Marist College’s men’s soccer players stood, arms locked, along the midfield line at Tenney Stadium on a chilly Sunday in November. Rider University had just missed its fifth and final penalty.
Senior midfielder Jacob Schulman walked up to the penalty spot, placed the ball on the white dot, took a few steps back and to the left. The whistle blew, he ran up and struck the ball into the bottom-left side of the net.
“Yes! Let’s go!” the Marist soccer team members yelled as they stormed Schulman, who clinched the Red Foxes’ first MAAC Championship and NCAA appearance since 2005. Cheers and screams erupted in the stands as students and fans charged the field from their seats. Players embraced each other left and right and eventually gathered to lift and toss head coach Matt Viggiano in the air to celebrate the man who led them to this MAAC title.
Four nights later, the Red Foxes found themselves out of the NCAA tournament after a 2-0 first-round loss to Providence College. Four months of the 2021-22 college soccer season had ended right then and there. Eight months of offseason sat right in front of them.
Under the current model, college soccer seasons are played a mere third of a calendar year, from August to November. Comparatively, a semi-professional soccer season in the United Soccer League can last up to seven months. And compared to most professional soccer leagues, their seasons can be as short as eight months or as long as 11.
This begs the question, what do college soccer players and coaches do during the eight months of the offseason?
Currently, the men’s team trains outdoors three times a week– Monday, Wednesday, Friday– or indoors when the weather is nasty. They also hit the weight rooms at least three times a week.
They do have limits, however, as the team is in the NCAA eight-hour window, a rule that prohibits all Division I schools from performing any sort of athletic-related activities between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Coinciding with this rule is the 20-hour-per-week limit that the NCAA put in place so that athletes can ‘pursue other activities outside of athletics.’
While they are in the eight-hour window, Viggiano believes his role during the offseason is to serve as a facilitator, ensuring players remain fit given the NCAA’s requirement of at least one week off for teams following the conclusion of their seasons and ‘an additional 14 days off during the regular academic year when classes are in session.’
“[I’m] making sure they’re ramping up their fitness. Obviously, I don’t expect them to be necessarily game fit right now. We just kind of want to get back into the flow of things,” said Viggiano.
He understands that players won’t be in peak game shape because their season ended just two months ago. But they will have five exhibition matches over the course of the spring semester, starting with their first one on Feb. 18. All matches, Viggiano said, are used to try some things out, especially after talking to coaches from other schools, bouncing tactics and formations off each other.
“It gives us the opportunity to kind of experiment sometimes with tactics, you know, play different formations. You look at guys in different places, maybe try to get them out of their comfort zone,” said Viggiano. “Just getting guys Division I game experience where those guys are trying to develop, not everybody’s ready to play right away and guys develop at different rates.”
Half of player development can be attributed to what they do collectively as a team, doing things like practicing on the field and hitting the weight room. The other half of their development depends on what they choose to do— or not do— off the field.
It comes down to motivation, whether or not a player follows the program outline the coaches give out for the offseason. This includes going for different-distance runs, maintaining a steady diet, monitoring their weight, and even playing for semi-professional club teams during the offseason. The latter, however, can only be done once the spring semester concludes.
“The expectation is really all of them should [play for other teams over the summer],” said Viggiano. “There are so many different leagues that are available now in the summer: USL, NPSL, and the UPSL. So the expectation is that all our guys are going to play.”
Junior goalkeeper Dylan McDermott does everything he can to meet every expectation, including playing for Kingston Stockade FC in the National Premier Soccer League and the Hudson Valley Hammers in the United Premier Soccer League last summer.
In his time with both teams, McDermott acknowledges that there is a difference in styles of play between semi-professional teams and college soccer teams.
“[In college] you find dudes that are tall, athletic, strong. And that’s what a lot of colleges look for in players. Meanwhile, in summer you find a lot more technical players or teams and a better style of play sometimes,” said McDermott.
So far this season, McDermott has had multiple teams ask him to play for their club this upcoming summer. He hasn’t made any decisions yet, but he will be playing for a semi-professional team as he did last year.
