The Day Pfeiffer Played Clemson - NCAA D2 Men's Soccer Data Analysis
The year is 2016.
Clemson University has just finished as the runners-up in Division 1 and Pfeiffer University has claimed the D2 crown with a perfect season, 25-0. These two Titans agreed to a spring season match, one that I attended in person with the Belmont Abbey College coaching staff and players.
In the fall of 2015, I was an assistant coach at my alma mater, Belmont Abbey. We were in the same division as Pfeiffer, so we had the opportunity to play them head to head in conference play.
Going into the match, there was already a sense that we were down a goal. With former academy players from Real Madrid and Benfica in their starting lineup, it was easy to see why Pfeiffer was the odds on favorite to win the conference and make a deep run in the national tournament.
That match against Clemson started with a surprise. Pfeiffer was dictating play and in full control of the game. To make the feat even more impressive, they were doing so without their two-time national player of the year, Nathan Regis, who was recovering from an injury.
Though Pfeiffer struggled to finish off their attacking sequences, it was immediately clear that they would not struggle to dictate play with their quick ball circulation and press resistance. They took the lead and held the 1-0 advantage late into the game. Only a red card with about 15 minutes to play and a penalty kick 30 seconds from end-time allowed Clemson to salvage a 1-1 draw on their home pitch.
So, what's the takeaway?
Watching those two teams in action led to a few insights. First, D2 teams can be every bit as good as D1 teams. And this instance, the top-rated D2 program outplayed the D1 runner-up. In terms of their level relative to their respective divisions, these were the best of the bunch.
Second, roster construction is very different for those two teams. Clemson, a nationally recognized powerhouse in the American men's college soccer game had a nice blend of domestic and international student-athletes. On the other hand, Pfeiffer, a small school in a rural setting 45 minutes northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina was fully international, at least in terms of a functional roster. The top 15 players on the team were international student-athletes and they earned the majority of the team's minutes that season.
Now, as a D3 program, Pfeiffer is almost entirely domestic. In fact, only one player is international whereas most of the player pool lives within 3 hours of the campus. This is primarily because the D2 team of old could offer athletic scholarship money to student-athletes, whereas now they only receive academic scholarships from the University and whatever federal funding their respective countries provide.
Let's reflect on that second point. Why was there such an extreme difference in the way the rosters are constructed? Is that typical across Division 2 men's soccer in the USA? Why does the roster distribution work out this way?
Rather than leaning on opinion, my personal experience, or painting all of D2 with a brush, I will use data pulled from the D2 National Championship Tournament to assess their rosters and extrapolate for your typical D2 program personnel. One note is that Davis and Elkins College is not included in this analysis because their stats were not live at the time of writing. Instead, I have adapted to include 47 of the 48 teams.
Additionally, this article series is not designed to imply one method of recruiting is better than the other or that college coaches have an obligation towards one player pool or the other. Ultimately, a college coach's job is to win games and run a clean program. Using his resources and connections, it's the coach's job to put together a roster that pushes his or her program to new heights. Rather than casting judgment on any coaches, players, or clubs, this series is specifically designed to look at the reality in front of us and help our young players make more educated decisions in the college recruitment process. Fit, above all, has to be the top priority.
As a college coach, this research has been useful to me in that I have a better understanding of what my player recruitment pool should look like. I hope that other college coaches will see this research as a means of determining where the game is right now, as well as where they can find value in the recruitment market. Each school has their own recruiting conditions to work around, so it's up to the coaches to utilize their resources to bring in the best available players.
D2 – Where Do the Minutes Go?
Much like the D1 data analysis, we're going to start this one with a look at the breakdown between domestic and international appearances and starts. As we roll through the numbers, the reason for this starting point will seem very clear.
Among the teams at the 2021 D2 National Championship Tournament, international players garnered 7,954 minutes over the course of the season compared to the 6,202 minutes for Americans.
We see much of the same when we get to games started. International students collected 5,410 starts compared to the 3,322 of the American players.
In terms of total minutes and the percentage of minutes played in a season, of the 888 players with their minutes listed, international student-athletes collected 56% of the total available minutes, meaning Americans played 44%.
