"He's a D1 Player"...But Is He? - NCAA D1 Men's Soccer Data Analysis

“He’s a D1 talent.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that exact line.

Spend enough time around the game and you’ll hear it from coaches, parents, and the players themselves.

Here in the USA, we have several pathways to the professional and collegiate games. There’s MLS NEXT, ECNL (national and regional), USL Academy, NPL, PDL, ODP, USL2 for the summer months…I’m probably missing some, but these are widely regarded as the top leagues for America’s best talent.

For many players and families, participation in one of these leagues is seen as a precursor to professional and collegiate soccer. For the most part, they’re correct. There’s little infrastructure outside of those pathways. The occasional high school-only player will make it onto a college roster, but these cases are rare. In fact, if you look at those top few leagues, the players aren’t even allowed to play high school soccer.

Just from the MLS NEXT, ECNL National, and USL Academy systems, there are a total of 259 teams. Let’s say each team carries 20 players. That means the top three youth leagues in the nation have approximately 5,180. That number is very close to the total number of players in D1 soccer programs.

Those stats beg the question…how many people know what D1 talent looks like?

How many people have looked at a D1 roster?

How many have analyzed where the players come from (location, clubs, level of play)?

How many have watched a D1 game live? Online?

How many players have competed against collegiate teams in preseason play?

Though I can’t vouch for the research of college hopefuls, their families, or their coaches, I can provide an analytical look at college roster demographics and share my findings.

That’s the purpose of this series.

We’ll kick off with the collegiate level everyone strives for, Division 1. The recognized top level of play in the American collegiate system, every domestic youth player dreams of earning a D1 scholarship (if a direct pathway to the pros isn’t an option, of course).

Your Competition is the World

At a recent college ID camp, one of the coaches mentioned that, arguably, the American collegiate system is the top amateur soccer league in the world. I’d never thought of it in those terms, but there’s a very real possibility this is true. There are no contracts, no payment to the players, and no direct pathway to the professional game. The sport is entirely connected to academic progress and ends with a degree. Soccer is secondary to education.

That said, the American collegiate game is littered with talent. Playing college soccer is seen as a means of earning a degree while continuing the soccer dream. It attracts much of America’s top talent, as well as many international students who developed at top academies across the globe. When faced with the decision to play in the lowest professional ranks in their own country or come to the USA for school and soccer, a trip abroad has become a popular option.

And this is our first point.

For American college hopefuls, there’s a need to understand that you’re not competing against just the top American talent. You’re fighting for roster spots with outstanding players from across the globe.

Your competition is the world.

Let’s break that claim down into numbers.

48 teams competed in the D1 national championship tournament. Each was either a conference champion or earned an at-large bid. In other words, 23% of the 208 D1 men’s soccer programs compete in this single-elimination tournament.

I recorded each team’s roster and season statistics for this article.

Between those 48 teams, the players totaled 16,268 games.  American players accounted for 9,968 games while international student-athletes earned 6,300 appearances, a 22% difference.

D1 Games Played

Surely you’ve heard that appearances can be deceiving. Well, in collegiate athletics, they are. We have traditions called “Senior Night” where programs often let their long-serving seniors, some who have rarely (if ever) played, are given an appearance. In the preseason, the end of a poor season, or in lopsided matches, coaches will go deep into their bench. When the regular season starts and matches are tighter, those rosters are not nearly as deep.

I wanted to see how deep into their bench D1 programs were likely to go, so I filtered for games started (903 of the 1,192 players had listings for starts). Suddenly, our numbers were much closer. Of 8,176 total starts, 4,700 went to the American kids, 3,476 to internationals. Right away, the margin closes to 14%.

D1 Games Started

Let’s take it even further. Oftentimes, when international student-athletes are offered a spot on a college soccer team, the idea is for them to be an immediate difference-maker. Fortunately, several Division 1 schools also list the total number of minutes their players received in 2021.

Looking at total minutes and the percentage played by American versus international students, we find the gap is significantly closer with an 8% difference.

D1 Minutes - Total and Percentage

Filtering for a minimum of 500 minutes played yielded 52% of D1 minutes for the top American players, 48% for international students.

How does that above graph translate on a per game average?

For international students, the average player earns 66 out of the 90 minutes per game. For Americans, that average drops to 58 minutes P90. This result does seem to back the point that international student-athletes are brought in exclusively as potential game-changers.

D1 Minutes P90

Most D1 programs offer a nice balance of domestic and international student-athletes. When doing your research on schools, studying the team’s roster and playing time distribution is key. Conversations with the coaching staff should also offer clarity on their plans for you. For D1 and D2 programs, these conversations will generally start during the player’s junior season and extend to the holiday showcases of their fall senior semester. The key here is that there is only so much athletic scholarship to give away. Top players tend to receive those offers early, which then impacts how much money is still available and which positions that money has to target.

