powerhouse Notre Dame 3-2. The Raiders featured a fast-paced attack and clinched the game on a curling 25-yard blast into the upper right corner. The game was televised only by the ACC Network. The national championship between Georgetown and Virginia saw a 3-3 tie in regulation with two lead changes in the final five minutes, as well as a thrilling 7-6 penalty kick shootout to decide the title. The sport has the storylines, the upsets, the action and plenty more, so what else can be done to improve the popularity of the game? 

Improve the Scheduling
The NCAA could do a much better job of scheduling when it comes to soccer, as they often put games at inconvenient times for their target audience – college students – to watch. One example of this was the 2019 ACC Tournament. The ACC Tournament has teams host their first round games, which is a great idea to get student crowds, but their execution of this idea is less than ideal. When Notre Dame hosted Boston College in the first round of the ACC Tournament, the game was scheduled for 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. Why go through the effort of allowing teams to host postseason contests, only to schedule games at a time when the majority of college students can’t attend. The ND-BC game turned out to be a 2-1 overtime thriller, but only a few dozen students were able to watch the game unfold live. Such a scheduling catastrophe would never happen in basketball or on the gridiron, but in soccer? Who cares right?

Market the star players
Joe Burrow. Chase Young. Justin Fields. Trevor Lawrence. Those are just a few of the top college football names, and they are names that almost every casual sports fan would recognize. How many people would recognize the names Joe Bell, Robbie Robinson, or Dylan Nealis? Those were the three finalists for the Hermann Trophy, soccer’s Heisman, but nobody but avid fans of the game would know those names. ESPN is always posting insane graphics about record-breaking Burrow stats – post a damn soccer highlight here and there. The game has the potential to be popular, but it doesn’t help when you don’t market the players at all. 

Televise More Games
This works in tandem with point #1, but the NCAA, and colleges themselves, could do much better with making a TV-friendly schedule. Many schools play their soccer games on Friday nights and Saturday, and quite frankly, when you’re competing with football for television time, that’s not going to work. Saturday and Sunday belong to football, and so do Friday nights to an extend. Whether it’s afternoon games on Friday, or shifting games to Thursday nights, there’s got to be a better way to balance the schedule with football. NCAA Tournament games shouldn’t only be available regionally, and with major conferences like the ACC engaging in ranked clashes every week, there should be far more nationally televised games.

Interest in soccer is finally growing, and the collegiate game is the way to take advantage of that interest. It’s time for major sports channels and the NCAA to figure that out and giving soccer its fair share of respect. 

This Day in March Madness History: DUNK CITY

This Day in March Madness History

March 22, 2013
Georgetown vs. Florida Gulf Coast 

  • The Setup
    Georgetown entered the 2013 NCAA Tournament on the heels of their most successful regular season since 2008, as the Hoyas posted a 25-6 record. The Hoyas hoped to turn that success into some postseason wins, as Georgetown had struggled in March Madness recently, not making it out of the opening weekend since 2007 – and having done so only three times under current coach John Thompson III, who had been at the helm since 2004. They had also dipped out of the tournament at the hands of a double-digit seed in their prior three appearances.
    Florida Gulf Coast was making their debut in the NCAA Tournament, just in their third season of D1 postseason eligibility, having transitioned from D2 in 2007. The Eagles had played their way to a solid 26-11 record and 2nd-place finish in the ASUN, and then they finished the job by winning the conference title to earn their bid. 
  • How it went down
    Georgetown did not start badly, and they knocked out an early 8-0 run to take an 18-11 lead, but from there, the Hoyas looked completely lost offensively. The Eagles would close a very defensive half on a 13-4 run to take a 24-22 lead. They took the lead with 26 seconds left, and much of the crowd watched in confusion as the Hoyas passed the ball around until the buzzer, not even attempting a shot before the horn. This gave the Eagles a halftime lead and a lot of extra swagger and momentum coming out of the break.
    The two teams battled early in the second half, with FGCU maintaining a slim 32-31 advantage. In games with huge favorites, even when the underdog stays close, the favored squad can often run off a huge burst that puts them in control, but on this particular day, it was the Eagles who did that. With a series of triples, great shooting, and crowd-energizing alley-oops, FGCU went on a blistering 21-2 run to seize a 52-33 lead with 12:28 to play. From there, the Hoyas seemingly awoke, but they could not come all the way back.
    Although Georgetown’s offense, virtually non-existent for the past twenty minutes of game time roared back to life, the Eagles didn’t exactly go cold, as they still scored 20 points in the next 11+ minutes, staving off the Hoyas, who ripped of 35 points to close within 72-68 with 52 seconds left. From there, Georgetown did get five more possessions, but they failed to notch a single point. FGCU gave them an opening by missing four of ten free throws, but the Hoyas simply did not deserve to win the game, and they couldn’t polish off a miraculous escape, falling 78-68. 
  • The Aftermath
    FGCU captured the nation’s hearts with that upset, and their confidence and swagger, along with their spectacular display of dunking on the court earned them the nickname “Dunk City”. The Eagles kept their run alive a little longer, taking out #7 San Diego State in the Round of 32, 81-71. FGCU was the seventh 15th seed to advance to the Round of 32, but the Eagles were the first to forge their way to the Sweet 16. They eventually met their match, losing to the Florida Gators there, but “Dunk City” and their magical run is an all-time classic March Madness moment that will be remembered for decades to come.
    Meanwhile, Georgetown never really did recover from that stunning upset. The Hoyas have made just one NCAA Tournament appearance since then, which resulted in a Round of 32 loss. Although the 2020 field was not selected, the Hoyas’ first round exit in the Big East tournament would have ensured a fifth straight year without a NCAA Tournament bid, their worst streak since breaking a 30-year drought in 1974. 
  • NBA Notables
    FGCU – None
    Georgetown – Otto Porter (Bulls)