ERYK WILLIAMSON STOOD in front of Albany’s soccer goal and took a deep breath. The Maryland students chanting in the end zone, throwing taunts at the goalkeeper below them, went still. His coach crouched down on his heels, hand over his mouth, in silence. Even the brittle wind, the kind that digs deep into your bones, settled down just long enough, as if it too had to hold its breath in anticipation for what was about to happen.
Would this be Williamson’s last college kick?
Williamson is a vanishing sight in collegiate soccer. The 20-year-old midfielder had a brilliant summer in 2017, scoring a critical goal against El Salvador to secure the U.S. a spot in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. A junior at the University of Maryland, he was then named Big Ten Midfielder of the Year. Now, as he placed the ball carefully on the grass on this frigid November night, he had his sights on the College Cup, the NCAA’s national soccer championship.
The midfielder focused on Albany’s goalkeeper bouncing between the posts, the one man who could keep him from advancing to the second round of the tournament. Williamson silenced the voices that had been whispering in his ear all season, telling him he was making a mistake by standing here on this field. The voices of agents, scouts and coaches from all over the world insisting the time had come. He needs to go pro now. Not tomorrow, not next year. Now. The college game is killing him, they said, by making him injury prone. The spring season, they said, is a waste.
College coaches from across the country say it’s the same mantra being preached to many of their best players. College soccer has dramatically changed in the past three years as more and more players choose to forgo the college experience in favor of a pro career. In response, a powerful group of college coaches wants the NCAA to make a radical change to the college game. “College soccer is the laughingstock of the soccer world now,” said Sasho Cirovski, Williamson’s coach at Maryland.
If the NCAA doesn’t do something soon, Cirovski warns, “it will kill our sport.”
EVERY INCH OF Cirovski’s office is covered with soccer memorabilia from his 25 years at Maryland. There are stylized posters of his players hanging above signed soccer balls. His two national championship rings sparkle inside a wooden case. Originally from Macedonia, Cirovski is the kind of coach who inspires his own ice cream flavor at the student union (a dulce de leche with chocolate swirls). Devoted student fans wrap soccer scarves around their necks that read “In Sasho We Trust” with the coach’s face woven into the fabric on each end.
But on a hot August morning before the season started, all of Cirovski’s attention is focused on an 8-by-10 piece of paper imprinted with the upcoming soccer schedule. Unlike the rest of the soccer world, which plays once a week nearly year-round, college soccer crams almost all of its games into a four-month span between September and December, Cirovski explained, averaging nearly three games a week. “It’s the way it’s been since college soccer began in 1959,” Cirovski said. “At that time, most coaches had to coach two or three sports. Most players played multiple sports, so the seasons needed to be shorter and smaller. All of that has changed.”
When he now tries to recruit players, Cirovski said, “every parent and every kid talks to you about it. They ask about the schedule. ‘What do you do in the spring? Why aren’t you playing?’ The youth leagues below us and the pro leagues above us have changed — and we haven’t changed one iota.”
He pulled out a stack of paper, which he claimed is a growing amount of medical evidence showing how the short, intense college schedule increases a player’s risk of injury. “The soccer model is almost criminally insane,” Cirovski said as he jabbed the paper. All of his players wear GPS monitoring devices during their games, which show they run an average of 6 to 9 miles a game. “Each game, my players run about the same as a 10K. The cross country team won’t compete for at least a week, maybe two weeks, after a meet. But we’re playing three games a week.”
Cirovski then pointed to a preliminary NCAA white paper stating that the injury rate for elite-level soccer players increases sixfold when students play two games a week versus once a week. “And we play three games a week!” he said. Cirovski slapped down the white paper stating that college soccer players need 72 to 96 hours of recovery between games. Some D1 schedules prevent that from happening in as many as 10 games a season. Findings from that initial 2015 paper have prompted the NCAA to institute a research study, but those results won’t be available until 2019, according to John Parsons, the director of the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute.