To put these numbers into a smaller context, I worked out the numbers to see how many minutes per game each player pool averaged. For internationals, it was typical for the players to average 58 minutes per game. Meanwhile, American kids averaged 53.
If you've been around the college game, these numbers don't surprise you. Division 2 has long leaned more heavily on international students. One aspect of that is the status that comes with playing Division 1. Again, I don't want to add many opinions or speak too much from experiential knowledge, or even my conversations with coaches across the college soccer spectrum, but in the USA, there is a certain status associated with playing in D1 verse D2. Looking at other sports, it's the D1 football, basketball, and baseball games that we see on TV. It's those teams that compete for the title at the highest level of the game. The American audience is very familiar with Division 1 athletics and has a certain affinity for it. In some parts of the country, Division 1 sports are more popular than the professional ranks. I'm not saying this is totally the reason that it's more difficult for Division 2 coaches to land American talent that's comparable to what they could get abroad, but it's certainly a factor.
It begs the question, why is it easier to recruit international students to fill these roster spots? One is that it's a significantly larger player pool. Another is that there are many kids in top academies across the globe who simply couldn't make the first team at a big club and wanted an alternative path to playing in the lower leagues back home. Many players will also play in a lower league on an amateur contract for a year or two, hoping to get their shot in a higher division only to see opportunities dry up. The American college game gives them a chance to continue playing, get an education, and position themselves for advancement in America's budding professional soccer scene.
Following the D1 articles outline, we're going to look at the positional breakdown between domestic and international student-athletes. Again, the point here is simply to show current trends in the game, which can then inform players, parents, and clubs about opportunities in the collegiate game. It's simply not enough to be talented. To earn a spot on a collegiate roster, you have to show the coach that you can make his team better.
Granted, there are exceptions when coaches identify high potential players who need a year or two of development, as well as young men and women who offer a great presence in their program. In that latter group, I've personally seen players who spend the majority of the season on the bench but are among the team’s vocal leaders. Coaches are often willing to take a chance on a "character signing" who has some upside.
Apart from those exceptions, coaches recruit to improve their teams. At the D2 level, it's simply easier to recruit a highly talented international student-athlete who can make a difference from day one than an American counterpart. Top American talents want to attend top D1 schools.
Whether you're an American or international student-athlete reading this data analysis, there are some interesting trends to take away as you move through the recruitment process.
Looking at the positional breakdowns from the NCAA D2 men's soccer tournament, Americans had a greater presence at goalkeeper and forward while internationals held slight margins along the backline and in midfield.
In terms of percentages, goalkeepers made up 9% of the tournament rosters, forwards having the 2nd lowest representation at 22%, followed by defenders at 29%. Midfielders had the greatest representation at 40%. Americans held a 1% lead over internationals at the goalkeeper and forward positions, whereas the latter had a 1% lead in defense and 2% in midfield.
Just like the D1 analysis, we want to estimate the approximate number of players in Division 2 by position. Estimating a 30-man roster for 206 NCAA Division 2 teams, we have 6,180 total players. Between this article and the D1 data analysis, our 30-man roster gives us a total number of 12,420 players between D1 and D2. During a 2016/17 study, NCSA gauged that there were “a total of 12,531 soccer players were on D1 and D2 rosters.” In that time, D1 has increased from 205 to 206 teams while D2 has declined from 214 to 208. 2016/17 had a total of 419 teams. Dividing the 12,531 players by the 419 teams, the average roster size is 29.9, so our 30-man average is spot on.
Using the percentages to estimate the total player pool in D2, there are 556 goalkeepers, 1,978 defenders, 2,596 midfielders, and 1,174 forwards. The goalkeeper total is on the low end as most programs will carry three or four goalkeepers. If a program only has two, they’ve likely fallen victim to a late transfer or academically ineligible player. This is a guess, but I’d imagine that number is closer to 700 total, leaving marginal losses at the other positions.
While the above chart represents the total number of men's soccer players at the NCAA D2 level, we have to keep in mind that teams will not go 30 players deep on game day. In fact, 5 to 10 of those players may not see the field in a given season.
Rather than sticking with the 30-man rosters, we want to identify approximately the number of players who will receive regular playing time. To get that number, we can use the average number of minutes per player per game and use it to divide the 990 total minutes available per team per game. We can also approximate the American and international contingencies on the average roster.
