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Crash course to NCAA soccer

(photo courtesy Stanford Athletics)

So, you want to get into college soccer, but don’t really know where to start? Well, we’re here to help you out. Our NCAA women’s soccer crash course includes the basics, what’s different from professional and international soccer, and how to catch games at home just in time for the 2018 season.

The basics

All in all there are 32 conferences in NCAA Division 1, the top level of collegiate soccer. Out of those 32, the Power Five conferences are the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern Conference (SEC), Pacific 12 (Pac-12), and these include some of the historically best programs in college soccer.

During the regular season, each team plays a combination of non-conference and conference matches. The team with the best conference records are labeled that conference’s regular-season champions.

Most conferences also hold tournaments at the end of the regular season, pitting the teams with the best conference records against one another in a single-elimination tournament. The winner of that tournament is deemed the conference champions. The regular-season champions and the conference champions can be two different teams.

Then there is the NCAA national tournament, in which the top 64 teams in the nation representing each of the 32 conferences compete in a single-elimination tournament. The tournament usually kicks off around the second weekend in November and concludes the first weekend of December.

Dominance defines 2017 NCAA season

The last four teams standing go on to compete in the College Cup, the Final Four of NCAA soccer, and the winner of the College Cup is crowned the national champions. The College Cup is known for being played in Cary, N.C., where it will be returning in 2018 after a few years of traveling to other venues.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) is by far the most prestigious program in all of women’s soccer. Under the guidance of legendary head coach Anson Dorrance, the Tar Heels have won 21 national championships, seven times more than the team with the second most. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest names in women’s soccer have come out of Chapel Hill: Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow, Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn, and Lucy Bronze, among many others.

Only four other teams have won more than one national championship: Notre Dame (3), Portland (2), Stanford (2), and USC (2). Florida, Florida State, George Mason, Penn State, Santa Clara, and UCLA all have one title apiece.

The Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann Trophy is also awarded at the end of the NCAA season to the best collegiate player in the country. Stanford’s Andi Sullivan, now playing professionally with the Washington Spirit and a semi-regular with the U.S. national team, is the most recent winner.

Other notable past winners include Michelle Akers, Morgan Brian (2), Kadeisha Buchanan, Crystal Dunn, Mia Hamm (2), Kristine Lilly, Kelley O’Hara, Cindy Parlow (2), Christen Press, Raquel Rodriguez, Christine Sinclair (2), and Aly Wagner.

What’s different

College soccer is a little different than at the professional and international levels. For starters, the clock counts down from 45 minutes during each half instead of up from zero. The time is also kept on the scoreboard, and the PA counts down the final 10 seconds of each half before a buzzer sounds.

Andi Sullivan, from torn ACL to Hermann winner

If a college match is locked in a draw at the end of regulation, the match goes to extra time—extra time is not reserved just for tournament matches in collegiate play. Each extra time period consists of 10 minutes, and the game ends as soon as either team scores, called the golden goal rule. If neither team has scored within the extra 20 minutes, the game ends in a draw.

Substitution is also different. In professional soccer each team is only allowed three substitutes throughout the duration of the match. Not so in college soccer, where some coaches utilize substitutes much the same way as in hockey. A college coach can make unlimited substitutions in the first half; however, any player who comes out of the game can not re-enter during the first half. In the second half, a coach again has unlimited substitutions, but a player who comes off the field can re-enter once during the second half. The same rules apply to extra time.

How to watch

First off, with so many conferences and teams around the country, many fans most likely have a team within a short driving distance. The best way to take in a collegiate match—or really a soccer match at any level—is to go to a game. Ticket prices for college matches tend to be much lower than at higher levels, and some teams even have free admission for regular-season matches.

But, if you can’t always get to a game in person, NCAA soccer has thankfully become more readily accessible to at-home viewers in recent years, much the same way as women’s soccer in general has. Many cable and satellite-TV providers already included sports packages including ESPN, which may also come with access to a local conference’s network. If you have cable or satellite TV, check your program guide to see if you get any of these channels. If not, they can usually be added for an additional cost.

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If you’re a cord cutter and rely on streaming services for most of your entertainment, many of these networks can be gotten for little to no extra cost, especially if you already subscribe to streaming services such as Sling or Hulu. Some such services also allow you to add college networks to your current package for $5-10 a month more. The great thing about Sling and Hulu is that you can cancel those extras at the end of season with much less hassle than with a cable or satellite provider.

ESPN+ is also only $5 a month and will be televising college soccer for multiple conferences.

If you’re wanting to get into college soccer and don’t really know which conference networks to subscribe to, I recommend the ACC and Pac-12 Networks. Some of the best teams in the country play in those conferences, and it’s easy to catch an exciting match with those teams.

Whether you’re using cable, satellite, or internet streaming, you want to make sure to have access to ESPNU, at least for the end of November to early December so you don’t miss out on the College Cup.

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