If you find yourself in the spring semester of your senior season and that dream school hasn’t given an offer, this is certainly a time to look into Plan B. If you have built your 20 School Universe, as we suggest in The Soccer Parenting Handbook, the reach schools are likely out of the equation, at least for now, but the settle schools are likely still recruiting, especially at D3, NAIA, and NJCAA. Select a school with the right academic, social, and soccer fit. You may enjoy it enough to stick around for four years. If not, an excellent season and the transfer portal can help you find a better fit, maybe even give that dream school another chance.

Positional Breakdown

Now that we have a better idea of the domestic and international student-athlete margins, let’s move on to positional breakdowns.

The original assumption here was that schools would target top soccer countries for help in the creative positions. Scan the rosters of any team that participated in the D1 national tournament and you’ll see there’s some merit to that assumption, but it doesn’t capture the entire picture.

Blending rosters is a key component of collegiate soccer success. Using the NCAA Division 1 tournament as a personnel model, we can decipher what the typical roster construction looks like.

Looking specifically at teams that played in the tournament, we have the following numbers by position. The 2nd set of numbers shows how many of those players are American while the third set shows the breakdown of international roster spots.

D1 Positional Breakdown

Total numbers are well-and-good, but percentages give us a better overall idea of the distribution. The next image shows the percentage of players by position, as well as where we find percentage differences between domestic and international players.

D1 Positional Breakdown by Percentage

Goalkeepers made up 8% of the NCAA D1 tournament functional rosters, defenders had 31% representation, midfielders paced the group at 39%, and forwards chipped in with 22%. Remember that by functional roster, I mean players who earned playing time. A program might have six goalkeepers on their roster, but if only three played during the 2021 campaign, those are the only three on the functional roster.

Since a number of functional roster players had limited minutes in 2021, I filtered for impact players, those with 500 minutes or more, measuring the number of players who meet this qualification and sorting them by region and position. This includes the stars and key players off the bench. Once that filter was applied, the percentages gave us better insight into recruitment methods at this level.

D1 Positional Breakdown 500+ Minutes

Across the board, the percentages of American to international students leveled out. Though the functional rosters see American players earning many more appearances, impact players are typically very close to an even split.

That last data visual shows us that regular representation on the pitch is very close to 50/50. For the remainder of the section, we’re going to use the tournament numbers to scale this data to fully cover Division 1 player representation.

An NCSA article gives us some guidance on college roster sizes.

During the 2016–2017 school year, there were about 450,234 high school men’s soccer players and about 39,888 college men’s soccer players across all divisions. Of these college athletes, a total of 12,531 soccer players were on D1 and D2 rosters.

That comes out to roughly 30 players per D1 and D2 roster. Using a 30-player program average, we can then extrapolate the data from above the gauge Division 1 roster composition with regional and positional markers.

D1 Positional Breakdown 30 Player Teams

Bear in mind that these players are spread across four, sometimes five classes. So, in any given year, Division 1 may feature 874 American forwards, but that comes out to about 219 attackers per class. To put it in another light, if there was equal representation by state high school seniors, that’s four players each, plus a 5th for another 19 states. Are you a top-five forward in your state? If you’re from a small state or one that doesn’t historically produce many college soccer players, you might have to be in the top two. That’s a question you’ll have to honestly answer if you’re not getting any recruitment looks from D1 programs.

And remember, it’s okay if you’re not. There are over 900 colleges with soccer programs with highly-talented players at each level.

Another thing to remember is that the above graph lists TOTAL program numbers. That’s not even the functional roster. Some of those young men may never see the field. Coaches and players approach the recruitment process the same way. They both want a signing that adds to their current position and status. Players want to compete at the highest possible level, coaches want players that will allow their teams to compete at the highest possible level.

Since we’re targeting a more realistic analysis of college rosters, we want to know what the functional rosters look like. These are the players who are guaranteed minutes. When you divide 990 (total minutes available to 11 players per game) and divide by the average minutes per player (61), D1 functional rosters average 16 players per team. Assuming the goalkeeper plays the entire game, that leaves five field players coming off the bench any given game.

In terms of a positional and regional breakdown, here’s what we have.

D1 Functional Roster Breakdown

This chart shows the total number of players, by position and region, who are likely to play in a given season. Again, divide these numbers by the four academic years and you’ll have a better idea of how many high school students are likely to earn minutes during their freshmen year of college.

Refining Our Focus

I just threw a ton of numbers at you. If you’re staring at the computer screen cross-eyed and slouched in your seat, let’s scale it back to the team level for a moment.

Let’s make those numbers smaller for a better visual. On any given team, the functional roster will have a regional distribution of nine Americans and seven internationals.

D1 Functional Roster Average Team

The idea of a functional roster is very important. As a D3 college coach, I’ve met a lot of players who have told me their options are D1 or bust. I’ve heard that line from parents and coaches too.

The issue I’ve always taken is that the players often don’t realize how difficult a challenge this is. Secondarily, it’s also a disrespectful view of D2, D3, NAIA, and NJCAA. Speak to a D2 coach about where you stand in relation to their current roster. Many players from top American leagues will be lucky to make the functional roster.

