By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 1, 2021) US Soccer Players – The pandemic has uprooted the soccer world, pausing the games almost a year ago. That pause caused a ripple effect, forcing the postponement of domestic seasons and cup competitions that ended up finishing later in the summer. UEFA’s Champions League, the biggest club tournament on the planet, concluded two months later in August. Closer to home, MLS had to delay the 2020 season after just a few weeks. The season returned in July, concluding with MLS Cup in December.
College soccer didn’t get the games in, at least not the complete season and the College Cup tournament. Instead, college soccer is moving from a fall sport to a spring one. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Sun Belt Conference both played an abbreviated fall season. Clemson ultimately captured the ACC, while Coastal Carolina won the Sun Belt Conference. The rest remained idle, leaving little opportunity for scouting in advance of the MLS SuperDraft. For the collegiate game, the move to spring even for one season represents a major change.
A dozen conferences will kick off on Wednesday, although some like the Ivy League have opted not to hold a season during the current academic year after classes went remote. As a result, the College Cup will feature 36 teams, a scaled-back tournament than the usual 48. May 17 is the new date to crown a national champion, capping off what the NCAA said is “important to try to give students that championship experience.”
What will this “championship experience” mean for MLS scouts? Not as much since the academy system, reserve teams, and relationships with USL clubs have undermined college soccer in recent years. The NCAA isn’t as important as it was a decade ago, despite the annual draft, and a spring season may prove totally irrelevant to the 2022 draft. College players become MLS pros, some even become major contributors as pros, but only a few conferences seem to matter to most MLS front offices.
One of them is the ACC, benefiting from that fall season by dominating the top spots in the 2021 SuperDraft. They saw five players from that conference drafted in the first five positions last month: Daniel Pereira (Virginia Tech), Calvin Harris (Wake Forest), Philip Mayaka (Clemson), Kimarni Smith (Clemson), and Michael DeShields (Wake Forest).
“It’s a historic day in the long history and tradition of our soccer program,” Clemson head coach Mark Noonan told the school’s website following the draft. “I’m very proud of the players, and to have seven players drafted in the last three years speaks really well to Clemson and our program and the steps our staff has been able to take in developing our players.”
In all, the ACC saw 12 of its players drafted in the first round, nine others in the second, and four in the third. A total of 25 players from that conference ended up draft picks, while the Big Ten came in second with the most players drafted over three rounds with just 11. Clearly, the ACC got a boost from playing, but also for being one of the conferences that traditionally churns out talent.
2020’s top pick also came from the ACC, with Inter Miami choosing Clemson striker Robbie Robinson. Last year, eight ACC players were first round selections. Another former ACC star, Daryl Dike, the Virginia striker picked fifth overall by Orlando City SC last year, had a great rookie MLS season. He won his first USMNT cap against Trinidad & Tobago on January 31.
Without those MLS draft picks, the ACC will look different when their spring season starts in early March. The winner of the divisional champion match will play at Clemson to determine the conference’s automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament. If Clemson wins it again, the April 13 game won’t be necessary.
There’s another twist to this strange set of circumstances. Players for D1 programs also have an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA, on its website, updated its rules as a result of the pandemic. The rules state: “Traditionally, a student-athlete has five years to play four years of their sport. An extra year means a current college student-athlete would have six years to play their four years. This means, NCAA student-athletes can compete in all or a portion of the 2020-21 season, but it won’t be counted against their years of eligibility depending on their division level specific eligibility rules.”
Players are often drafted into MLS before their senior season. For example, Pereira, this year’s top pick chosen by expansion side Austin FC, played two NCAA seasons. The Big Ten, another competitive conference, will be minus two Maryland players this spring. Brothers Matt and Ben Di Rosa, both taken later in the 2021 draft, will opt out of the upcoming NCAA season to join their respective MLS clubs. Toronto FC selected Marr 25th overall, while his brother went 44th to NYCFC.
Meanwhile, how the ACC went about their season in the fall is a template to what the rest of the country can expect in the coming weeks. Pereira and his Virginia Tech teammates had to adhere to strict testing and social distancing rules similar to what MLS players experienced. The Hokies reached the semifinals before losing to eventual-conference champions Clemson.
“We were really grateful,” he told MLSSoccer. “Testing three times each week, in the mornings at 6am, this is challenging, just because you wake up early, go get tested for 10 minutes and then you go back to sleep. Then you got class like two hours later… it’s challenging but that’s what we signed up for being a student-athlete. It was a good year, we got our season in, we had a great run.”
It starts again with star players now trying to win spots on professional rosters rather than representing their schools.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Preview: The delayed 2020 Club World Cup
- Weston McKennie’s numbers
- MLS in the January 2021 transfer market
- The USMNT in 2021
Logo courtesy of the NCAA