Our result? An average of 10 international student-athletes and eight Americans, giving us an average functional roster of 18 players in Division 2 men's soccer.
Again, my definition of a functional roster is the core group of players who received regular playing time. Injuries, suspensions, and lopsided results may provide opportunities for secondary players. Performance slumps from functional roster members may also provide opportunities for the players with more regular appearances. But, ultimately, your typical Division 2 side will go about 18 players deep in any given game, meaning seven substitutes are likely to come off the bench and earn some minutes.
Looking at the positional breakdown on the functional rosters, goalkeepers held 334 of those spots, defenders another 1,075, midfielders topping the list at 1,483, and forwards chipping in with 816 players. Looking at the American and international breakdowns, the only significant margins were the preference for American goalkeepers and international midfielders.
The functional roster consists of players who routinely appear in matches, but we still want to get a better sense of who the impact players are. These are the players who are either starting or seen as those first couple of players off the bench. To isolate our impact players, I've once again placed the 500 plus minutes played restriction on the player list.
In terms of the percentage breakdown, 7% of those players are goalkeepers, 32% defenders, 42% midfielders, and 19% forwards. The high percentage of midfielders makes perfect sense. Given the amount of ground they have to cover and the pace of the American collegiate game, you'll frequently see each of the starting midfielders getting a breather at some point in the game.
The low percentage of goalkeepers makes sense. Most teams had a designated starter. Fewer had a rotation as I had expected. The biggest surprise to me was the discrepancy between the percentage of defenders and forwards represented in the chart. It's not uncommon to see the center backs play the entire game. Outside backs are frequently subbed off at some point in the game, meaning there's more rotation at the position, but I expected a similar approach at the forward position.
One explanation for the low percentage of forwards is that most teams lack the depth for significant rotations. Though it's common to see each of the forwards get subbed off at some point of the game, they probably spend less time on the bench than their outside backs, primarily because there's a greater need for those top goal scorers and playmakers to be on the pitch.
If any of that has left you confused, let me give you a quick explanation of the NCAA substitution rules. If a player comes off in the first half, he's not allowed reentry for the remainder of the half. He can return to play in the second half. Let's say a team’s top number 9 started the second half. He's allowed one reentry. So, a coach could pull him off in the 65th minute and give him 5 minutes to catch his breath before putting him back on the pitch in the 70th minute. The backup number 9 could realistically play 75 minutes all season, meaning he is still on the functional roster, but he is certainly not an impact player. He's really giving the starter a water break.
After reflecting on the Division 1 analysis, one thing I wish I had included was a data analysis relative to classes. How many freshmen are on rosters? What does the functional roster look like? Which classes tend to have the most impact players? Is there a steady regression from freshman to senior year? What about graduate students?
The additional Covid year granted to each student who was on a collegiate athletic team during the 2020/21 pandemic season has added another wrinkle. It has led to a steady stream of graduate students using their fifth year, further complicating the recruitment process for coaches and high school athletes alike. With graduate students occupying roster spots for an additional season, schools are forced to either recruit smaller classes for the next few years or expand their roster sizes.
Turning to the data, it's no surprise that the freshman class was the most representative among teams that made the NCAA Division 2 men's soccer tournament. Surprisingly, after the predictably low numbers classified as fifth years or graduate students, it's the sophomores who were the least representative.
The junior class recording the second-highest total is a bit surprising. One theory is that Junior College athletes have now entered the fray. There's also the possibility that D1 players who were stuck on the bench move down a level to get playing time. Additionally, D3 and NAIA students have completed their "prove it" years and filled out physically, making the leap to a higher level of play and possibly an athletic scholarship.
In terms of percentages, freshmen make up 20% of the rosters on D2 national tournament teams. 16% of the total player population are domestic freshmen, the highest representation in the group, followed by American juniors, international freshman, and international juniors, each registering 12% of the player base.
Remember, those numbers reflect the functional rosters of tournament teams. The only players recorded in the study are those who are playing college soccer, meaning they're on the field competing.
Taking those percentages and extrapolating the total D2 functional rosters based on class percentages, roughly 1,038 freshmen were part of the functional roster, followed by 890 juniors, 779 seniors, 742 sophomores, and 259 graduate students.