Much the same in D3. When I attend ID camps and showcases, there are players who can 1) make our starting XI, 2) come off the bench for a year or two before earning a starting role, 3) four-year players off the bench, or 4) reserve team players who may not make it to the first team. Each program has its own ID camp and showcase approach, but I can guarantee this is fairly standard across the board.

Scaling to the total number of Division 1 players and visualizing the functional roster from the developmental team, we’re looking at nearly 3,000 D1 players who are unlikely to earn a single minute on the pitch.

D1 Functional Roster vs Developmental Players

This is why it’s important to prioritize fit, both academically and on the soccer field. From an academic standpoint, would you attend that school if soccer was no longer an option? Do they have your major(s) of interest? Socially, do you like the size of the campus and the general demeanor of the student body? What about the climate?

From a soccer perspective, what’s important to you? Do you want to play right away or does the level and prestige of the program take priority? Do you mind going a year or two without playing, serving as a member of the developmental roster? How would you react if, as an upperclassman, a freshman came in at your position and was better than you?

These are questions you have to consider. Yes, play at the highest level available to you, but pay attention to the keyword, play.

Scholarships are another thing to keep in mind at the D1 level. That alone will give you an idea of where you stand. D1 teams are allowed a total of 9.9 athletic scholarships. Whatever the cost of attending their institution, they will have as much as that cost x 9.9. Now, don’t assume all schools have full funding. It’s not uncommon to find D1 schools with 6-7 athletic scholarships available.

Whatever money they have, most schools are allowed to stack scholarships, meaning they can give student-athletes a percentage of a full scholarship and tack that money onto the academic aid the player is receiving.

For the sake of example, let’s say a school has all 9.9 men’s soccer scholarships. If they split that scholarship money even amongst their functional roster, each player would receive an athletic scholarship amounting to 62% of the school’s cost.

D1 Athletic Scholarship Distribution

If that money was evenly distributed across all 30 players in the program, that percentage drops to 33%. To sign top players, the combination of academic and athletic scholarship money needs to get them as close to zero as possible. With the money in place, colleges will then recruit based on academic and soccer opportunities that await the student IF they commit to X University.

Don’t Despair

To give you an idea of how difficult it is to even make a D1 roster, between MLS NEXT, ENCL National, and USL Academy, there are 259 teams. Let’s stick with the earlier assumption that each has a roster of 20 players. That brings the total player pool to 5,180, which is about 1,200 fewer than the total D1 player pool. We’ve already seen the player distribution at D1. It simply isn’t feasible for each of these players to go D1.

Even if we estimate that 30% of those players are high school juniors, that takes our total number of seniors to 3,626. What remains is more players than D1 schools can reasonably roster in a single recruiting year..

If this data analysis hit you like a ton of bricks, I’m sorry to be the guy to drop them on you.

Now, shake off that shock and let’s get back to reality. The reality is that participation in one of those elite soccer leagues does bode well for your odds of playing college soccer. Again, there are over 900 college soccer programs. Just because you didn’t make it to a D1 program straight out of high school doesn’t mean you’re not a quality player, that you can’t play college soccer, or that you won’t make a D1 roster at some point.

As I look at the NCAA transfer portal, there are currently 1,606 men’s soccer entries. Some of these are players who went to D2 or D3 programs, were standouts last season, and are now transferring to a higher level of play. They’ve shown patience and proven themselves at the collegiate level. Now, with proof of competence on their side, they can restate their case to their initial dream schools.

Patience and passion can pay off.

At a recent ID camp, a club Director of Coaching put it really well…“Don’t close a door before it’s been open for you.” 

Pursue that D1 dream; no one in D2 or D3 can fault you. The best advice we can give is to explore those options while also developing opportunities across multiple levels. Don’t close the door on D3 because you think you deserve an athletic scholarship. That’s not in your control. Don’t shut out D2 schools because you’re D1 or bust. If those schools aren’t fighting to bring you in, you’re likely sacrificing playing time for status.

Ultimately, prioritize a total fit. Academically, socially, and on the pitch, look for a school that checks all your boxes rather than one that can only deliver status.

Next Week

This is the first article in a series. The goal is to shed light on the state of men’s college soccer rosters, particularly for the benefit of high school students. These spots are competitive, more so than the general public believes. Through an objective data analysis, we’re going to put many assumptions to rest.

Next week, we’ll look at D2 data. I’ll take a similar, if not identical, approach to this one. I want you, the reader, to walk away with a better understanding of what men’s college soccer rosters look like and the limited opportunities available at each level.

Don’t walk away from this article with a sense of fear that you might not achieve your D1 goals. Instead, come away with a better understanding of the state of the game and be prepared to take a more educated approach to the college recruitment process. There’s more than one path to the top of the collegiate game.

Spots are here for great players who love the game.