Phone-booth stuffing was a fad that swept college campuses during the late 1950s.
Students get squeezed into different things now in the era of the cell phone — especially the ones who play Division 1 soccer.
The UCSB men’s team had 24 matches jammed into a three-month schedule this autumn. It made the season feel like one long sprint to coach Tim Vom Steeg.
“I’m pretty tired right now,” he admitted upon his return from Saturday’s NCAA Quarterfinal defeat at Wake Forest.
And pacing a sideline pales in comparison to the 10 miles some of his Gauchos ran during each of those 24 contests. It’s why Vom Steeg wants soccer season to become a distance event, as well.
He’s backing a proposal co-sponsored by the Pac-12, the ACC and the Big Ten that would split the NCAA Division 1 soccer season into a year-long schedule with a nearly three-month, winter break. The 34 soccer conferences will vote on the measure this spring.
“I never thought it would get this far,” Vom Steeg said. “In my 21 years at UCSB – in the 50-to-60 years of Division 1 soccer – this is the most momentous vote to take place in our sport.”
The change, if approved, would take effect in the 2023-24 school year.
“It gives everybody two-to-three years to make adjustments,” Vom Steeg said.
The proposal was once considered to be as big a long shot as a goal kick finding its way into the opposing net. Health concerns, however, now give the measure a decent chance of passage.
“The NCAA commissioned a survey which looked at every sport and assessed the wear and tear on the student-athlete,” Vom Steeg said. “In our case, they concluded that, from a medical standpoint, the Division 1 soccer season was not conducive student-athletes’ welfare.
“The sport has progressed to where the normal athlete runs between eight-to-10 miles a game.”
Two matches a week add up to a couple of marathons a month, not including practice. Studies show that it’s led to an astonishing injury rate of about eight to 12 players a team, Vom Steeg said.
“That was our story this year,” he added. “We started with 32 players and traveled with 20 to the playoffs.”
The injury list included such key Gauchos as Faouzi Taieb, Sahid Conteh, Ignacio Tellechea and Lucas Gonzalez. The coach’s son, star defender Carson Vom Steeg, was lost to a knee injury before the season started.
Others succumbed to fatigue. Finn Ballard McBride, the Big West Conference Freshman of the Year, scored nine goals in his first 13 matches and none after that. He “hit a wall,” Vom Steeg said, during an eight-day stretch in which UCSB played double-overtime games against both Stanford and the University of San Diego before its big home match against Cal Poly.
“Finn is from Australia where he would train for five days and then play just one game,” Vom Steeg said. “He came back after that Cal Poly match and said, ‘I’m really tired.’”
Team depth helped UCSB (15-5-4) advance to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since its run to the national championship in 2006.
In the decade that followed, however, the condensed fall schedule has made it difficult for Vom Steeg to keep his top players from departing early for the professional ranks.
“We’re the only sport that doesn’t play at the same time as its professional leagues,” he pointed out. “We finish our season and our players just sit there for four-to-five months, January until May, with no real meaningful games.
“At the same time, Major League Soccer has grown to 30 teams. The USL is pushing 45-plus and has formed a second division. All these teams need players, so our players – absent of being able to play in those five months – are tempted to leave college even though their chances of eventually earning real income are really small.”
The only extra games that the extended, split-season schedule will add are the five that are normally played as practice matches during the spring.
“We’re just taking what’s already in the rule book with spring games and practice dates and making it all part of a meaningful regular season,” Vom Steeg said. “The student-athletes’ benefit is huge. It would eliminate all mid-week games and missed class time.”
There are logistical issues to consider, especially in the East where lacrosse is an NCAA spring sport and often shares the same facility with soccer.
“They’ll also need to come up with certain rules for things like mid-year transfers,” Vom Steeg said. “Do you allow someone to transfer for the second semester?
“But that’s all secondary to trying to get this thing pushed over the line.”
The College Cup — the NCAA Final Four to which Harder Stadium will play host next year — would become a May or June event with the change. That might weaken the argument for a warm-weather venue such as UCSB to win future bids.
But it’s a chance Vom Steeg is willing to take to move the NCAA playoff season out of the holiday season.
“This was craziness, what we had to do in traveling 28 people to Bloomington, Ind. on Thanksgiving week,” he said.
He’d be giving real thanks for a berth in a May Day College Cup.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org