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As they await NCAA verdict, many college soccer coaches are determined to implement 21st Century Model

Photo courtesy Wake Forest University men's soccer twitter

Two coaches who are determined, among many, to make improvements and changes to make the student-athlete experience for college soccer players and improve the game, include Pitt men’s and women’s soccer head coaches, Jay Vidovich and Randy Waldrum.

Both have been at the forefront of proposing an initiative to change the college soccer landscape drastically, which is up for vote by the NCAA DI Sports Council on Wednesday, barring a decision by the governing body to table the vote.

UPDATE: The NCAA DI Sports Council has tabled this vote until May or June. 

When the 2020 college soccer season was interupted and later extended into the spring of 2021, due to many fall sports being canceled by most Division I conferences due to COVID-19, Vidovich, in particular, took the opportunity to revisit an initiative that he and other longtime college coaches are passionate about: permanently establishing a ’21st Century’ season model (playing meaningful games in both fall and spring), making the case that this schedule would provide student-athletes to build more time for academics, while also maximizing a high level collegiate soccer experience throughout each academic calendar year.

“Thanks in large part to this 21st century model, we’ve had a lot of players make progress. We have enough depth. Guys that know their job. They’re more familiar and know how we want to play,” Vidovich said in May 2021, after Pitt men’s soccer team qualified for the NCAA tournament as a number one seed.

“We’re very happy with that.  We’ll have more answers.  Together, they’ve played and trained all year together. There are guys that can come off the bench, who are ready, and they been putting pressure on first our first teamers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 college soccer season to become a two-semester set-up, extending all the way into the Spring.

Still, this is something that many coaches have wanted for a long time.

Going back to 2000, a large, unified group of coaches, including Vidovich and Maryland’s Sasho Cirovski, approached the NCAA with the idea to stretch out the schedule.

“We were basically told to go away,” Cirovski said recently.

Over two decades later, and now, following the test run going through the pandemic, when coaches and student-athletes had a taste of what it would be like, they’re back with a very thorough proposal, putting together a very well-thought out plan for improved schedule and making the case that the current set-up for college soccer is detrimental to the player’s welfare, development both academically and athletically — and to the quality of the game itself.

“We wanted to make sure this was a holistic model that was for the 5,000 kids playing Division I college soccer every year, not just the 50 that will go professional every year,” Cirovski said.

Recently, following another season when the NCAA reverted back to its traditional college soccer schedule, a mad, rigorous dash through the fall season stretching from August through December, often with two games played each week, the coaches led by Cirovski and Vidovich, were finally ready to take their proposal to the NCAA.

In fact, to further make their case, the coaches have created a website – https://www.21stcenturymodel.org/ – which outlines in detail the rationale for making the change.

Below includes a few graphics outlining quotes and information found on the site.

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“The top programs do it right.  They’ve had a three-month season, but playing six-to-seven months is more realistic,” Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley, who was a captain at George Mason in the late 1980s and early 1990s, added.

Most recently, the Hounds signed three former Pitt players to its roster, Shane Wiedt, Robby Dambrot and Arturo Ordonez.  Lilley keeps close tabs and has regularly been in contact with college coaches, regularly monitoring all levels of college soccer to bring new players as he builds his club’s first-team roster each year.

“There are academy players playing year-round, but with college players, it’s a three month season, then they have to play in PDL or somewhere over the summer. We had (former Pitt star forward) train with us so he could stay sharp during the off season.  There are more scouts than ever. With the internet, everything has changed. For me, we know when players are ready (to play at the professional level).”

Vidovich has been bullish on the ’21st Century Model’ since he’s been giving interviews with Pittsburgh Soccer Now in 2016, when he arrived at Pitt.

He believes that momentum is building in favor of college soccer expanding season to both fall and spring semesters, as student-athletes have gone through the full year in 2020-21. Having seen the benefits both academically and other areas, Vidovich said a lot of coaches believe school administrators have become even more supportive of college soccer expanding its season.)

The plan does have its opponents, most outspoken has been one of Pitt’s rivals on the field in recent years, the Notre Dame men’s soccer players.

“We watched the videos that the 21st-century model provided. We read through the PowerPoint slides that they gave us. And to be quite frank, it was a no-brainer on our end,” Notre Dame’s Paddy Burns said to the Indianapolis Post.

“It was a very consistent thought process from all players. We all made our own individual decisions. Our coaches were great. They had no input. Our coach wouldn’t even tell us what he would prefer. It was solely up to the players and, individually, no one supported this model for several different reasons.”

Among the key topics the coaches are addressing and hope are amended include lack of recovery time between games, short preseason, but also limited media coverage was also considered and then there is the academic factor.  During the fall season, the tight schedule limits course selection, minimizes study time and ability for student-athletes to complete assignments.

The coaches are making the case that for the nearly 5,000 college soccer players who don’t become professionals, the space for academic enrichment could prove to be vital.

Cirovski took over as Chair of the Division I coaches in 2003. From that platform, he lobbied for the two semester model. But he realized that drastic change wasn’t possible — at least not immediately.

Cirovski and Rob Kehoe, United Soccer Coaches Director of Intercollegiate Programs, presented their plan in full at a coaches convention in 2014.

The immediate reaction was far from encouraging.

“Though it was well received there was also tempered with a mix of pessimism that related to reflection on previous efforts, and the institutional nature of the NCAA not allowing for change,” Cirovski said.

Things soon changed. Steadily, the proposal gained momentum, with coaches, conferences, and professional players all voicing support. Prominent figures in the US soccer world weighed in.

“This type of project, and this type of change, we know can fundamentally change the perception of college soccer,” Alexi Lalas said at a news conference.

And in 2015, the proposal had science on its side, with an NCAA convention that analyzed how the crammed schedule affected DI soccer players. One of their key qualms were the injury risks, and the stress placed on the body.

A vote was originally scheduled for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted the momentum — and pushed back the vote.

That interruption, though, provided a perfect tester for a two semester model. The ACC toyed with a COVID-flex plan, which spread out the season to nearly seven months. And those teams enjoyed successful years.

It wasn’t just the players that benefitted, either. The national championship game was held on May 17, in 70 degree weather. That contest was the first event fans were allowed to attend all season; it was also the highest viewed college soccer game in ESPN history.

There are still some questions to be answered. One such issue is if NCAA women’s soccer follows on. Some leaders have expressed their support, and their side of the game is undergoing some changes, too, including a longer preseason and later College Cup.

“They’d like to see how ours goes and, and hopefully, we become a good example for them in the future,” Cirvoski said.

So, what started as a slighted suggestion has turned into a full-fledged movement. A tentative vote has been scheduled for mid April, and the model’s proponents insist it will pass.

For a college sport that has been cast aside despite its many imperfections, they feel it’s the least they deserve.

“The numbers don’t lie. The solution is pragmatic. It’s time for the information to get out that this is the right thing to do,” Cirovski said.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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