Playing for a team during the summer serves as good preparation for the college season, and for players like McDermott who don’t play very often during the fall, it allows them to show off their abilities to others.
Because starting goalkeeper Sam Ilin will be returning for another season, McDermott is even more motivated to compete for the starting spot in the first 11 and will continue to do his best.
Striving to be the best is exactly how starting forward Stefan Copetti always feels, especially when it comes to this sport he loves. This past season he scored nine goals and assisted three on the road to a MAAC Championship.
Despite the success he had this past season, he acknowledged that he has to be more consistent, especially in the big games as he had no goals or assists during the MAAC Playoffs.
“Looking back on this season, I feel like there definitely could have been more consistency in my play,” said Copetti. “I started off the year not scoring goals in the first four or five games. And then towards the end of the season, I kind of tailed off and didn’t put up any points in the tournament and in the playoffs. So if my team is depending on me, I need to be there,”
One way he hopes to become more consistent this offseason is by having his personal trainer from home help him on improving upper and lower body strength. His personal trainer even created an app for him to use when he’s at Marist where he puts all kinds of exercises to improve strength and cardio. But when he is home, he sees his trainer five times a week.
When he’s not with his personal trainer, he’ll sometimes train with his dad and will be given tips since his dad also played at the collegiate level. If he’s alone, he’ll go for a run, shoot around by himself, or hit the gym.
And when it comes to playing for a club in the offseason, he trains five to six days a week with a game on the weekend. Last summer he played for FC Buffalo in the NPSL and found that the players were more physical, slightly older than him, and as McDermott said, the game is more technically sound with a focus on executing game plans and not playing as direct as college soccer teams do.
Despite all of these activities he does during the offseason, he never feels fully content with himself, which further pushes him to become even better. He understands that the expectations for the upcoming season are high, not just as a team but as the main goal-scorer.
“From my freshman year to my sophomore and junior year, I took a pretty big jump. I can see that I haven’t hit my ceiling yet, there’s still a lot to improve on. And that’s what drives me knowing that,” said Copetti.
He may be able to make an even bigger jump if the NCAA votes to extend the college soccer season through the spring with the vote set to take place in April– COVID-19 postponed the vote a year ago.
The first benefit of extending the season includes eliminating midweek games, which reduces the amount of class time missed. It also allows players to pursue other interests outside of athletics, something the NCAA has been emphasizing for the last couple of years.
Players also have more time to recover properly, especially if they get injured at any point of the season, as opposed to the current model where an injury could sideline a player for half a season or even the entirety of one. But most obvious of all, the college soccer season would strongly align with professional soccer leagues across the globe.
“I’m hugely in favor of it obviously, as a soccer purist,” said Viggiano. “21stcenturymodel.org gives us a full outline of what we’re looking to do as a coaching body.”
The website suggests, ‘21st Century Model allows [athletes] more time to acclimate to college in the first semester. Consistent balance of academics, athletics, and student life promotes improved mental health.’
All the proposal needs to be passed is a majority vote, 33 out of 64, where every conference submits a specific number of votes. Should the proposal be passed, spring semesters will have meaningful games as opposed to the current model’s five exhibition spring matches that mean close to nothing from a result standpoint. Players would most likely remain in shape almost year-round, and year-round if they play with semi-professional teams in the summer.
The downside is that offseasons would be shorter, starting in mid-May and ending in early August, but it’s offset by in-season rest.
Whichever way you look at it, the Marist players and coaches are hungry to defend their MAAC Championship. To get there, players must continue to be diligent, stay in shape, eat properly, and get plenty of rest during what may be the last long offseason in NCAA soccer history.
Will athletes’ seasons end on a chilly and cloudy autumn afternoon or a warm and sunny spring day? We’ll find out in April as the vote will determine the outcome of college soccer for years to come.
Edited by Bridget Reilly and Jonathan Kinane
Photo from Marist Athletics via Kira Crutcher