Upon graduating from Jordan High, Clay Christenson had a resume rivaling any soccer player in Utah. Christenson earned 5A MVP honors in 2002 while leading the Beetdiggers to a state title. He also earned all-state selections three consecutive years and helped lead his club team, the Utah Rangers, to five state championships.
But options for Christenson were limited when it came to continuing competitive soccer in college. Several out-of-state schools he looked at did not offer enough scholarship money to adequately cover tuition and other expenses.
Staying in Utah, on the other hand, meant playing club soccer with no scholarship. The whole situation left Christenson feeling more than a little frustrated.
"To play for 17 years and not be rewarded by getting a scholarship was not in my plans," Christenson said. "You work so hard to earn a scholarship."
Christenson eventually latched onto a club team at BYU before joining the Premier Development League franchise that replaced it. But others have been far less successful in their efforts to continue playing beyond high school.
In a time where soccer is experiencing growth at the youth levels and the professional level with Real Salt Lake, the near total absence of NCAA men's soccer programs in Utah raises new levels of frustration in the sport's fan base.
Dixie State is the only in-state school with a scholarship men's soccer program in any of the three NCAA divisions. The Rebels will play soccer in the PacWest Conference a league which sponsors men's soccer starting in the fall.
Among the remaining schools, Westminster College sponsors a nonscholarship program at the NAIA level. BYU supports a PDL franchise. Utah, Utah Valley, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah all feature student-led club teams.
Title IX laws are usually seen as the instant culprit behind the dearth of collegiate men's soccer teams. Under Title IX, gender equity is mandated in all areas of academics and athletics. It means the numbers of athletic scholarships and sports offered to men must be matched for women.
But while such restrictions have led some schools to offer fewer men's sports in recent years, plenty of other determining factors help decide which nonrevenue sports a school offers.
"To say Title IX is the reason wouldn't be fair to the sports you have," said University of Utah athletic director Chris Hill. "That's one factor, but all factors need to be considered what your league does, what the interest in (the sport) is, what you can afford to do."
One thing hindering the growth of men's soccer at the collegiate level is few conferences sponsor the sport. Several Division I NCAA conferences including the Big 12 and SEC do not offer men's soccer at all. And a majority of schools in others who sponsor it such as the Pac-10 do not have a men's soccer team.
Locally, scheduling and travel would offer challenges to adding the sport. Only four Mountain West schools UNLV, New Mexico, Air Force and San Diego State offer men's soccer. The Big Sky (Sacramento State) and the WAC (San Jose State) each have one member school on the pitch.
Once other economic factors are considered, adding any nonrevenue sport even if it enjoys substantial community support is a tricky proposition.
"It's a lot more expensive to add a sport than people understand," Hill said. "There's the scholarships. There's the salaries and benefits for your coaches. And then there's the travel and equipment and having places to practice and play."
Building a better future for men's soccer at a collegiate level may lie in finding alternative models for competition. BYU has thrived since moving from the club soccer ranks to the PDL. Cougars head coach Chris Watkins said the team looked for new ways to challenge itself after dominating the club scene for the better part of a decade and decided a move to the semi-pro PDL was the answer.
"We wanted to be able to challenge ourselves as best we could," Watkins said. "Becoming an NCAA team really isn't under our control."
BYU has enjoyed support from the fans and the school administration throughout its foray into the PDL. The Cougars are also drawing more in-state and out-of-state talent than ever before chiefly because they offer something more than the typical club experience.
That was a major selling point for Mike Moreno when he weighed going from Mountain View to Provo against going to college in California or elsewhere. At BYU, he said it feels like he and his teammates are playing with a purpose.
"It makes you want to play well," Moreno said. "It makes everyone want to win and just gives that drive that I don't think just a club can give. The PDL is just a higher level."
Moving to a higher level has also sparked a surge of interest in Dixie State's men's soccer program even before its inaugural NCAA season. The Rebels have drawn players from Hawaii to Illinois in addition to several Utah kids looking for the opportunity to earn a scholarship or even walk-on with a full-fledged college team.
Dixie State men's soccer coach Danny Ortiz said the positive response in the community has been overwhelming. Having a team feels like a natural step, Ortiz said, as participation in soccer continues to surge in the youth ranks.
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