As Niche As It Gets: Fixing the D-III Soccer National Tournament

1. As Niche As It Gets_ (770x409p)

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This week we’re taking a massive departure from the heaviness and headiness of the last two weeks. No existential, philosophical questions about meaning and purpose or life and death today. Nope, we’re going to focus on something so specific, so niche, that it’s actually a perfect example of one of the main points I made last week. Life is beautiful in part because a lack of inherent meaning offers us the freedom to choose what we find meaningful.

Fittingly, very few of my readers are likely to care about this topic one bit. But it’s something I find interesting and compelling enough to devote time and energy. How cool is it that life allows us to drill down to an unbelievably precise level for the things that excite us? I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So, what’s this topic?

The selection process for the NCAA Division-III Soccer National Championships.

Like I said, pretty damn niche. So if you’re not interested, no hard feelings! I’ll see you next week. However, when I ran through the verbal highlights of this piece on separate phone calls with my parents and two siblings-in-law, I’ll admit to being surprised at their level of engagement. Maybe you’ll find it interesting, too! With that, let’s dive in.

First, why do I care about this?

I have a ton of affection for D-III soccer. Due to a combination of Impostor Syndrome and miserable injury luck, I couldn’t quite cut it at the Division-I level, spending two unproductive seasons at Marquette University. I strongly considered quitting the sport and staying there, though the pull of the potential for a fulfilling soccer career ultimately ended up winning out. So, I transferred to Carthage College, a program frequently ranked in the Top-25 of Division-III. This school gave me an enjoyable college soccer experience and resurrected my love for the activity I’ve enjoyed most throughout my life. Further, after leaving corporate desk job monotony, coaching D-III soccer offered my first official foray into the strength and conditioning world. I’m equally grateful to it in that regard.

It’s also important to note that many people have the belief that for college sports, D-I equals good, D-II equals decent, and D-III equals bad. First, this is absolutely not the case in any sport, but especially not soccer. Unlike in football or basketball, where if you’re not born a certain size you can’t make it at a high level, soccer isn’t stature-dependent. For the best part of 15 years, the two best players in the world were a 6’3” beast of an athlete built like a Greek god, and a 5’7” dude who was so small as a child he was legally prescribed HGH. Part of the appeal of footy is that you can tailor your game to your strengths and genetic gifts or limitations. This means that unlike in basketball or football, an elite D-III soccer school wouldn’t automatically get dominated by a poor D-I team simply because of a massive size disadvantage.

Next, D-I soccer has far fewer scholarships than roster slots, so many talented kids slip through the cracks to the lower levels. For example, after playing Division-I soccer, I was skilled enough to secure all-conference and all-Wisconsin honors for each of the three seasons I played in Division-III, but I was nowhere close to being an All-American at that level. So, in short, D-III soccer is excellent quality, holds a ton of personal nostalgia, and I love it.

On to The D-III National Soccer Tournament

Like NCAA basketball’s beloved March Madness, D-III soccer holds a 64-team single-elimination tournament to crown its national champion. In both sports’ regular seasons, teams are organized into conferences roughly based on geography, and it’s against these regional rivals that a vast majority of teams play their most important non-playoff games. Upon conclusion of the season, a particular percentage of each conference’s teams will qualify for a postseason tournament. The winner of this conference tournament receives what’s called the “AQ,” or automatic qualification bid for the national tournament.

However, there aren’t enough conferences with AQ bids to fill out the 64-team field, so a rankings and selection committee determines the remaining participants via “at-large” bids. These are given to the schools who were deemed most worthy of participation in the national tournament despite not winning their conference tournament.

One key difference separates D-III soccer from D-I basketball, here. Well, aside from money, prestige, and viewership, of course.

In D-III soccer, there are far fewer at-large bids available than in D-I basketball due to soccer having a greater number of conferences. In 2023, for both men and women’s soccer, 41 conferences qualified for AQ bids, and a handful of schools competed for a single at-large bid reserved for unaffiliated teams or those in non-AQ-eligible conferences.

That left 22 at-large bids up for grabs, with over 350 teams vying for them. For those doing the math at home, that means only about 6.3% of schools who don’t win their conference tournament will receive an at-large bid. So to secure one, you must have a truly excellent season.

This also means that if at-large bids were distributed perfectly equally, roughly half of the conferences would have only a single national tournament representative, and the other half would have two.

But…it’s nothing like that in reality.