While these are rough estimates based on percentages available from national tournament participants, they play a meaningful role in helping us visualize the number of athletes likely to see the field each season. Whether the actual number across 206 teams is slightly high or slightly lower, these numbers give us a good baseline when evaluating opportunities at the collegiate level. If you are interested in a perennial powerhouse, you'll likely find that upperclassmen received the majority of the minutes. On a rebuilding squad, especially one with a new coach, those numbers may favor underclassmen.
Regardless of the institutions a player is researching, if playing time early in his collegiate career is important, he needs to address that with the coaching staff. Asking for an honest assessment of his talents and where he sits relative to the team are questions recruits should ask the coaching staff. A coach may not always be able to tell you "I see you as a starter" or "you'll be the first guy off the bench at the position", they should have an idea of whether they think you can make an impact right away, can compete for minutes, will be towards the back end of the bench, or need time on the reserve team. Let the coaching staff know what's important to you and push for transparency in their responses.
Returning to our data, look once again at the impact players, those who recorded 500+ minutes played over the course of the season. Again, these numbers come directly from teams that participated in the NCAA Division 2 Men's National Championship Tournament.
As you may have guessed, seniors took the lead with a 27% representation in the player pool. Of those seniors, 16% were international student-athletes, 11% American. After the seniors, we have both the freshman and junior classes at 23%. International student-athletes held a small advantage in player representation across the board when comparing classes. The biggest difference was with the graduate students, with the international student-athletes earning a healthy 7% representation, whereas American students were far less likely to continue playing.
Minutes and Money
I'll keep this section short and sweet. We're looking at a comparison between the total number of players, functional roster, and the student-athletes who are effectively part of the developmental squad.
Assuming an average of 30 players per program, our total NCAA D2 men's soccer player pool comes out to 6,180. But as you'll recall, the functional rosters are about 18 players deep. That leaves 3,708 players on the functional roster and 2,472 on the developmental squad.
One of the positives here is that Division 2 functional rosters are, on average, deeper than the D1 game, so there is a greater number of players who will see the pitch.
Turning to the financial implications, let’s note a couple of important aspects of Division 2 athletics. First, D2 men's soccer programs are allowed up to 9 full scholarships. That's down 0.9 scholarships from D1.
But the second point is perhaps more important. Even though schools are allowed to offer nine full scholarships, few D2 men's soccer programs have that much money to distribute to their recruits. It's common to hear of schools with only five, six, or seven scholarships available. That decision is not handed down by the NCAA. Instead, that comes directly from the school's athletic department. Soccer is considered a non-revenue sport. Unlike college (American) football and basketball, soccer programs do not bring in enough money to cover their expenses. This is especially the case in D2. There's no guarantee schools will even charge a gate fee.
Though there are certainly some D2 programs that are given the nine full scholarships, I have personally heard of cases where a school has had zero and another only two. These are rare, but it does drive home the point that even though D2s can give scholarship money, there's no guarantee the 7th or 8th rated recruit in their class is going to get much, if any, athletic scholarship money.
Now, if a school had the nine full scholarships and used them exclusively for their functional roster members, dividing the money equally among the 18 players, each player would essentially receive half of the school's full ride. If that same money was distributed among all 30 players in the average program, that award per player drops to 30%.
Again, this assumes nine full scholarships, which is less common than something in the five to seven range. D2 programs have to use their athletic money wisely, often making the school more affordable for impact players.
In addition to a player's talent level, they also have to factor in the player's financial budget. If you are a player who can easily afford the cost of attending School X, the fact that you will not require the valuable, limited athletic scholarship money can work in your favor. If you're a quality player who can contribute to the team without draining the program's resources, that can certainly work in your favor. Don't understand that as saying you can buy a roster spot. But, if between equal talents one player does not need athletic scholarship money where is the other does, it's easier for the coaching staff to offer a preferred walk-on spot rather than parting with their limited budget.
Based on some of the responses I received from the NCAA Division 1 data analysis, the numbers caught many by surprise. The D2 analysis will surely do the same.
