College Soccer Explained Part 1: College Divisions & Standing Out
Understanding the College Recruiting Process & Being Seen
Posted by: Jordan Collins
When a player excels at their sport there are always next steps. More competitive practices, better training environments, and travel opportunities are exciting but where is this development going? Throughout early development of young players there are small milestones. A first goal, the first time tournament win, and the first time seeing the next level of competition. The biggest of these transitions for competitive soccer families is the transition from club or high school soccer to college soccer. On one hand this can be very exciting and encouraging and on another it can cause a tremendous amount of stress and confusion. Young players hear teammates claim to have scholarship offers and aren’t sure what to believe. Many of these claims are unfounded but there are still players being recruited and signed every year. Where do these players start and what are these players doing to garner the attention of college coaches? Some parents utilize athletic recruiting services for this exact reason; they aren’t sure where to start. As a word of advice, you will want to start your research before the player’s senior year but if you are starting in the final year of high school it is never too late to get started.
This post is part 1 in a series dedicated to helping players and parents navigate the recruiting process. The first thing you will need to understand is the lay of the land.
What are my options?
|Division||Women's Programs||Women's Scholarships||Men's Programs||Men's Scholarships|
|NCAA D3||424||No Athletic Scholarships||408||No Athletic Scholarships|
Looking through the table you might be wondering why the numbers vary so much and why women’s division 1 soccer has 100 more programs than their male counterparts. This is in part due to title 9 and the popularity of american football. The NJCAA includes 525 schools in 24 regions but not all have a soccer program. Junior college scholarship numbers vary based on school and how a coach utilizes university resources. If you are considering the NJCAA be sure to research individual colleges online. There is a lot of misinformation about scholarships and divisions in college and the first thing you need to know is that there are more options than you think. Next we will look through the pros and cons of each league available to a college athlete.
Every player pushing to play in college would like to play division 1 soccer. The NCAA’s estimated probability of competing in division 1 college soccer includes 1.3% of men and 2.4% of women. The overall percentage of athletes participating in the NCAA soccer is 5.6% for men and 7.2% for women. The question now is how good do I need to be to get a scholarship? The easiest way is to go to a division 1 game. Can you see yourself competing with the players on the field? When you are viewing division 1 schools you must be able to assess where you or your player will fit into a program based on their experience and skill level. It can seem impossible but with some understanding of how the process works you will be much more likely to find a college soccer program. If you would like to test your skills against the type of competition in your age group looking to attend a school be sure to attend the school’s soccer ID camps. Here you will have exposure to players outside your local setup, division 1 players, coaches of the program, and other players looking to play at the highest level they can. Some camps can give you a good idea of where you stack up against the competition.
Division 2 schools are the smallest category of college soccer but they should not be overlooked. Many division 2 schools can be better than a division 1 school and contribute players to the amateur soccer leagues all over the United States in the summer months. Despite the lack of infrastructure governing these non-academic summer leagues they are great experiences for players who would like to grow their soccer network and build their skills in a new environment. The 2nd division offers athletics scholarships and a quality environment of international influence for continuing to develop as a player. Even if you do not get a scholarship to a division 1 school you will be challenged by competent and impressive play in division 2.
Division 3 is comprised of the most schools of any division with 409 for women and 394 for men. If you or your player are considering division 3 schools be sure that there are academic motivations in choosing a school. Third division schools cannot award athletic scholarships and have more restrictions in off-season practice rules. There are highly competitive division 3 schools throughout the country that can compete with other divisions but in bulk the division 3 is more focused on providing a quality education with sports as a supplement to university services.
The NAIA can be hard to explain to the uninitiated. There can be a lot of parody in the NAIA and NJCAA because programs are usually new and their governing bodies make rule changes on international player recruiting from time to time. There are NAIA teams that are division 3 caliber but there are also 35 NAIA players currently playing in the various levels of pro soccer in the United States. This fact may seem surprising but with more scholarships than division 1 and division 2 there are a lot of talented players on different paths to playing at the next level. You will often see college preseasons & spring seasons including teams from the NJCAA and NAIA to add some variation to the predefined conferences. Coaches will watch these games to assess their program and its players with more context than regular season play or intrasquad matches. NJCAA players can utilize these games to stand out to coaches from 4 year institutions. If you or your player are thinking about attending a school competing in the NJCAA or NAIA be sure to research the conference and the programs history to get a more comprehensive view of the school and team coach.