What drew my ire enough to write this piece is that one particular conference in Division-III soccer routinely receives special treatment for at-large bids. It’s an eight-team league known as the University Athletic Association, or UAA, and it’s made up of some of the most prestigious and expensive small schools in the country.

  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • University of Chicago
  • Washington University in St. Louis (commonly known as WashU)
  • New York University
  • University of Rochester
  • Brandeis University
  • Emory University
  • Case Western Reserve University

This year, this conference received three of the 22 at-large bids on the men’s side, and no less than six on the women’s side. That means that the UAA sent seven teams to the women’s soccer national tournament, while only three of the 40 other conferences got to send more than two.

Also, 2023 is far from the first year the UAA has topped the “at-large bid” charts. For the past decade, they’ve routinely been allowed to send four or five of their eight teams to the national tournament.

Let’s get this out of the way first…do they deserve it?

Perhaps the UAA receives special treatment because they’re simply better than everyone else, right? If so, maybe it’s fair that they earn so many at-large bids. After all, stronger conferences should send more teams to the national tournament than weaker ones. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for the UAA, that’s simply not the case. To be clear, all of the schools in this conference are genuinely good. That much is certain, and I want to give them credit.

However, in the past thirty years, UAA schools on the men’s side have contributed a single national champion, the University of Chicago in 2022. The same is true on the women’s side–a single champion, with WashU winning the title in 2016. To be fair, UAA schools on the women’s side have had five national runners up in that same time period. But, going 1-5 in the national title game doesn’t exactly bolster the argument that you deserve more slots due to excellence in performance. Plus, something else doesn’t add up.

Not only does the UAA have a statistically greater chance of producing a national champion due to how many teams they send to the tournament, they have an additional advantage. Because their schools are in different geographic regions and the Division-III soccer tournament is organized regionally, UAA teams often end up in different quadrants of the bracket.

This means the chance exists that all four Final Four teams could come from the UAA. But that’s never been the case. It could have happened in 2023’s edition of the tournament, but four of the seven UAA teams didn’t make it past the second round. In fact, only one of the seven made the Final Four.

That is hardly dominance.

As a point of comparison, let’s examine what dominance in college soccer looks like.

In Men’s Division-I soccer, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has long been the ruling power. In both of the two years I was at Marquette, three of the Final Four teams were from the ACC, with only North Carolina making appearances in back-to-back seasons. In fact, in the three year period from 2007 to 2009, ACC teams earned eight of the twelve Final Four slots and won all three national championships. And it was a different school each time. Wake Forest in 2007, Maryland in 2008, and Virginia in 2009. Further, from 2001 to 2022, the ACC won a total of ten national championships, with six different schools taking the crown. Compared to the ACC, the other conferences simply weren’t on the same level.

And it’s not just D-I soccer. In Division-III alone, five individual programs have dramatically outperformed the entire UAA conference. Since the year 2000, the following teams have won at least three national championships:

  • Messiah University Men: 11 titles (!)
  • Messiah University Women: 6 titles
  • Tufts University Men: 4 titles
  • Wheaton College (Illinois) Women: 3 titles
  • Williams College Women: 3 titles

If the UAA showed a similar level of dominance, perhaps they could justify receiving so many at-large bids. But that’s not the case. One national championship apiece in thirty years for the men and women’s programs simply isn’t enough.

So, if UAA schools underperform in the national tournament, why the heck do they keep receiving so many bids?

To answer that, first we need to look at how at-large bids are determined. Three primary criteria are used to figure out which schools are “most-deserving.”

    • Overall winning percentage (pretty obvious and straightforward)
    • Strength of Schedule (a somewhat more convoluted metric that uses a formula combining opponents’ win percentages and opponents’ opponents’ win percentages)
      • Basically, it helps your case to play against stronger schools rather than weaker ones.
      • This is somewhat within your control with regards to scheduling non-conference contests, but totally out of your control for in-conference matches. If your conference has a few weak teams, it hurts your Strength of Schedule.
    • Record vs. Ranked Opponents
      • For the second half of the soccer season, committees in each of the ten NCAA regions use the above criteria (and after the first week of rankings, this one) to determine the top seven schools in each geographical subsection of the country. Securing wins (and even draws) against ranked schools massively boosts your at-large bid resume.


