The soccer associations require a variety of proficiency levels. Please see below for a comprehensive overview.
There are more than 3,000 colleges in the USA, with a range of different proficiency levels (both athletic and academic) and fees. Please read on for an explanation of the respective divisions, what they mean and what options they offer you.
The American college system is very different from those found in European countries. College sports are a massive business in the States, with coaches whose annual budgets for scholarships run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The scholarships themselves vary, from simple payment of tuition fees all the way to a so-called “full ride scholarship” covering tuition, accommodation, board and even books and teaching materials.
Colleges are subdivided into a series of sectors and divisions for the relevant sports:
NCAA, Divisions 1 and 2 (major public universities)
NCAA Division 3 (mostly small colleges)
NAIA (mostly private colleges)
NJCAA (junior/community colleges)
The top NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] teams play in front of at least 1,500 fans at home fixtures. Remarkably, the attendance record is 22,000.
Colleges and universities aim to put together the best possible sports teams – not just because of the additional income they generate but also because in marketing terms, they’re a great way of attracting future students.
The most talented players – including the majority of those who will go on to make the leap to professional status – are generally to be found in NCAA Division 1. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the standard of soccer playing in other divisions is going to be lower, or that these divisions don’t offer any opportunities for turning pro.
The majority of non-American players will initially find themselves in NCAA Division 2 or in the NAIA, where there are fewer provisions and rules governing foreign players (i.e. as regards the actual amount of the scholarship). The NJCAA is the association dealing with junior and community colleges: two-year schools from which students can go on to transfer to the “bigger” four-year universities. This is particularly advantageous for players who have not, to date, been front-runners academically.
NCAA Division 1
When people picture college sports, this is the level that comes to mind. Unfortunately, it is often forgotten how difficult it is to get into Division 1. To begin with, there are a large amount of rules to be observed, such as those governing how many foreign students a team may have. Likewise, the demands placed on students are considerable, not just in sporting terms but also academically. In other words: players who are able to transfer straight from Europe into D1 will generally be those coming from youth training centers associated with the Bundesliga, the Premier League and the like.
But even if you don’t get into D1 right away, you certainly shouldn’t abandon hope. Plenty of students start off in the NJCAA or NAIA or in NCAA Division 2. If they go on to perform well on the field and in class, it is not unusual for them to transfer to D1 schools later on. In short, how far you take it is very much up to you.
NCAA Division 2
This is probably the most popular division for student athletes from outside America, since the teams are allowed to include more foreign players and the academic requirements are slightly more relaxed than in Division 1.
NCAA Division 2 schools are generally smaller than those in NCAA Division 1, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In larger colleges your team probably won’t be so popular, because it’ll be up against basketball and American football teams whose games are broadcast worldwide on ESPN. This is not to say, of course, that soccer teams in these larger colleges don’t have their fair share of supporters too. But in Division 2, a soccer team will often be the best its respective school has to offer, and therefore the best-known – making you a big fish in a small pond.
In fact, you’ll find some D2 teams are actually better at soccer than some D1 teams. Which is why, every spring, you’ll often see D2 teams going up against their D1 counterparts in friendly matches.
If you’re aiming to turn pro, NCAA Division 2 remains a major platform for attracting attention. Plenty of players get drafted from D2 every year. Equally, if your performance merits it, D1 colleges will be quick to notice you too. Coaches from the major colleges don’t normally hand out full ride scholarships to students from outside the USA right away, because it’s not usually possible to consider them for the first eleven at that point. They’re more likely to increase your playing time gradually, raising your scholarship accordingly at the same time. So accepting a more generous scholarship at a D2 college, then transferring to a D1 college at a later date, is an option well worth considering.
As regards college sizes and soccer playing standards, the NAIA is on a comparable level with NCAA Division 2. You will often find many foreign players in NAIA teams. This is because the provisions and regulations are relatively few in comparison to other divisions.
For those aiming to become professionals, the NAIA is also comparable with NCAA D2. Many players are drafted from the NAIA into the MLS or the USL (the country’s two top soccer leagues) every year.
Courses at NJCAA schools only last 2 years. Why go there, then? Simply in order to transfer later to a 4-year institute (NCAA, NAIA). Soccer playing standards are comparable to those found in the NAIA and in NCAA Division 2.
This is an excellent alternative for players who are in search of larger scholarships and/or whose academic performance to date has not yet reached the levels required for NCAA or NAIA schools. It’s a great opportunity to draw attention to yourself and your talent. Coaches from NCAA D1 and D2 and from NAIA schools often prefer players from NJCAA schools to those coming from outside the United States because this way, they can be sure they’re getting players who are able to handle college sports and meet the academic requirements. Offering someone a generous scholarship becomes less of a high-risk strategy for coaches if the player in question has already demonstrated an ability to cope with the American system.