Would Michigan alum Justin Meram have been farther along in his development if he'd found a way to skip college entirely? Probably.
NCAA soccer coaches are proposing a radical restructuring of the way their sport works:
Top college soccer coaches are finalizing plans and canvassing support for changes that would extend the men’s season over the full academic year.
The proposals recommend a 25-game season split between the fall and spring semesters. Individual conference championships would be held early in May with the showpiece NCAA College Cup following in early June.
Proponents of the switch point to two significant benefits for student athletes – improved conditions to aid their development as players, and a lighter fall timetable allowing for greater participation in other facets of university life.
The motivation here is to exist at some point that makes sense—last year's championship game was played on December 15th. Champion Notre Dame played 27 games in a 4 month stretch. There were a ton of midweek games that were problematic for kids trying to go to class. Then as soon as the season was over ND coaches were limited to two hours of ball-work with their players for the rest of the year.
Those restrictions look ludicrous in the context of the global soccer development process, where the years from 18 to 22 are absolutely critical. A ton of players are getting first team playing time in fully professional environments by then, training year-round. Increasingly, top players are skipping college entirely in favor of youth contracts overseas. But there's only so many of those and only so many Generation Adidas contracts to go around. The middle tier is still in school, but for briefer periods.
If NCAA soccer is going to remain relevant at all it'll have to adapt, and there is an obvious success story they could seek to replicate: hockey. Both hockey and soccer are developing players in competition with development strategies (mostly) outside the country in a sport that you can break into the major leagues at 18, or even earlier. (Baseball is somewhat similar, but the nature of the game means you play older and there's no "we do it better" foreign option.) Hockey has one nemesis; soccer has a thousand.
Hockey competes directly with the CHL, and large parts of what make it weird in the context of the NCAA are seemingly because of it. Hockey has by far the longest playing season of any NCAA sport, which allows extensive coaching from October to April. Most others are crammed into a single semester—or one semester and a small part of another—even if that makes zero sense. Hi, February baseball.
Hockey also takes a number of older student athletes; it is common for middling teams to have guys who arrived in college as 20 year olds. While these guys are usually not NHL prospects themselves, they provide a challenge for the guys who are. The long season with plenty of skill work and challenging environment leads to a situation where NCAA players are actually better-equipped to enter the pro ranks than their competition. Don Cherry's mad about it, even.
college hockey is even producing Canadian Olympians like undrafted(!) Chris Kunitz
This system hasn't made the NCAA the #1 choice for first-round picks, who generally don't care to play school. It has created an environment where 30% of the NHL comes from college—an all-time record—and the generally college-oriented USA hockey program is a major contender. And it hasn't impacted success in school at all: hockey's academic progress rate of 971 is way above baseball, basketball, football… and soccer.
The NCAA has responded to the resounding success of the hockey model by occasionally trying to strangle it. Every few years there's chatter about, and the odd proposal to, reduce the length of the season. Hockey often has to scramble to carve out exceptions to NCAA legislation that makes no sense for them. It ends up being tough for hockey to pass things that make sense for their specific contact, like the ability to officially contact players before the CHL drafts them. That was on the table; it got shot down despite having the support of everyone in the hockey community.
Hockey started off long and snuck an extra week here and there to get to its current state. They've reached a compromise between professional development and degree acquirement only because the NCAA didn't notice they were doing the former.
Soccer trying to reconfigure itself all in one go is going to run into the usual pile of NCAA crap.
This is a reasonable and well-considered plan to improve college soccer’s ability to compete for talent and remain a valuable, even unique part of the American soccer development structure. It also has virtually zero chance of ever being enacted.
That's John Infante, former compliance officer and expert on the arcanity of the NCAA. The reason? The NCAA desires to knit some more of the emperor's new clothes.
…the last items on any agenda is adding games, in-season time, and hours to any sport’s schedule. Instead, it is more likely that all sports see in-season hours cut, voluntary workouts restricted, and significant student-athlete discretionary time added. College sports seems prepared to move rapidly away from an environment where soccer could even experiment with being a year-round sport, especially where the breaks are timed so that the best players can use them to go play more soccer.
In an effort to keep everything "amateur," the NCAA is willing to toss away proposals that promise to create something newly useful, and may even go so far as to further sabotage an already wonky development model. The idea that developing a player to go pro in something other than "something other than sports" is a problem. Even if there is a clear analogue that has succeeded as both a developer of talent and an NCAA sport.
Maybe autonomy can do something about it. At some point everyone and their network is going to look at the cavernous gulf in their programming that stretches from April to August and try to fill it with baseball, soccer, or both. Maybe lacrosse. Anything that looks like a potential spectator sport in the summer is going to appeal to the people with money, and since they're on the verge of running things for real instead of just mostly for real, you could see a compromise.
But as long as the NCAA is trying to pretend they're something they no longer are, sense will not be made.