Here’s where the UAA’s advantage starts to tell. They are the only conference in the country whose member teams come from different geographic regions. In the other conferences, with extremely rare exceptions, all schools come from the same region. In the UAA, they come from six different ones.

This means that UAA schools do not compete with direct regional rivals in their conference games, so a loss doesn’t hurt their chances of an at-large bid nearly as much as in other leagues. Further, because all the teams in this conference are generally good, and strength of schedule is partly calculated using opponents’ opponents’ winning percentages, all UAA schools’ strength of schedule scores are artificially raised simply by playing against each other.

Finally, the UAA enjoys one last advantage. They’re the only conference of the 41 eligible for an automatic qualification (AQ) bid that does not hold a conference tournament. This is done for logistical reasons, but it means theirs is the only league where the regular season champion receives the AQ.

How is this an advantage?

Well, unless you win it, participating in a conference tournament hurts your at-large bid resume. All but one school that enters is guaranteed a loss (or a draw if they’re eliminated in a shootout, which still weakens winning percentage). It also forces participants to play against a strong school that is a direct regional rival for a precious at-large bid spot.

Let’s examine an example from this year to see just how much the current system favors the UAA.

Emory University vs. Illinois Institute of Technology

The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) women’s soccer program has had a remarkable turnaround. A perennially average to below average team for most of their 20-year history, 2023 told a totally different story.

The Scarlet Hawks posted a record of 19 wins, 3 losses, and 1 draw. Regionally ranked for much of the year, they won their conference regular season championship with a perfect 13-0 record. Then, they narrowly lost in their conference tournament final, 1-0, to the team that finished second. This meant they missed out on an AQ and would have to wait for an at-large bid. With a strong resume featuring an outstanding win percentage, a decent strength of schedule, and a win and a draw against regionally ranked opposition, they had reason to feel hopeful of selection to the national tournament.

Well, spoiler alert, they didn’t get in.

By contrast, let’s examine a team that did.

Emory University, who finished seventh out of eight teams in the privileged UAA, with a record of 8 wins, 5 losses, and 4 draws. That’s right, a team that didn’t even win half of their games and finished second to last in their conference was deemed more worthy of playing in the national tournament than a regular-season conference champion. All because their schedule was stronger.

And this doesn’t make much sense. Emory’s strength of schedule was only about 10% better than IIT’s, but IIT’s overall winning percentage was 30% better than Emory’s. That should matter. Plus, their winning percentages against ranked teams, the other major selection criterion, were basically identical. 0.300 for IIT and 0.333 for Emory. Cases like these highlight how much the system needs to change.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting anything untoward occurred. I think the regional committees likely followed the selection rules; the criteria are simply flawed. In any other conference, finishing second to last would automatically mean a poor record against teams who were direct regional rivals for an at-large bid. But, because UAA teams only play a maximum of one conference game against in-region opposition, bad results simply don’t hurt as much. How else can you explain selection committees considering a record of 19-3-1 less deserving of national tournament participation than a record of 8-5-4? It doesn’t pass the common sense test.

Luckily, the solution to this issue is a simple one.

Create a rule that says no conference can send more than three teams to the national tournament. Done. This change would also be in perfect alignment with the NCAA’s guidelines on national tournaments for D-III soccer, which states that roughly 1 out of 6.5 teams (15%) should participate. If, in keeping with their status as one of the strongest conferences, the UAA still received three bids after this proposed rule change, that would mean 37.5% of their teams participated in the national tournament. This would be 2.5 times the national average, that 15% figure listed above. That seems to be both a perfectly fair reward for a strong conference and a reasonable limit, as it should not be controversial to propose that if a team finishes in the bottom half of their league table, they probably don’t deserve a bid to the national tournament.

To conclude, I will give credit to the NCAA where it is due, and acknowledge that in the past five years, they’ve made some positive changes to the regional rankings and national tournament processes. They’re not rigidly sticking to an outdated system and refusing to examine what could be done better. This means I can take heart that I’m not the only one who thinks about this issue. Though even if I was, that would still be okay. As I’ve said, the beauty of life lies in its ability to fascinate us in endless ways, from contemplating a grand, overarching meaning, or wondering why the heck one D-III soccer conference receives unwarranted special treatment.

Finally, for those who read all the way to the end, you have my gratitude. Next week, we’ll be back to something like normality, with a deep dive on why nutrition struggles are almost uniquely likely in the United States.

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. What niche topic could you write or talk about for hours? Reply to this email and let me know!


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