The global pandemic that enveloped the United States since 2020 is having a major impact on American soccer. Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues were stopped for part of the summer, causing a delay in the 2021 season. The pandemic had an even larger impact on college soccer and has created a unique situation.
NCAA soccer is usually a fall sport, lasting from August to December. MLS holds its college draft each January, well after the College Cup final. This allows college seasons to end before drafted players sign with professional teams and lose their eligibility.
Due to the pandemic, the NCAA decided to delay the national tournament until the spring. Conferences were given the option of holding their season in the fall, the spring, or a mixture of both. As expected, conferences differed in how they decided to handle the situation.
Most conferences decided to delay their season until the spring. In fact, only the Sun Belt Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference played during the fall. While the Sun Belt doesn’t make a big impact on the national soccer scene, the ACC is arguably the best soccer conference in the country, featuring national powerhouses like Clemson, Wake Forest, and Virginia.
In January, MLS held its annual SuperDraft like normal. Players from schools around the country were selected. But unlike previous years, they had a decision to make. Do they sign a professional contract and join their new club for the preseason or return to school for one final collegiate season?
This was an even more difficult decision for ACC players. The top five draft picks in 2021 and six of the top 10 selections came from the ACC. That means that they played the first half of their final college season, the ACC tournament, but would miss the second half of the year and the NCAA Tournament.
Adding to this exodus are the numerous players that have signed Homegrown Player contracts with various clubs around the league. Once professionally signed, they are no longer eligible for college soccer and many of those players prefer to join their new club for the preseason to battle for spots on the first team.
As one would expect, this has had a major impact on college soccer. While teams can add early enrollees, these are young freshman replacing juniors and seniors. So many of the top teams are playing with less-experienced rosters than they had during the fall. Some college teams didn’t even know their squads until after the MLS SuperDraft as players decided whether to turn pro or return to school.
Most would probably assume that this wouldn’t be a big deal for MLS clubs. After all, the ultimate goal of college players is to have a professional career. But it hasn’t worked out like that.
So far, 13 of the 27 first-round picks in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft have not signed with their MLS clubs, returning to school for the spring season instead. Even more second-round players have returned to school, with 22 second-round picks playing the college season.
Orlando City has been impacted by these decisions more than many other MLS clubs. While the Lions’ roster is largely intact from last season, the team’s draft picks have returned to school for the spring season. This includes three first-round picks in Derek Dodson and Rio Hope-Gund of Georgetown and Brandon Hackenberg of Penn State.
The delay of the MLS season does make this a little easier for college teams and the professional clubs. The season, which usually starts the first weekend of March, was delayed until the first weekend of April and eventually to April 17.
The college season will nearly be over by the time the MLS season begins, but not for all teams. Originally scheduled to end in December, the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament is now scheduled to go from April 30 to May 17. That could cause some players to miss a full month of the MLS season if they end up signing professional contracts.
It’s unknown how the spring college season will impact MLS teams. Some players might end their college seasons early while others might continue on into the NCAA Tournament. Having missed all of the preseason and a month of the regular season, this could impact how they integrate into the team. Regardless of what happens, this is the most unique situation that has ever affected college and professional soccer in the United States.