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College coaches talk realignment

Article Written by J.R. Eskilson
Published: May 3, 2012

In recent years, UCF, SMU, and Memphis have been at the top of the pile in Conference USA men’s soccer, but that is about to change. 

The three programs will be jumping ship from Conference USA to the Big East for all sports in 2013. 

“The biggest challenge is going to be new opponents,” UCF head coach Bryan Cunningham told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “We are very comfortable in this league. The Big East is going to be a whole new obstacle with new stadiums and different styles of play.”

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Cunningham said that the Knights stuck with their schedule for the 2012 season, and did not add any extra Big East teams to ease into the transition. 

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be the unknown – new opponents, new surroundings, and new environments,” SMU head coach Tim McClements told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “When you are in a conference for as long as we have been in Conference USA, you get used to the rhythm, you know where to stay, the conditions, etc. There is a lot you don’t know about another conference.”

McClements said that his schedule was set far in advance, so there was no opportunity to add any other Big East teams to the docket for this season. 

“I am excited,” McClements added about his reaction to the move. “It is a great opportunity for our team and our school. We are disappointed we are going to be leaving friends – there is camaraderie among coaches in CUSA, but very excited about the Big East.”

While Conference USA is a well-respected league for its soccer programs, it does not have the national appeal of the Big East, which has a strong reputation across the athletic gamut.  

“It is a big jump in profile,” Cunningham said. 

The profiles of the programs may expand with the move, but the competiveness in Conference USA is nothing to scoff at. 

The average RPI, which is the measuring stick for NCAA Tournament seeding, of teams in Conference USA was actually better than the Big East (57.11 compared to 68.53) in 2011. 

However, the two teams at the bottom of the RPI for the Big East (Syracuse and Pittsburgh) will be exiting the conference in 2013 for the ACC, which should make it a powerhouse conference from top to bottom.

In terms of recruiting, Cunningham said there wasn’t much change in his approach to the 2013 class, but he did recognize that more players from the Northeast are interested in UCF now that the Knights play few games per year in that area.

McClements also said that SMU has not changed its approach to recruiting with the conference switch. He does think over time players in new areas may be accustomed to SMU’s style of play and interested in the program.  

The constant movement of college soccer programs to new conferences has been tricky to follow, and equally as difficult to assess for coaches. 

“I think it is too early to tell,” McClements said about what all this movement means for college soccer. “You have to wait till things shake down. There have been a lot of positive moves for college soccer, and schools are putting more emphasis on men’s soccer hiring. Whether [the conference realignment] is good or not, it will be determined.”

Cunningham had similar sentiments about what all this moving and shaking really meant for the future of college soccer. 

“Soccer is moving to more powerful conferences,” Cunningham said. “The quality is going to get better. MAC is stronger with West Virginia’s move; there are teams building up different avenues for college soccer.”

There are still plenty of details to iron out for the Big East move – including which bracket the teams will join in 2013. 

“We don’t know what the Big East schedule is going to be with the divisions, or at least I don’t have a copy of that,” McClements said with a chuckle. 

 
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