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The Changing Landscape Of College Soccer Recruiting. Coaches Coast To Coast Sort Out The Best Course To Follow For Their Program.

The Transfer Portal And The Additional Year Of Eligibility Create Decisions For Both Players And Coaches.

Prior to the 2020 season you could pretty accurately determine who would be back the following season for any team by simply identifying the members of the current senior class and any players who departed early to enter the professional ranks. That is no longer the case due to the increase in the number of transfers and the additional year of eligibility.

The additional year of eligibility. Two changes were implemented due to the COVID pandemic of 2020. Athletes in a Division I program were granted six calendar years in which to complete four seasons of eligibility. Previously they had five calendar seasons to complete four years of eligibility. In addition, the 2020 season was not counted as a season of eligibility due to the COVID pandemic. That in effect made it possible for players to play five seasons.

The additional year of eligibility has merit. The intent from a player perspective was to help offset the fact that the 2020 season was cut short. From a coach’s perspective having an experienced and talented player for a fifth season is an attractive option since it strengthens a team. From a practical perspective it is reasonable to conclude that it impacts roster spots, has the potential to impact the allocation of scholarship dollars, and has a downstream impact on the playing time of a younger player. It is also reasonable to conclude that it has the potential to increase the desire of a player who seeks additional playing time to consider a transfer.    

Transfers. The transfer portal was created as a system for players who wanted to play elsewhere to make coaches aware that they were interested in transferring. Players transfer for a variety of reasons. Some might want to play for a school closer to their home, some might see it as a means to enhance their standing to enter the professional ranks, or because their current college is not a good fit for them. However the most common reason seems to be to find another program that provides a greater chance for playing time. 

The transfer portal is in effect a one-stop on-line shop for coaches to find players who seek the opportunity to play elsewhere that might fill an existing void. Transfers significantly increased when the NCAA implemented a rule change that allowed student-athletes who were transferring for the first time to have immediate eligibility. Prior to the change, transfers had to sit out a full season before they could play. The transfer portal has been equated by some as free agency in the professional ranks.

The relative ease by which a player can now transfer can be a good thing but it also creates a tempting option for a player that may or may not be the best course for the player in the long run. In the past a newcomer who was making the adjustment to college could reasonably project when being recruited and after joining a program when the opportunity to assume a greater role would occur due to graduations. The expanded utilization of transfers to fill voids has made it more likely that a player might be recruited over. This has the potential to contribute to an environment of uncertainty and potentially increase the likelihood a player might pursue a transfer.

It has always been an adjustment for a freshman in college who was a star in high school and club play to make the transition to a role where their playing time was limited. However, most could see a clear path forward. It stands to reason that the transfer option has muddled that path by increasing the potential that players will seek to take their game elsewhere instead of sticking with their current program. It is possible for a freshman to make an immediate impact and step right in to a starting role but that in general is the exception rather than the rule. Many players who are in supporting roles as a freshmen end up moving into a starting role with highly successful careers but it requires a level of commitment and patience that sometimes seems in short supply.

In the past a coach putting together a recruiting class could reasonably determine a timeline for future voids and skill sets that would need to be addressed due to graduations and in the case of some programs early departures to enter the professional ranks. The increase in the number of players who transfer makes it more difficult for coaches to know who will be back and to anticipate voids.  

Playing time and keeping players engaged has always been a challenge. It now is an even bigger challenge for coaches who are faced with the fact that players who are not satisfied with their playing time are more likely to transfer instead of staying the course and growing into a greater role. The bottom line is that coaches have to make decisions relating to playing time and other factors that give their team the best opportunity to win since that is the criteria upon which they are ultimately judged. Finding the right balance can be difficult.  

Coaches have always had to determine how they were going to allocate a limited number of scholarships. The utilization of transfers to address voids and the additional year of eligibility create additional decisions. Should funding be allocated for players electing to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility or should it be utilized elsewhere. Should available resources be used to bring on board experienced transfers or allocated elsewhere?

Team chemistry has always been and remains a critical success factor. The programs that are successful over long periods of time have a team culture and winning tradition that is passed from the older players to the younger players. Coaches have to sort out the extent and the potential impact on team chemistry of bringing on board transfers to fill voids instead of developing and using existing players.   

The additional year of eligibility will only apply for a couple more years. The transfer portal is going to continue to make an impact. Roster retention will likely continue to be more of a concern than it once was. Some coaches will follow a strategy of leaning heavily on transfers, some will utilize transfers on a limited basis, while others will follow an approach, with occasional exceptions, of bringing on board freshmen recruiting classes that they will seek to develop to fill current and future voids that exist.

The landscape of college sports is changing. Other factors like the NIL and ongoing conference realignments are also having an impact. In addition, the impact of COVID on recruiting still lingers in ways that are not always apparent. Sometimes the concept behind a change has merit but the initial practical application of it is flawed and requires adjustments in order to better align with the initial intent.

The recruiting strategy that a particular coach follows in regard to transfers and the additional year of eligibility is not a matter of right or wrong. It is about finding the approach that is in the best interest of the program. Look for things to level out somewhat overtime as both college soccer coaches and student-athletes settle in and sort out the path that is the best fit for them.

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