Friday, September 25, 2009

Where Did All the Freshmen Go?

At some point in their soccer careers, many American youth players dream of playing beyond their high school days and joining a collegiate side. For some this becomes a reality. Each spring those high school seniors sign their National Letter of Intent, solidifying a commitment to a college program. Once the fall arrives, these new freshmen take the field and the next step in their playing carriers. However, in many cases, large numbers of newcomers appearing on college rosters are matched with relatively small numbers of veteran players. In fact, it’s not uncommon for programs to have only a handful of graduating seniors. The discrepancy between freshman and senior classes begs the question, “Where did all the freshmen go?”

To gain some insight into this question, the rosters of the nine ACC men’s soccer programs were analyzed. This conference was chosen because it is arguably the strongest college conference in the US. Nearly all of the ACC programs have appeared in at least one College Cup (the NCAA Final Four) and six of the nine programs have won national championships. The analysis focused on the rosters from 2004 to 2009 seasons. The numbers of players in each class were tallied as was the number of years each player appeared on their program’s roster. Players were classified as first year (freshman), second year (sophomore), third year (junior), fourth year (senior) or fifth year. Red shirt players were classified with their original class. That is, a red shirt junior was classified as a senior. Red shirt seniors were classified as fifth year players.

For all rosters combined, the number of players in each class decreased as they aged. As expected, freshmen occupied the largest percentage of players, 30%. Sophomores accounted for 26%, juniors 23% and seniors 21%. Fifth year players accounted for les than 2%.

The main objective of this analysis was to track the ’04, ’05 and ’06 freshman classes over their four years of eligibility to determine how many played for a full four years. These groups of players should appear as seniors on the ’07, ’08 and ’09 rosters. The results were interesting. For those three classes of athletes, less than half, 47% were rostered all four years. Nearly 25% of them were rostered for there freshman year only. Overall the average number of years played by these freshmen at their original institution was less than three.

There was quite a bit of variability between individual programs. One program retained 100% of its freshman players for their four years of eligibility. On the other end of the spectrum, two programs had four year retention rates of less than 30%.

As for the seniors on the ’07, ’08 and ’09 rosters, 61% were from each school’s original freshmen class. For a typical roster of 25 players, only 3-4 began their senior season with a full three years of playing experience in their program. The remaining 39% of the seniors on the roster entered the program after their freshman year with less than four years of eligibility. Those “transfer” players averaged slightly less than two years of playing experience with their new team.

What about women’s programs? For the nine ACC schools that play both men’s and women’s soccer, more than 80% of the freshmen play a full four years. Also, 94% of the seniors listed on the rosters began their careers at the same institution.

Does this occur in other levels of collegiate play? A quick check of team rosters from other conferences and some Division III programs suggests that the answer is yes. While the exact percentages vary, it is clear that a large number of players start out as freshman but do not complete their four years of eligibility.

Why does this happen? Unfortunately these numbers don’t really answer the original question, where did the freshmen go? The loss of players from an original freshman class is probably a combination of factors. Some such as Charlie Davies and Patrick Nyarko choose to forgo their remaining years of eligibility and pursue professional careers in the US or Europe. For some, this may happen after their freshman year. Other players may transfer to other programs for both athletic and academic reasons. Still others may suffer career-ending injuries or simply decide to give up playing and focus on their academic pursuits. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that many freshman players either end their careers or move on to other opportunities before they eligibility is exhausted.

The bottom line, there is considerable turnover in the rosters of men’s college programs. For the ACC, more than half of the freshman players leave their program before they exhaust their eligibility and some are replaced by others entering the program after their freshman year. If the results are projected forward, one can expect that a large percentage of high school players who sign a National Letter of Intent will not complete their four years of eligibility at that institution. Some will end their college careers early and others will finish playing with another program.