About 5,482 miles northeast of Fayetteville is Moscow, the capital of Russia and home to the 2018 FIFA World Cup this past summer. More than 16.5 million people in the U.S. watched as France lifted their second world championship July 15, according to World Soccer Talk. In eight years, the U.S. will have the pleasure of hosting another World Cup, its first since 1994, along with Mexico and Canada. But today, the lack of men’s soccer in prominent athletic conferences like the Southeastern Conference is enough to confuse most fans of the sport.
The UofA does not have a competitive men’s soccer program--only a club team backed by University Recreation. This is the case in almost all SEC schools. Only two universities, Kentucky and South Carolina, have competitive men’s soccer programs who compete in Conference USA. On the contrary, all 14 SEC colleges have women’s soccer teams that compete at the highest level.
The big explanation for why competitive men’s soccer is so nonexistent down South comes down to Title IX regulations.
Title IX states that no person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity.
The goal is to keep numbers even between male and female sports in terms of scholarships and financial commitment. Title IX factors in because football doesn't have an equivalent on the women's side in terms of participation and financial numbers, meaning some universities choose to not include or cut several men’s sports. To add men's soccer, the UofA would have four options: add a women's sport, replace an existing men’s sport with soccer, significantly increase the financial commitment to an existing women's sport, or reduce the money spent on football. Good luck on that last option.
Kentucky got around the Title IX regulations by having 22 varsity sports, the most of any SEC school, said Tony Neely, associate athletic director at UK. The Wildcats added men’s and women’s soccer in the early 1990s, followed by softball in 1997, so by adding two women’s sports, the school was doing fine with Title IX, Neely said.
“I would say that Title IX in a broad context has overall been positive,” said Donald Beeler, Springdale High School soccer coach. “It’s just an unintended consequence. In some cases, it can hold back the growth of some of these fringe sports like soccer.”
While the Title IX regulations help high school girls playing soccer all over the country, unfortunate circumstances like this negatively affect the hundreds of male youth soccer players in Northwest Arkansas.
“The number of scholarship opportunities for male soccer players is very small,” Beeler said. “Football takes up so many scholarships at many universities so it definitely has limited those opportunities for male players in other sports. Even the kids that are getting scholarship offers, a lot of the time, are not [getting] full offers.”
Beeler coached the Bulldogs to a 19-2-1 overall record last season and to a national ranking of No. 25 in the country, according to MaxPreps. Beeler has seen many talented players over the years in Northwest Arkansas, but almost all of them end up going to small colleges, he said.
One of those players is Jason Mendoza, a freshman at Crowder Community College located in Neosho, Missouri. Mendoza was a standout soccer player in high school last year, making the Arkansas Class 7A All-State team and winning the 7A soccer state championship with Northside High School in Fort Smith.
“This impacts many players around this area. Most of us have to travel out of state to play college ball,” Mendoza said about the lack of men’s soccer at the UofA.
Mendoza was all set to enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, a college that also does not have men’s soccer, but a persistent Crowder coaching staff made Mendoza take his chances and move north, he said.
When asked if Mendoza would have considered playing for an SEC school if available, his response was a resounding, “Yes, without a doubt. If it were an option, I would’ve taken the opportunity.”
No other schools offer Division I men’s soccer in the state of Arkansas, either. Central Arkansas is Division II, and that leaves players with smaller options such as National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools (NAIA) or going the junior college route like Mendoza.
The choices are slim if an Arkansas high school player wants to play top-level soccer, but for Mendoza, these rosters are filled with unnoticed talent, he said.
“In my opinion many NAIA or JUCO schools have even more talented players than a Division I or Division II school,” Mendoza said. “There are a majority of guys from Northwest Arkansas, or Arkansas in general that are good enough but don’t have someone to reach out to them.”
Another reason that could be argued for why men’s soccer is not available in Fayetteville is a lack of support.
On Oct. 8, 2017, a crowd of just more than 1,000 people were in attendance to witness the Kentucky men’s soccer team beat South Carolina 1-0 in Lexington in a Conference USA matchup. But when the two schools met in football earlier that season, the attendance was more than 82,000. Baseball, which has stadiums with smaller capacities on average, still had an average attendance of more than 3,000 in the three-game series between the two schools last season.
Attendance might be low in Kentucky or South Carolina, but Razorback fans have thrown their support to the women’s soccer program time and time again. The women’s soccer team has seen their own attendance record get higher in each of the last four seasons, the last time being on Aug. 25, 2017, when more than 3,400 fans piled in to the 1,500-capacity Razorback Field to watch the team lose 1-0 to then-No. 1 Penn State.
It seems unlikely that anything will change in the next few years regarding men’s soccer, but if you look close enough, the talent and support is showing itself in Northwest Arkansas. For some like Mendoza or Beeler, having men’s soccer at the UofA and in the SEC would mean a lot to them, or as the slogan goes, it just means more.