The recruiting process is daunting. Every year, prospective student-athletes across the country painstakingly deliberate over it with their families. The reality is that a prospective college athlete will prioritize an institution where they are being recruited, which means they are willing to take risks on a school as long as it means they can play their sport. Anecdotally, I regularly hear about players who end up quitting the program, transferring, or being completely miserable during their college soccer experience. It seems there are a lot of mistakes that can be made during the recruiting process, but how can athletes and families avoid them if they don’t know what they are?
I caught up with former and current college soccer players about just that. Specifically, I wanted to learn what they would do differently if they could go back and do it all over again. Their reflections serve as an incredibly useful playbook for any prospective college athlete.
The Broken-Leg Test
This is probably the most well-known advice from former college players: pick a school where you will be happy even if your career ends from a broken leg or a similar injury. This is trickier than most would think. Nobody expects their career to end, so when choosing an institution, realistically imagining that possibility isn’t second nature for a teenager. Athletes in general are notoriously poor in assessing risk; however, the exercise itself is important. Personally, I know players whose soccer careers were cut short because of injury - more than a few sadly. Those players I spoke with agreed that it is crucial when starting the process to figure out which schools you would be happy with if playing your sport was not an option.
The Coaching Staff
Grayson Burdon (Occidental, 2017) emphasizes that players should do their research on coaching staff, and at their longevity in particular. For example, is there a revolving door of assistant coaches at the program? This is an important point most prospective players will not consider. Even if the head coach remains the same, constant transition from his or her staff can be difficult to deal with as a player and can throw a program into turmoil.
Similarly, an understanding of how the coaching staff evaluates you is crucial, according to Yacov Zohn (Nazareth, 2015). Evaluating their interest in you is not always easy, but you have to pay attention to it. One coach might view you as a bench player, another might be planning to build a team around you. Try to figure out where you stand on that before committing to a program. Most players would agree that fit goes beyond just the program - you have to feel a fit with the entire coaching staff.
It's common practice for recruited athletes to visit a school and watch a game, during which they get a chance to interact with members of the team. Burdon mentions that prospective athletes should talk to the seniors on the team specifically. The younger players may not be as familiar with the program and the coaching staff, and in some cases may have an agenda when they speak to recruited athletes. Seniors have been in the program the longest and should know the most about the state of the program, team culture, and the coaching staff. Additionally, they are on their way out, so they rarely hold their punches when speaking critically about the program.
Isaac McGinnis (University of Pennsylvania, 2023) adds that you should have relevant questions prepared that speak to what you want from a soccer program. He warns that committing blindly is incredibly risky, and the player should always try to collect as much information as possible about how the program fits with their unique needs.
Interestingly, the majority of the players I interviewed mentioned the playing style of the team being something they wished they paid more attention to when making a final decision. This matters less during the beginning of the recruiting process, but when choosing between final programs it becomes critical.
Jameson Railey (Bucknell, 2023) spoke of the importance of watching the team multiple times and paying close attention to how the team plays. Just because a team plays at the Division I level does not necessarily mean you will be happy playing there. Are they a team that plays diagonals and tries to pick up second ball to advance up the field, or a team that prefers to build out of the back and possess the ball? Do the wingers cross at every opportunity, or dribble and isolate 1v1s? Do they high-press on defense, or sit back and park the bus in front of the goal? Choose a team where you know you will be appreciated for your talents, and where your style of play fits best!
Players often think the recruiting process is over when they get their first offer. It's tempting to get caught up in the excitement of an offer, but be patient, advises Roee Maor (Fordham, 2024). He recommends after your first offer to continue pushing for the next offer, and then evaluate at least two options. Other players stressed the importance of this well: coaches might try to rush you into a decision, but it's an enormous commitment to make. You are entitled to ask for more time and then leverage that initial offer to get the next offer.
Myth: Recruited Means I'll Play
Daniel Thornton (Ohio Wesleyan, 2015) highlighted what I believe to be one of the most common misconceptions in the recruiting process. Just because you are recruited does not mean you will play. This manifests in a number of ways and is something that every prospective college player should consider before making a decision on a school. Collect as much information to figure out where you land on that team's depth chart.
To begin, some schools cut recruits. It's not common, but it happens. A player will be recruited by a coach, commit to a school, and then show up for pre-season tryouts they didn’t know were happening. I know of recruited players, not walk-ons, cut during pre-season before their first semester of freshman year even started. Furthermore, even if you're guaranteed a roster spot freshman year, that safety net dissolves quickly. Every spring and fall a coach is entitled to drop a player that he believes does not meet the standards of the team. I have also seen players active in a program for three years and then cut in their senior year.
Additionally, some schools have a "junior varsity" team, or a B team. This means that they have around 40 players on their roster, and only 18 can travel to away games. As such, they divide the team into a reserve team and a first team. The two teams train separately, have different coaches, and the reserve team plays outside of the competitive intercollegiate system.
Finally, almost every freshman player arrives to pre-season after being a big fish in a little pond. Most likely they were one of the stars of their high school team and started for their club teams. That's how they get recruited to the college level in the first place. I spoke with coaches about this and they said it is one of the hardest aspects for players when adjusting to college soccer. Coaches recruit squad players knowing that they will likely never see the field during their four-year tenure. They can't afford to recruit only a starting 11 plus a couple other subs. All of a sudden, players transition from being the main man on their teams to a bench-warmer. Every former player will tell you: playing college soccer is a whole lot more fun when you're actually playing. It can be incredibly difficult for a player to handle that disappointment.
It's important to know the information mentioned above because it shows just how much there is to consider in the recruiting process. However, college recruiting does not necessarily have to be a messy, complicated, journey. For all the disaster stories out there, there's just as many stories of players finding great fits where they thrived during their collegiate career. The best strategy of a prospective player is to take ownership of the process, seek out information proactively, and ask for help when needed!