From a sporting perspective, college soccer truly is a unique setup. While still maintaining the values, skill, and intrigue of global soccer, the collegiate game offers its own little intricacies that make it one-of-a-kind. Whether you’re a lifelong Manchester United fan wanting to indulge in a new style of soccer, a fan who is brand new to the sport looking for somewhere to start, or anywhere in the middle – we have you covered with some of the things that make college soccer different from the professional leagues that you see on mainstream TV. By Brian ludden
One of the main differences about college soccer compared to any professional or amateur league in the world is that college soccer does not use a continuously running clock. In a way to combat time wasting and to ensure that a full 90 minutes is played, the clock in college soccer stops for major events. Goals, injuries, or other major stoppages will result in the clock being stopped. A result of this, however, is that there is no stoppage time after 90 minutes. Once the clock hits zero, that’s it. The ball could be in the air going towards goal, but if it’s not in by the time we get to 90 minutes, it doesn’t matter. This unique caveat has led to many last second “buzzer beater” goals, most recently in the 2022 Women’s National Championship, where UCLA’s Reilyn Turner scored with just 17 seconds remaining. And finally, fans will notice that when they are watching matches on TV or online, the clock on the scoreboard graphic will typically count down. This is the norm for most American sports, so college soccer broadcasting uses this system as well.
Another unique element of college soccer is the substitution rules. If you watch any other soccer league in the world, you are familiar with the standard rules for substituting players in and out of a match. Typically, a team is allowed 5 subs, and players cannot re-enter a match once they have been taken out. However, that is not the case in college soccer. Players who are substituted are allowed to re-enter the game once in the second half. Other exceptions are in place in the event of injuries and red cards, and all of the possible scenarios and rulings can be found in the NCAA Rulebook beginning on page 19.
The media coverage of college soccer is far less than its other collegiate counterparts such as basketball and football. However, there are still plenty of ways fans can watch, follow, and read about their favorite teams. Domestic leagues around the world all have their own broadcast deals and matches on a single platform. But the coverage of college soccer is spread out across many different services based on the conference a team is in. ESPN/ESPN+ leads the way with many of the rights deals, with Fox Sports, FloSports, and others also broadcasting games. For a comprehensive list of streaming services and how to watch certain teams and conferences, be sure to check out this article.
Crowning a champion of college soccer is another unique element that is not seen in other soccer leagues around the world. Some countries such as the United States, Mexico, and Australia have a playoff system that is used to determine a champion. College soccer, along with other college sports, uses a playoff system known as the “NCAA Tournament” to decide the champions. In Division 1, the women’s tournament has 64 teams, while the men’s has 48. Spots in the tournaments are given out based on regular season, as well as conference tournament performances (more on that later). On the women’s side, an automatic bid is given to each of the 31 conference champions. The remaining 33 berths, known as “at-large bids”, are distributed to teams based on their performance during the regular season. For the men’s tournament, 23 teams receive automatic bids via their conference, while 25 more at-large bids are given out. The NCAA Tournament is played out as a single-elimination knockout tournament (with the top 16 seeds in the men’s tournament earning a bye to the round of 32), culminating with the 4-team College Cup to determine the champions.
As mentioned before, many conferences use a conference tournament to determine their champion. These tournaments take place in the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament. A predetermined number of teams from each conference will participate in a single-elimination tournament to determine the conference’s champion, and automatic representative in the NCAA Tournament.
Overall, college soccer is an exciting and unparalleled setup that is unlike anything else in the world. Sure, the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A all have the top-level quality and players, but there’s just something about college soccer and its uniqueness that keeps us coming back for more.
Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. He can be reached at email@example.com