One thing to remember is that college soccer is fully a performance environment. A coach's livelihood depends on his ability to win games and run a clean program. Yes, coaches want to develop their players, helping them improve their ability and contributions to the team while possibly positioning them to remain in the game at the professional level, this is such a rarity it should not be the goal. Rather, coaches and players are much better suited if they remain laser-focused on the process rather than on an objective that's entirely out of their control.
Another consideration is that, since this is a performance environment, coaches' jobs are on the line. We all know of a coach who has lost their livelihood because they strung together too many losing seasons. We've all seen coaches move on to bigger and better programs, effectively earning a promotion, because of the success their programs have sustained. Coaches will and must look for any edge they can find, and that extends to the recruitment process.
Ideally, players who come in with a spot on the developmental squad will eventually fight their way into the first team. I have that same wish for my own developmental roster players. Though I can't promise that they'll graduate into those impact roles if they stick around, what I can do is give them every resource possible to help them climb the ladder and earn their first-team minutes.
The collegiate game is competitive. Every player has to know where they stand and that they're not entitled to minutes simply because they stuck around for 4 years. They have to show that they can offer more at the position than any of their teammates. They must show that they are worthy of the minutes and effectively bench their teammates through the quality of their play (this sounds cynical, but it's highlighting natural competition for playing time). Plus, they have to make sure their talent and the way they play the game fits with the team style of play and the coach's needs at the position.
Minutes are earned. Roster spots are earned. Earning your way onto a college roster, be at D1, D3, or JuCo is a tremendous accomplishment. But, once a player gets there, that's when the competition really begins.
And that competition, it's good for everyone. It will help the individual reach new heights. If my backup defensive center midfielder is pushing for minutes, I can guarantee you he's pushing the starter to up his game. When the whole team adopts that mindset, the whole team benefits. You'll often find these teams punching above their weight on a consistent basis, and, ultimately, that's good for the coach and the university. It secures a coach's job, makes player recruitment easier (because everyone wants to be part of a winning program), and delivers more students to the university.
And that brings us back to the recruitment process...it is highly competitive. If you want to earn one of those precious few roster spots, make the team better. If that isn't something you can offer to School X, you have two options: 1) go to the school anyway and try and fight your way into the starting lineup, though with no guarantees that you'll even earn a minute, or 2) find a program or level of play where you can not only earn a roster spot, but make an impact right away, earning valuable developmental minutes. If you take that second route, you may position yourself to move up a division or two within a couple of years or you might just find that you enjoy where you are. You might find that you found the right fit, which is the ultimate goal. So few players at the collegiate ranks make it professionally.
If there's one thing to take away from this series, it's to find the right fit. That's a combination of the soccer program, academics, location, social life, finances, and a number of other considerations. If you need some guidance, there are a number of recruiting agencies that can help you identify what the right fit looks like for you. Be prepared to ask difficult questions to ensure you're working with a quality company. If you need recommendations, I'm happy to help. Many youth clubs also offer comprehensive college recruitment programs that stay up to date with trends. Do you have a neighbor who recently went through the process or played collegiately? That’s a fantastic resource. In The Soccer Parenting Handbook, we've dedicated an entire chapter to the College recruitment process and consulted collegiate coaches. You have options. Don’t fly blindly; resources are available if you’re willing to search them out.
This series is not done, it will likely be a few weeks before the D3 article is finished. If you've missed the NCAA Division 1 men's soccer data analysis, you can find it here. In the meantime, be sure to sign up for The Sweeper-Keeper Newsletter at the bottom of the page and follow me on Twitter. As I write additional articles in this series, which includes D3, NAIA, and NJCAA, and articles on the women's game, I'll always send a link through the newsletter.
In the meantime, I hope these first articles have offered educational content on the collegiate game, particularly how competitive it really is, not only to earn a roster spot but to play as well. One of the beauties of collegiate soccer, as I discovered on that spring day in 2016, is that there's very little difference between the top D1s and D2s. You'll certainly find more elite D1 teams than D2s, but as you do your research and watch the top teams in each division, you're going to find that the level of play is very high across the board. Try as you might, there are so many variables leading to success that there's no clear path to the top.
It's a lesson Pfeiffer vs Clemson taught me back in 2016 and one that's consistently reinforced now that I'm full-time in the collegiate game.