The NJCAA is a collection of community and junior colleges throughout the nation providing 2 years of college soccer before transferring to a 4 year school or graduating with an associate’s degree. Often players will use this as a stepping stone to save money, improve their grades, or to assess their competitive edge. Junior college coaches have a shorter period of time with players so they need to make it count. These coaches often utilize international players and connections to division 1 schools to lure quality talent to their program. With that being said, there is a lot of parody between teams in these college soccer leagues. There are players from other countries attending to pursue a pro career in the United States and also players who decided to join the team as an on-campus activity. There will be teams that can compete and beat NCAA teams and others that are trying to start a program with the current players attending the school. It is crucial that you understand the program and its coach prior to signing. Be sure to visit campus and attend a kickaround with the team if at all possible. Doing well in the kickaround may pay dividends in negotiating your place in the team’s plans. This is also an opportunity to better assess your aptitude in a new soccer situation.
What can a school offer?
There are only six sports where all scholarships are full rides and soccer is not one of them. If soccer doesn’t require full scholarships, what can they offer? Often scholarships are split up among the team’s players as the coach sees fit. Coaches have a set budget and will split the resources in whatever way will comprise their team the way they would like. Only 2% of high school athletes win sports scholarships at NCAA colleges and universities. When looking at a school there is a lot to account for. How are the academic and athletic facilities? What is the outlook of the school’s current athletic community? Does the school have academic programs that allow your player to be a STUDENT-athlete? This might seem like a lot to take in but when you are on campus it will be important to take these into account as you will have to visit more than 1-2 schools to make a decision. In short, a school can offer some financial assistance but the schools vary widely on funding. Finding a culture that will foster friendships and development of your skills may be the best outcome for most students.
How to stand out as a player?
Players often wonder how they will differentiate themselves within the crowded showcases and games associated with the recruiting process. As someone who has gone through this process as an unknown junior college player, division 1 player, and assessed recruits at the division 2 level, I have 3 tips.
Play your game
It is very obvious as a player and coach seeing whether someone has the mentality to be in the educated positions off the ball; coaches notice. How is your work ethic? Are you making good decisions on and off the ball? Do you have the versatility to play in multiple positions? As a player it is up to you to produce positive outcomes when your chance comes but a tryout won’t come down to one good or bad play. Trial games are not like a normal game. Every player on the field thinks that they need to have the best game of their life at the exact same time. This is not true and it will not help you play to the best of your ability. Play your game and be sure to go to more than just one trial, this will give you the confidence to know if you play poorly today there’s always another shot. Furthermore, with every player there fighting for a potential spot you will be tempted to isolate yourself and “focus” on your game. Ignoring this feeling and networking with other players will bring you more value for your time. What tournaments, teams, and showcases are they attending to get in front of coaches? How are they finding new opportunities? How can you take as much value from the event as possible. These new acquaintances could be the people willing to pass the ball in an attacking position if they only knew your name. Be friendly and soak up the experience, it is why you are there.
Attend college camps or play with the team when you visit
Assessing your talent against the best possible competition is paramount. This means going where the best soccer is being played, not just your club practice where everyone knows one another. You need all the exposure to different soccer environments and elite coaches you can get. Many schools have summer and winter ID camps with staff comprised of college coaches from all over the region. You may not garner the attention of a top 10 division 1 school but you might have other opportunities open up because of the exposure and your ability to compete with the kids already committed to these schools.
Use technology to assist your search
If you can’t play for a coach in person to assess, can a parent record your club or high school matches? Do you have anything that you could show a coach that would prove your soccer credentials? How are you expecting a coach to find you? These are all questions you need to address in order to move forward with the college recruiting process. It is always helpful to be a talented player but if no coach sees this talent, how will you move forward? For examples and resources see what other players are doing on Youtube. Before off-season comes, put together a list of contact information and notes of teams that you would like to play for in the meantime. Be proactive with your soccer journey and how you can continue to find opportunities to ply your trade.
When it comes to recruiting there are always stories of players who “could have” and players who did. Part of being a player who did play in college is putting in the work off the practice field to understand your next steps. That could be spending more time working outside of practice or expanding your college search past the local division 1 program.
Go to a division 1 school’s summer soccer camp. Take a campus visit with an NAIA program. Ask to play with the team when you visit a junior college. Assess where you or your player is at and give it a shot, you may not receive a full-ride to a division 1 school but you will learn about culture, soccer, and most importantly yourself.