After 36 years of coaching soccer, Bob Walkley is beginning to feel more like a doctor than a coach.
The Section 1 soccer schedule has never been as condensed as it is this season, and the longtime coach of the Suffern boys is seeing the ill-effects firsthand.
“I have never had this many injuries,” he said. “And this is a team that is fit. We lift all winter, spring and summer, along with an extensive summer fitness program and soccer played by most of them all year. I, for one, do not feel this type of schedule is productive for any athlete.”
Walkley’s concerns are shared by many of those who coach either boys or girls soccer.
Section 1 elected to push the start of practices back a week this year, from August 15 (when football practices began) to August 22, which has created a ripple effect. A player must have 10 team practices in order to play in an official game, which meant that teams could not begin their regular season until Sept. 2.
On top of that, the end of the regular season has crept up to Oct. 17, which essentially leaves teams with six weeks to squeeze in 16 games. When you take into account Sundays and holidays, when teams rarely play, you’re left with 34 days to play those 16 games.
The result has been less practice time and more games played with limited rest.
“It’s not healthy at all,” said North Rockland girls soccer coach Pete McGovern, who previously coached the boys for 16 years. “We used to go up to the 24th or 25th of October. Now we’re playing until the 17th and there’s no regard for player safety. There’s only so much that the body can take.”
It’s been commonplace this season for teams to play three or four games in a week, and often on back-to-back days.
In some cases, it’s been even more extreme. Last week alone, Rye played on three consecutive days and Somers played four games in five days.
Athletic trainers like Dave Byrnes of Yorktown have taken notice of the toll that the schedule crunch taken on their athletes.
“The biggest challenge, from an athletic training point of view, is managing the injuries that do occur,” Byrnes said. “In other sports, you have more off days or practice days where you can limit activity, give time off to allow for some healing or give more time to rehab the injuries. We can’t realistically limit effort in a game, and when you’re going back-to-back or three, four games in a week, it will result in an athlete missing games.”
Frank Mazzuca, the athletic director at Nanuet and Section 1 coordinator for girls soccer, has heard the complaints with increasing frequency. And he believes that the objections are justified.
“I’ve heard coaches indicate that they feel the timing is not the best, and I agree with them,” he said, adding that the later start to the season, “…was a sectional decision that comes by way of the superintendents. They don’t want, in some cases, the vacations being cut short for the youngsters in their districts. I don’t think it’s healthy.”
If the schedule isn’t expanded to either start earlier or last longer — which many are hoping for next year — some have suggested cutting the regular season down from 16 to 14 games. Others have wondered if it would be possible to shrink the state playoffs from three weeks to two, seeing as the few teams that qualify are only required to play three or four games.
McGovern proposed a 13-game regular season followed by World Cup-style pool play for the playoffs. Four pools of four teams make it in each class, with the winner of each pool moving onto the semifinals.
All of those options sound more appealing than the current system, which has deteriorated the quality of play while cutting down on the time for athletes to recover and coaches to teach. And with high school coaches working hard to keep their best players from fleeing for the U.S. Academy system, the exhausting schedule is yet another obstacle.
“It shouldn’t be more than two games a week, in my opinion. Three at the most,” McGovern said. “If you’re a high-level player who could play Division I (in college) and you see this, you’re going to say, ‘This doesn’t make sense for me.’ ”