Instead, Cirovski had five of his players talk about their injuries after an August workout. Red-faced from the heat, they all said they’re in perpetual pain throughout the season but will rarely admit it. Junior Dayne St. Clair, the team’s goalie, said even at his position “injuries bother you, but you play through because the games are so close together.” His classmate DJ Reeves developed arthritis in his toe last season. “I wasn’t getting any rest, and it just got worse and worse,” he said. Forward Gordon Wild, another junior, joked, “His toe was like a mango.” But Reeves didn’t laugh, explaining how he became increasingly frustrated because “my game was based off of speed, and I couldn’t go fast. I couldn’t get into the rhythm. I was out of the lineup.”
The team’s senior co-captain George Campbell had hopes of a pro career when he started. But as he shifted an ice pack onto his knee, he talked of how he tore a ligament freshman year and dislocated his elbow sophomore year. By his junior year, his knees regularly ached. When the Terrapins played Notre Dame last year, “it was affecting my performance. I had already missed three games, and I was worried about reinjuring myself.” By the end of the first month of school, he said, “your legs are heavy. You just can’t run anymore. That’s the worst part.”
Wild said he was on track for a pro career back home in Germany, but an injury made him rethink his plans. He gave up a Major League Soccer contract to have a traditional American college education. But he and his teammates all agreed the soccer schedule thwarts their academic hopes because eight midweek games combined with travel equals six to 10 days of missed school this semester. Much of Maryland’s basketball schedule takes place during winter break; the Terrapins have just four out-of-town midweek games when school is in session. Only baseball misses as much school as they do, the five soccer players agreed. “The reality is, you’re choosing the classes that are the easiest,” Wild said. “You’re not going to take a big statistics class or an econ class in the fall.”
That’s when Williamson, who had sat quietly up until that moment, spoke up. “I failed my African-American Studies class last fall,” he said. “I really liked that class.”
Going to college was important for Williamson because his mother “wants me to be an educated man. She told me, ‘You’re not going to be a soccer player in 50 years.'”
So he retook the class after the soccer season was over. He got an A-minus. But it came at a high cost. Because of that extra class, he couldn’t compete with the national team that summer — a team, he believes, where he was the only one still in college.
Everyone else had gone pro.
WILLIAMSON GREW UP like all the other bored little brothers forced to sit on the sidelines in the soccer-crazy suburbs of Washington, D.C. He remembered how, when he was 5, it felt like he spent every Saturday kicking a miniature soccer ball while his older brother and sister played their games. When he was finally old enough, Williamson joined his older brother Terrell’s team, playing at a higher level than his age group would have demanded. So much so that when Williamson finally joined a team of boys his own age in seventh grade, he made the type of elite travel team that competes in national tournaments where pro scouts hunt for new talent.
But Williamson was a late bloomer, professionally speaking. It wasn’t until he won a state championship his junior year of high school that the MLS team D.C. United offered him a scholarship to its developmental youth academy under the league’s Homegrown Player Rule, instituted in 2008.
As the fall soccer season got underway, Ryan Martin, D.C. United’s academy director, said, “Our territory is 75 miles surrounding RFK Stadium, in Washington, D.C.” If an academy player becomes good enough, his MLS club can offer him a pro contract. “You want to protect your investment. There’s no pressure domestically because each team technically has the rights to its homegrown players in the MLS. But there’s international pressure.”
He said national team players like Williamson will suddenly have 20 international teams calling them once they start competing on the world stage. As a result, many MLS clubs try to tie up their homegrowns with a pro contract as soon as that player is selected for a youth World Cup team, sometimes as young as 15 years old.
That, in turn, means an increasing number of the best high school players are taking pro contracts long before they ever apply to college. In 2013, nine of Top Drawer Soccer’s Top 25 High School Players bypassed college, with another five dropping out before they graduated. That number steadily increased, with 18 out of 25 declining to play in college in 2016, with another two from the 2016 class signing deals before their junior year, meaning 80 percent of the top 2016 prospects aren’t playing on college fields.
