Soccer America - Mike Woitalla
University of Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski led the Division I men's college's reform movement for a fall-spring season that has been put on hold because of coronavirus interruption. The pandemic has shifted the focus of men's D1 coaches to securing a future for their programs amid the financial uncertainties inflicted by the closing of campuses and preparing various return-to-play scenarios. We spoke with Cirovski after the NCAA Division I Council rejected a request from conferences for a waiver on the minimum number of sports a school must sponsor.
SOCCER AMERICA: Your reaction to the NCAA's rejection on Friday of the 27 Division I conferences' request for a blanket waiver on Division I requirements on the minimum number of sports a school must sponsor?
SASHO CIROVSKI: My initial reaction was one of happiness and relief as the blank check for dropping programs was denied, however my optimism is tempered by the sobering reality that some menís team sports are still in real danger, including menís soccer. Many schools that offer above the minimum required sports programs will be looking to cut costs and I fear the longer it takes for higher education to normalize, the greater the risk for elimination of sports. Also, it looks like the NCAA is open to evaluating individual school requests for a waiver as well.
SA: Do you think men's college coaches around the country are feeling much better about their programs' future thanks to that decision?
SASHO CIROVSKI: Fortunately, for many of our coaches, the speed at which this proposal to waive minimum sports requirements came about and the equally fast ďsave the sports campaignĒ really mitigated the panic from settling in. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and at least for the forseeable future, our coaches are very thankful. Rob Kehoe, our United Soccer Coaches Program Director, explained the consequences of this decision on a Thursday conference call to all of our D1 reps and within about 28 hours, we all breathed easier knowing the decision was favorable. Every college soccer coach right now is going through their budgets and looking at ways to save money because every athletic department will be doing cost containment exercises.
SA: Is there other legislation that the Division I Council will soon be considering that will threaten men's college soccer?
SASHO CIROVSKI: I am not aware of any such legislation at the moment, but the Division I Council meets again in May and they will continue discussions to try to help schools and conferences deal with the current challenges, so weíll learn more in the coming weeks.
SA: There's been speculation that a postponement of the 2020 football could hurt men's college soccer and the so-called non-revenue sports. Why is that?
SASHO CIROVSKI: For schools like mine that rely on college football as one of the major sources of revenue, an academic year that does not include college football would be catastrophic. I believe there will be college football during the 2020-2021 year, however, itís impossible to predict when their games may begin.
It appears that college football is looking at a variety of scenarios/contingencies right now from a reduced fall season to a full spring season as well as some version of a split season. While a sub-optimal football season will have varied dramatic negative effects on campuses that sponsor menís soccer, the bigger question for all of college athletics is ďwill there be students on campus this fall?Ē The majority of athletic departments get some type of funding from the university -- no students will equal no funding -- which will lead to drastic cuts in athletic opportunities. Weíre all praying that students will be back on campus at some point this fall.
SA: What options are there for men's college soccer should the pandemic require a postponement of the 2020 fall college soccer?
SASHO CIROVSKI: Every conference right know is going through an exercise of how we can operate in the fall in a budget-conscious way if we start on time or if we have a delayed start. We have not discussed this at length nationally but will be very soon. Apart from a regular timely start to a fall season, there are really only three options.
First, a delayed/reduced fall season. Second, a full/reduced spring season. Third, is what weíre calling a flex season, which is a reduced version of the 21st Century Model we have been advocating for the past seven years.
As the uncertainty of this crisis unfolds, we must be prepared to provide a unified, proactive and thoughtful solution to the key decision-makers regarding whatís best for our student-athletes and for our game. I know it sounds a bit crazy, but the third option makes the most sense if we cannot fit a season of integrity into the fall. In other words, I donít want the season to be so short that it compromises the NCAA Championship experience. If we are forced to move to the spring, then it makes sense to get as many games that count in the fall to finish the season in the spring. It could be a great trial run of our 21st Century Model.
SA: How are your players doing during this pandemic interruption? How are you connecting with them?
SASHO CIROVSKI: Our players are coping. They understand what is going on. They are focusing on doing all they can to stay healthy physically and emotionally. Thankfully, I have not had to remind them that social distancing doesnít apply to the ball. We have regular Zoom team gatherings and individual meetings to stay in touch. Weíve also had some alums pop in on Zoom calls to talk about their time at Maryland and beyond. They are very anxious to get back together even if itís in small groups. Itís very evident how much they miss each other.
SA: Are your players on campus or have they gone home? Did the international students on your team go home?
SASHO CIROVSKI: The majority of our players have gone home. We have a few guys that are still recovering from surgeries and are getting treatment at an off-campus physical therapy clinic. Six of our eight international players have gone home.
SA: Can you predict how the pandemic will affect international students on U.S. college teams and the incoming freshmen who had planned to arrive in the fall?
SASHO CIROVSKI: The currently enrolled internationals should be fine since they have a student visa but the incoming crop of internationals may have some issues depending on their country of origin and whatever travel bans are in place by July/August. We are confident that all of our international returnees and recruits will be here when the time comes for us to start training.
SA: In general, how has the pandemic affected the incoming freshmen who have been recruited?
SASHO CIROVSKI: We have been in touch with all of our recruits and like everyone else, they are very anxious living through this uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. However, Iíve been impressed by their ability to process and to be calm amid the craziness.
SA: Do you have any advice for high school juniors and seniors who may be anxious about their college soccer hopes?
SASHO CIROVSKI: My simple advice is simply to focus on what you can control. Stay safe, connect as much as you can with your future teammates and coaches and find ways to be productive. Itís a great time to work on your individual comfort and mastery of the ball. College soccer will be back soon and we are all working very hard to make it better for you and better for our country.
SA: Can you speculate on the best (and worst case if you're inclined) scenarios on how the recovery from the pandemic interruption can unfold?
SASHO CIROVSKI: The best-case scenario is that things normalize in the fall but due to concerns for student-athlete well-being combined with a thoughtful cost containment strategy the NCAA implements a flexible two-semester solution for our season. The worst case ... well, let's not go there yet! Iím an eternal optimist so let's hope for the best and prepare to meet the challenge!
SA: Anything else you'd like to address?
SASHO CIROVSKI: I would love nothing more than to have U.S. Soccer officially recognize the importance of college soccer and make us a part of their pyramid. Iím hoping that the new leadership understands the pivotal role that college soccer plays in the fabric of the American soccer landscape and embraces working together in creating a new path forward in our new normal.