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Taking college soccer into the 21st century

USF coach Bob Butehorn is an advocate of the “21st Century Model,” which would split the season into two semesters. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

With the advancement of men’s professional soccer in the U.S. in the past decade, such as MLS going from relative obscurity to a league where expansion fees are now north of $200 million, where has that left the college game?

Mostly unchanged and falling behind.

The current season is top-heavy, with the entire season being played in the span of one semester. Just five exhibitions in the spring attempt to balance out 20 regular-season games in the fall.

A new model, dubbed the “21st Century Model” for its objective of catching up with the rapidly growing landscape of modern professional soccer, proposes something that has been in the works since at least 2017 — a split season across two semesters, which is more in line with the structure of top professional seasons.

The conversation was brought to light by the late Sigi Schmid, who was coach of the LA Galaxy at the time and a former head coach of UCLA from 1980-1999. Schmid proposed his ideal changes for men’s college soccer in an article posted to MLS’ website in January 2017.

“This would allow for more training time with the players and it allows for proper recovery between games,” Schmid wrote. “Training plus recovery will lead to better performances by players, thus increasing the overall level of play. Not to mention that it would certainly help the players’ ability to be better student-athletes, since they will not miss as much class time in the fall.”

Schmid’s proposal is in line with dozens of college coaches across the nation. USF coach Bob Butehorn is one of the outspoken proponents of change in the structure of men’s college soccer.

“It’s a critical time in the college game,” Butehorn said. “If we can get this split-season model to be accepted and understand it’s the movement toward the 21st century of our game, I think it’ll be a great thing for everybody involved, especially the college soccer game.”

Aside from restructuring the season, the model proposes changes that would also improve the overall experience of college soccer athletes by emphasizing wellness and making sure the athletes spend the least amount of time away from the classroom as possible.

The issue of the current model stems from a hiccup in the transition between collegiate and professional soccer. Players are getting burned out in their first professional season because they aren’t physically and mentally prepared for the toll a full season of pro soccer takes on the body.

There are 238 days in the MLS regular season. A Division I college soccer regular season is only 72 days, over three times fewer. Extending the season would just be a temporary fix, as college games are separated by an average of four days. MLS games are a whole week apart on average.

With the transition from collegiate to professional soccer in mind, the 21st Century Model is meant to benefit the athletes first. But professional coaches are welcoming the idea of change with open arms.

“For me, it’s a must,” Tampa Bay Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “Three or four-month seasons are not long enough. Players are not ready to come into a professional environment. It will help the coaches, it will help the players and it’ll help, more importantly, the structure of U.S. soccer.

“I’m a big supporter of it and I hope it happens.”

The movement is banking on more than just wayward hopes — an official vote will take place in April at the 2020 NCAA Division I Council Meeting.

The legislation is sponsored by the Big Ten and the ACC, with the Pac-12 also in support. The 21st Century Model needs 33 votes out of 64 to pass. The three supporting conferences make up 12 of the votes.

While the reaction to the model is generally favorable, redistribution of a season comes at a cost. With the proposed season now taking up two semesters, there’s a need for more staff and expenses are expected to rack up.

Administrators and athletic directors are the ones to convince, as they hold the most weight in the final decision. Once they see how the model benefits athletes in more than one way, Butehorn said he hopes the high costs are forgiven.

“It’s going to come down to them to really look at the facts,” he said. “They worry about the budget, they worry about the people, they worry about getting more staff, they worry about too many games on the field.

“When they look at the benefits to the athlete, then it’s a no-brainer.”