Georgetown University coach Brian Wiese said he began to notice the change about three years ago, when the MLS clubs “started pumping more money into their youth teams.” Carlos Somoano at the University of North Carolina said he’s now losing two to three recruits each year. The players are giving up full-ride scholarships because they “fear that if they go to college they will lose developmental years.” His lost recruits all “want to go to class and want a university experience” but worry about injuries. “You would never see an NFL team playing on a Friday, Sunday and then a Tuesday,” Somoano said. “How is he going to recover? That’s how we feel. It’s not healthy. The physical demands to be played at that elite level, it’s unreasonable.”
And the trend appears to be holding steady. Thirteen of this year’s top 25 high school players have already indicated they’re going pro. They’re lured away by the dream of a pro career and not the money, according to the college coaches. “They leave in basketball for multimillion-dollar contracts,” Somoano said. “That’s not the case in soccer.” The average homegrown makes about $100,000, with some signing for as little as $40,000, according to Wiese.
Said Cirovski: “These kids aren’t bypassing college because of excessive money but because of the developmental opportunities. They feel like they’re being left behind with the unbalanced schedule.”
As part of his agreement with D.C. United, Williamson had to give up his high school team but could still go to college. He said the club carefully protected his eligibility with the NCAA, making sure he was always chaperoned during away games, an adult keeping track of dinner receipts and other expenses. “Typically, we will sit down with the kids, especially the kids that go overseas, to talk about what the regulations are,” Martin said. “You can talk to an agent, but you can’t commit to an agent. An agent can’t facilitate or be a third-party regarding your overseas trip.”
Which is why Williamson said he was wary about the calls and texts he started to receive from international teams following his U-20 2017 World Cup appearance. He shared them all with Cirovski and was careful about what he wrote back, if he wrote back anything at all. But under the rules, he said he’s allowed to listen to what they say. And they told him the schedule is making him injury prone, reminding him how he couldn’t recover from nagging tendinitis last season. “I couldn’t rest because we can’t take a day off,” Williamson said. “You worry you’re doing permanent damage.
“There’s also pressure to leave, because in the spring we’re not doing anything but training. Last spring, I wasn’t my sharpest.” Williamson’s teammates from the national squad tell him he’s making a mistake staying in school. “That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “They don’t trust the schedule at all.”
By mid-fall, both Williamson and Martin confirmed D.C. United was putting pressure on Williamson to sign a pro deal. “Eryk is ready to play at the top level,” Martin said at the time. “He would be able to jump in real quick.”
“I WAS SO LUCKY I didn’t get injured,” said Jonathan Campbell as he thought back to his senior year at UNC. “I went two years straight without a break.”
The center back graduated in three and a half years in December 2015 and was selected 12th overall by the Chicago Fire a few weeks later in the 2016 SuperDraft. “The transition to the professional environment is very difficult,” Campbell said. “The most important thing is to stay healthy. If you’re a rookie and you’re injured, it’s so difficult for teams to sign you. When most pros are resting up for the MLS season, college players are training for the combine. Before that, you went through a whole college season, never taking a break.”
But he thinks college is still the best choice for most professional hopefuls. “You have players that committed early, went to a pro team, but they’re not getting the playing time with their first team.” They disappear from the roster “and you never hear from them again.”
Most players, he thinks, need college to mature physically and mentally. “Understanding how you might get benched at times and how to fight through that. A lot of younger guys don’t know how to deal with that because they’ve always been the best. College experience gives you the chance to go from being a rookie to a veteran in four years. That’s a big benefit of college, having those ups and downs.”
Campbell is concerned by how many players are now skipping college. “Look at high school soccer,” he said. “High school soccer has really gone down the drain and is not competitive, and people look at it that way. You don’t want that for college soccer. If you want to keep the highest-level competitive environment, you have to be willing to change that environment.”
Cirovski thinks he has a solution. Instead of cramming all of the regular-season games in before Thanksgiving, he wants Division I men’s soccer to reduce the number of games from 25 to 23 while simultaneously extending the season into the spring, following a schedule similar to collegiate golf and tennis. For most of the season, teams would play just one game a week, taking a break before Thanksgiving and picking back up again in February. They’d finish up their regular season in May and hold the College Cup over two weeks in June.
