How does college soccer work?

We try to give you a basic understanding of College soccer in the US right here.

Explaining college soccer in the US can often be a confusing affair. How does the league system work? What are the options? What is the NCAA and what is the difference between the divisions?
To shed some light on the subject, we’ve put together a few things that are guaranteed to make you a little more knowledgeable about college soccer in the US

College soccer in the US

College soccer in the United States is different from the rest of the world.
In most countries, there are promoted and relegated teams each season, depending on how many points have been earned by the end of the season.

In college soccer, teams do not move up or down. They remain in the same division regardless of how the season has gone for the given team.
There are many factors that play a role in why the different teams/colleges are placed in the division they are. It could be the size of the university, its financial strength or the amount of sports they offer in their program.
There are 3 different sporting federations, each of which facilitates soccer tournaments at both regional and national level. We look at each federation below. 

What is the NCAA?

(The National Collegiate Athletic Association)
organizes soccer and other sports across colleges and universities in the United States. They facilitate the largest and most well-known college tournament in the United States, consisting of over 1000 colleges and universities across 3 divisions.

NCAA Division 1

Division 1 is the highest-ranked division in the United States where the biggest colleges in soccer compete against each other. The biggest teams play in front of home crowds of at least 1,500 and the record is around 17,000.

It is played in front of large crowds against and with the players who, in addition to fulfilling the academic framework, are also the most immediately talented.
In Division 1, there is a strong focus on the athletic aspect of the individual player. Speed, physicality and attributes like these are therefore highly valued by Division 1 college coaches in the US.
Here the various colleges and universities recruit very actively both nationally and internationally and offer full scholarshipsto those athletes and players who can prove their talent and academic level.

NCAA Division 2

Division 2 is the second-highest ranked division in the United States where major colleges compete against each other.

There is also a lot of competition and a high level of soccer, but there is a more balanced approach in terms of sports and academics. There is a strong focus on the technical and cognitive aspect of a soccer player, as opposed to Division 1, where the athletic aspect is more important.
Although on paper NCAA Division 2 is ranked below Division 1, it’s not necessarily because of the level of soccer.

The way the
sporting system is structured in the US, means that a given college and its position in, for example, Division 1, is not dictated by its sporting performance in the previous season, but by the financial strength, size and general provision of college sports by the college institution. It is therefore not at all unusual for Division 2 teams to be better than Division 1 teams and one should not be fooled by the figures and the immediate ranking of the divisions.

In Division 2, colleges are also actively recruiting both in the US and beyond their borders, but cannot offer scholarships to as many athletes as Division 1 colleges. It is therefore often a greater achievement to get a good Scholarship offer from a Division 2 College than a Division 1 College.

NCAA Division 3

Division 3 offers a much more well-rounded college experience in the US, with academics taking a greater focus than athletics. These athletes or players need to be able to juggle their time, as sportsmanship is not promoted as much as in Division 1 and 2. Here the different colleges cannot offer sports scholarships. This makes schools more expensive and coaches find it difficult to recruit players of the same caliber, as the price for the individual becomes too high. We have never sent a player to Division 3.

What is NAIA?

(National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics)
is also an organization that governs and facilitates soccer and other sports in the United States. The NAIA is the oldest tournament in the United States and has been holding annual tournaments at colleges in the US since 1959. The NAIA consists mainly of private, attractive and well-funded colleges with solid facilities and an international environment. The NAIA is the oldest tournament in the United States and the various colleges actively recruit every year.
There are a large number of scholarships on offer – more than the NCAA – many of which go to students from diverse nationalities.

What is the NJCAA? (Junior College)

(National Junior College Athletic Association)
organizes and facilitates soccer and other sports at junior colleges in the US. The Junior College program lasts 2 years and if you can prove yourself athletically and academically, you can then transfer to a 4-year program such as NCAA or NAIA and take the last 2 years in the upper school.

This is a great route for a young person who may not have had the academic level in the first place or for other reasons was not admitted to a 4-year college program. Sports scholarships are also available.

Junior colleges cost less than public and private colleges, and they may also be more generous with academic and sporting scholarships. Coaches and recruiters from the NCAA or NAIA will also look towards the NJCAA when recruiting as they can prove that they are able to balance sport and education. As an example, 2 of our clients here at NSSA – Tobias Bak and Oliver Hald – both players had scholarship opportunities at fine colleges in NCAA Division II. They both chose a different route and accepted scholarships from colleges in the NJCAA. After consistently performing well both in the classroom and on the soccer field, both Tobias and Oliver were able to accept scholarship offers from NCAA Division I colleges.

What is the best option for me?

Although most start out with the idea that NCAA Division I is the ultimate goal, it ultimately comes down to what experience suits the individual and a clear answer to the question can rarely be given.

The most important thing is to find a college that suits you. If you do well, it is always possible to request a transfer to a higher level. This will always be an option if you have proven yourself during your stay and often larger scholarships are given to international students who have proven themselves at college in the US, as opposed to if they had played at club level in Europe.

The good news is that with
3 NCAA divisions
NAIA and NJCAA are options for any potential Student Athlete.

More To Explore