Winning aside, the men’s soccer team is here to compete

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The BYU men’s soccer team has had better seasons. It has scored more goals and beat opponents more handily.

“My freshman year (2002), we would win games easily 10-0, and people would love it,” assistant coach Brandon Gilliam said.

Historically, BYU has had a very prolific club team and even won seven national championships from 1993 to 2001, dominating the Collegiate Club Soccer Championships. In addition to winning, the men’s soccer team would draw thousands of fans to each game. This seemingly effortless success led the Cougars to think about different options to improve the team.

Garrett Gee fights for the ball during Friday night's game at South Field.
Garrett Gee fights for the ball during a men’s soccer game at South Field.

In 2003, BYU worked with the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and the Premier Development League (PDL) to become the first university to purchase a soccer franchise and compete in a professional league. The PDL is the fourth tier of the American Soccer Pyramid and is drastically more competitive than the Collegiate Club Championships.

“Now we play teams that are so far beyond what we were playing against,” Gilliam remarked. “It’s a battle every single game.”

Subsequently, the increased level of competition has made it difficult for the Cougars to win.

“Each PDL club is like an all-star team,” said Ryan Brooks, PDL senior director. “They take great players from all over.”

In contrast, BYU is limited in its recruiting reach; the Cougars only recruit players from the student body. The difference, however, has not prevented the Cougars from competing at a high level and having good seasons in the PDL.

“When BYU plays the other clubs in the PDL, there is no thought of ‘easy win,'” Brooks said. “(BYU) competes well.”

The first few years in the PDL were an adjustment for the Cougars, and they struggled for winning records. After several experience and confidence-building seasons, they were able to make playoff runs in both the 2006 and 2007 seasons, even capturing the division championship in 2007.

The Cougars were then realigned to the Southwest division, in which they currently play. The Southwest division has traditionally been dominated by the Fresno, Orange County and Southern California clubs. BYU had a tough time overcoming the “big three” and has finished fourth in the division multiple times.

With the increase in competition came a decrease in student support for the Cougars; the thousands of fans and students the Cougars used to draw when dominating the collegiate circuit, according to the PDL website, dropped to below 600 fans per game within the first few seasons of PDL play. That number has slowly grown each season since then but is still well below the average of even the women’s team.

South Field is home to the BYU men's and women's soccer clubs, both of which draw drastically different crowds.
South Field is home to the BYU men’s and women’s soccer clubs, both of which draw drastically different crowds.

“It’s a funny situation, because people love winning more than they love competition,” Gilliam said. “It’s tough for those who don’t know what the PDL is to get on board.

“Our games are so much more exciting, even though they’re not 10-0,” Gilliam added. “Our players deserve so much more (support).”

BYU students and fans are more than capable of supporting the Cougars when they are having a successful season. The Marriott Center sold out for every game during Jimmer Fredette’s senior season in 2011. The BYU women’s soccer team set an attendance record of 4,922 during its win against no. 6 Penn State just last year. In its 2012 National Championship match, the BYU rugby team drew a crowd of 8,000-plus at Rio Tinto Stadium against Arkansas State, a number unheard of for a rugby match.

Jonathan Junca and Tanner Whitworth  celebrate in a game against University of Utah. (Photo by Sarah Hill)
Jonathan Junca and Tanner Whitworth celebrate in a game against University of Utah. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

“If we could get the student body to understand the competition level that we are at, it would support more of a winning style,” Gilliam stressed. “When you have 3,000 people at a game, you step up your game. When you have 500 there and your stadium seats 2,500, it’s more difficult. It’s all internal, and there is nothing external coming to you.”

Regardless of the amount of student support, the coaches and players know that the things they are learning in the PDL are worth it. None of them would trade the level of competition found in a professional league.

“Would I switch? I don’t think so,” junior midfielder Colby Bauer said. “I’ve thought of that so many times, but seeing the benefits that we have now, it’s just a different level of play.”

“These players came to play soccer, not to have fans,” Gilliam said. “It’s fun to have fans, but they came to play soccer and be the best soccer players they can be. They can’t do that at the collegiate club level.”

Individual growth and improvement have been the traditions of BYU sports since the university was founded in 1875. Winning is always a plus, but becoming the best athletes and people is what the men’s soccer program has set its sights on; and those involved wouldn’t change that for all the collegiate national championships in the world.

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