This two-semester model, Cirovski firmly believes, will give players more time to heal and a better academic schedule, and bring their spring season into sync with the pro schedule. A big added bonus, said Cirovski, is a warmer College Cup, which he thinks should fall on the weekend between the lacrosse national championships and the College World Series. “In college sports, you’re defined by the success of your championships,” he said. “Who cares about college baseball, college softball and lacrosse until the championship? We’re the opposite of that. We have 5,000 fans at our games, but it’s impossible to get fans to a game in December because we’re an outdoor sport.”
According to Cirovski’s math, Maryland soccer averages more fans than 60 percent of Division I men’s basketball programs. But he thinks the College Cup can’t get any TV time because it’s competing with the NFL, NBA, NHL, college basketball and football bowl games throughout December. “Right now, we have no television coverage, and we play outside in a frozen tundra,” he said. “The experience is a disgrace.”
Many outside of college soccer are in favor of the two-semester model, including the U.S. National Development Academy. “They have to do it,” said Martin, D.C. United’s academy director and a former coach at Wake Forest. “If they can extend the season, get more meaningful games in the spring, it will help everyone.”
Chicago Fire’s Campbell said smaller programs need to think about the health of the entire sport and support the two-semester model even if it doesn’t personally benefit them. “I think you have to look at what’s best for the development of the top players,” he said. “It’s not looking at what’s the most fun or the best for Division II or Division III.”
BUT THERE ARE some coaches who worry that the two-semester model might actually hurt the college game even more. Notre Dame’s Bobby Clark is Cirovski’s good friend and one of his fiercest rivals on the field. Clark won Notre Dame’s first national championship by defeating Cirovski’s team in 2013.
Clark said he’s sent 38 players to the pros, with anywhere from one to four players making a professional roster each year. “College soccer is a fantastical vehicle,” Clark said in a Scottish burr mellowed out by his 16 years in Indiana. “There’s no other country in the world that has this. I think it’s a tremendous situation we have, where you can get your degree and play your sport at a very high level.”
Clark put himself through college while playing professional soccer at Aberdeen FC in Scotland. “College is a very good testing ground to figure out where you are,” Clark said. “It’s a unique system to this part of the world. You can go to college and figure out how good you are or how bad you are while developing a safety net, which is a degree.”
After three decades of coaching, Clark announced his intention to retire in December. “But I’m still in the thick of it,” he said as the spring season got started. He remains a powerful voice in the debate because, by his reckoning, he’s trained at least 10 current collegiate coaches, including his former player Chad Riley, who left Dartmouth to replace Clark as head coach at his alma mater.
As he thought about the two-semester model, Riley agreed that changing the schedule would help reduce injuries. “There’s a huge benefit to getting a couple of days off because soft tissue injuries, like hamstrings and groins, are the thing you can control the most.”
But like his mentor, Riley wants to keep the spring season as it is to develop younger players and give them a chance to fight for a spot in the starting lineup. “What is interesting about Bobby’s influence,” Riley said, “is a lot of what he says makes sense. He thinks through things. That’s where his influence lies.”
Georgetown’s Wiese is another of Clark’s former players and admitted he’s on the fence about the proposal. “Spring is a huge asset developmentally,” he explained. “In the spring, we don’t care about winning or losing. It’s amazing how all the players relax and start getting better. By the end of the spring, everyone is in a better place.”
Wiese also worried about scholarship money. “If guys are good enough to be pros,” he said, “we get them to graduate in three and a half years so they can finish in December to go to the MLS.” That, in turn, allows Wiese to reallocate some of the graduating players’ remaining scholarship money to other players. He doesn’t think that would work under a two-semester model.
But Wiese said he would probably still support the proposal if MLS promised to move its combine and SuperDraft from January until after the College Cup. “I don’t know if I trust MLS to look out for us,” he said. If the draft date doesn’t move, Wiese hypothesized, “you will either lose half your lineup before the championship season, or you put kids in a really tough spot having to choose between the pros and a run at the national championship. It is naive of us to go in changing this without knowing that piece of it.”
MLS remains mum on whether it would move the draft to fit with the two-semester model. Ray Reid, the University of Connecticut’s head coach and the current Division I president of the United Soccer Coaches, said MLS has indicated it would work with college soccer to transition drafted players into the league. “I think the league will work with us,” Reid said. “Maybe they could move the combine and SuperDraft to the MLS All-Star weekend in July. Sign the rookies in August, which would give them three solid months to adapt to the club.” It wouldn’t be much different, in Reid’s opinion, from the NFL rookie schedule.
But the biggest concern is facilities, according to Clark. “Our grass doesn’t grow until March. You can do a lot of damage on a grass field before then,” he said. He worried some Northern schools wouldn’t be able to afford the extra indoor facilities and personnel an extended season would require. Many soccer programs share fields with lacrosse and would need to split playing time and trainers. “Our school is very strongly against it,” Clark said. “I would hate to think we put a school out of business,” he continued. “If we lose these schools, then we lose opportunities for young soccer players to get a college education. We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t lose any schools.”
Said Somoano in North Carolina: “That comes across as ridiculous to me. We already share the field with lacrosse. We would share different days and in different ways. That’s not a realistic hurdle when you say you can’t share facilities. I want the NCAA to be a development opportunity for pros like Jonathan Campbell. The majority of our kids won’t make pro. The majority of them don’t. But I want them to have a good experience regardless. To have a balanced experience and a healthier experience.” The two-semester model, he said, “is just better. Better for players, better for coaches, better for academics.”
Jeremy Gunn at Stanford is the rare coach who has been able to recruit and hold on to some of the best players in the nation, winning the last three College Cups in a row. By his count, 15 of his players have gone pro in the past six years. All but two graduated with a degree. “We’ve enjoyed some wonderful success under the old model,” he said. “Some people might be saying, ‘Let’s keep things the way they are.’ But I am 100 percent with the new model. It makes absolutely 100 percent sense to me.”
Gunn said players miss so many classes that his assistant coaches “have been almost full-time proctoring tests and exams on the road” to help them keep up with Stanford’s rigorous academic demands. The new model would reduce these missed days and spread them out over two semesters. “Missing a training session for an exam now is a big deal,” Gunn said. “Rather than have a huge imbalance during the fall season, you would create balance, so you could miss a training session for an exam.”
In addition to better rest and recovery, he said, the two-semester model would also allow his players to enjoy the college experience of going out with friends and socializing more. “The ridiculous demands we put on student-athletes wouldn’t be there anymore. A lot of people think we’re saying, ‘Let’s do what we’re doing in the fall twice over.’ No. What we’re doing is flattening things out and moving at a more sensible pace,” Gunn said.
As for sharing facilities with Stanford’s lacrosse team, Gunn said they would figure it out. He challenged other programs to ask themselves, “Are we looking at the best interest of the student-athletes or are we simply not willing to work on scheduling?”
Gunn is now rallying the coaches in the Pac-12, as Somoano tackles the ACC and Cirovski takes on the Big Ten. They and a coalition of college coaches have spent four years trying to get the NCAA to modify the schedule. It’s a laborious process involving multiple committee votes by athletic directors and administrators. Even though 90 percent of coaches are in favor of the proposal, according to a September survey by the United Soccer Coaches, none of those coaches actually get to vote.
“The people in the room don’t understand our sport,” said UConn’s Reid, who thinks too much of the NCAA’s attention focuses on football and basketball. He said it’s no coincidence that the men willing to speak up on the issue are also some of the most successful and powerful coaches in college soccer. “Many other coaches are afraid to speak to their athletic directors because they’re worried about job security,” he said. “The athletic directors are the ones that hire and fire them. But we need them to educate their ADs about how to improve the student-athlete experience.”
Their lowest point came in October, when Notre Dame submitted a letter to the NCAA opposing the proposal and the NCAA’s Competition Oversight Committee decided it “does not support the concept due to concerns related to student-athlete health, safety and well-being, financial, facilities and personnel implications for institutions and the impact of the current championship format.”
Many of those concerns are “a bunch of baloney,” Cirovski said. The real problem, he fumed at the time, is “pure apathy and an unwillingness to change.”
There are at least 140 schools that don’t have a men’s soccer program. “They don’t care. They won’t vote for it,” Cirovski said. “It’s like we’re the proverbial tree in the forest that’s falling down all the time but no one hears it so no one gives a s—. The kids are falling down. I want to scream bloody murder. You just go crazy.”
ON THAT FRIGID night in November, Williamson shot the ball to the left. The goalie dived after it but crashed to the ground, unable to grasp the ball flying above his outstretched arm. “I was holding my breath,” Williamson said of the moments before he took the kick. “I just went numb and put everything I was thinking aside.”
The air gushed back into the stadium. The students screamed for Williamson. He was the savior, the hero of the game.
It lasted 34 seconds. Albany then sent the ball flying beneath St. Clair’s falling body, plunging both teams into a brutal back-and-forth. There would be 16 penalty kicks in all before Albany won 5-4. The Great Danes jumped and hugged and hit each other on the back while the Terps stayed huddled up until nearly all the fans wandered away.
Underclassmen like Reeves and St. Claire eventually peeled off. This wasn’t the end for them; there would be another season. Campbell limped into the middle of the field, red-eyed and shell-shocked. Wild, so quick with a joke in August, sat hunched on his team’s bench, his shoulders heaving with the unbearable reality that it was over, their college hopes destroyed by injury and missed opportunities.
Williamson was herded into a small white tent to face the media, to answer the inevitable questions about why they couldn’t seem to score and had it sunk in yet and all the other things that make losing feel even worse.
He gave them the answers they needed, but he didn’t tell them about his dream of making the next Olympic team and the senior national team. It was only after he walked out of the tent and toward the goal that “it kind of hit home,” Williamson said. He grabbed the net and hung on with the tips of his fingers as he looked out at the empty field.
He wasn’t coming back. He made the decision to hire an agent. He would finally go pro.
But as Williamson walked away from both the field and a college degree, he had no way of knowing there would be a last-minute scramble following the SuperDraft, with D.C. United trading his rights to the Portland Timbers. That he would have less than 24 hours to pack up his college apartment before flying to the West Coast to work out with his new team. “I was nervous,” Williamson says now of his first week as a pro. “At first I was struggling. But the guys here were encouraging me to get on the ball and do my own thing. My confidence is better now.”
Portland has told him to be patient. Not to get upset if he doesn’t start right away. That it will be a long season. “He’s a great kid,” Cirovski said as he thought of Williamson and everything they had gone through this past year. “He is why I’m so passionate in helping these wonderful young men get a better student-athlete experience.”
But Cirovski said, “He needed to go. He needed to make the leap. All of the kids he’s playing with on the national team are in the professional ranks. He feels behind. He needed to be challenged by bigger, stronger players.”
The fire and brimstone in Cirovski’s voice at the beginning of the season had now cooled into something harder. Something even more determined as Cirovski looked toward the next NCAA meeting in May. There will be new committees to convince, new votes to be counted. They’ve worked with athletic directors to fine-tune the proposal, and with so many powerful coaches now on his side, Cirovski is hopeful that “we’re finally going to have our day in court.”
Until the NCAA makes the change, Cirovski and the other coaches all admit they just can’t hold on to elite players like Williamson. “Any good players coming in already have one foot out the door,” Cirovski said as he thought about his current batch of recruits. “We’re already expecting to lose one underclassman, maybe even more, depending on how successful we are this fall.”
The better they play, the more they’ll lose. In a rare moment of quiet, Cirovski sighed, saying, “Soccer is a strange game. It’s a cruel game.”