American Athletic Conference men’s preview

American Athletic Conference men’s preview
by Will Parchman
August 20, 2013

The continually shifting landscape in the college conference wars hit perhaps no group harder than this one. The American Athletic Conference may be new in name, but there is plenty of known quantities here. While the "Catholic Seven" split off to form its own conference and took the naming rights to the Big East, the remaining schools kept the Big East's original charter and simply renamed their league.

Thus the American Athletic was born.

So there is some familiarity here. Big East schools Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Rutgers and South Florida grafted on former Conference USA programs SMU, Central Florida(m) and Memphis as well as former Atlantic 10 outfit Temple for what should be a competitive nine-team league. SMU in particular was a huge get for the conference, and the prestigious program's existing C-USA rivalries with UCF and Memphis assure the new guys on the block aren't totally out in the cold in the league's first rebranded year.

Louisville (14-6-1/7-1-0)

The Cardinals were the class of the Big East last year and lifted the Red Division crown for the third time. With the amount of talent coach Ken Lolla had to play with, it isn't hard to see why. The Cardinals put three players in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft after a 14-win year that finished in the Elite Eight: midfielder Paolo DelPiccolo (27th overall, Montreal Impact), midfielder Greg Cochrane (38th overall, LA Galaxy) and of course Andrew Farrell, the stout defender who went No. 1 overall to the New England Revolution.

The challenge now becomes finding their replacements. Lolla did it when eventual MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry left for MLS two seasons ago, and he'll have to do it again this season. An 11th-ranked recruiting class will help. Signing the DeGraffenreidt brothers was a coup, led by Michael, the reigning Maryland Soccer Player of the Year. As a defender, he could be needed sooner rather than later with Farrell in the pro ranks. A raft of transfers, including former U.S. U18 midfielder Mitch Lurie from Portland, will help fill in the gaps.

The returning cupboard is anything but bare despite the loss of Dylan Mares, who transferred to Indiana. The versatile Will Vitalis is among the returners, after leading the squad with seven assists a year ago and can slot it at either forward or midfield. His experience will be key after the Cardinals lost a pair of uber-talented midfielders to MLS in the offseason.

Registering high on the breakout watch list is sophomore midfielder Marlon Hairston. The athletic middleman scored three goals and had three assists during his freshman year, and he earned a call-up to Tab Ramos' 24-man U20 training camp in April just before the U20 World Cup. After earning 18 starts his first season at Louisville, his influence only figures to increase in year two. 

Connecticut (17-4-1/6-2-0)

It's usually a safe bet that the Huskies are reloading instead of rebuilding, and after a 17-win season it looks like that'll be the case again in 2013. UConn loses eight seniors, including talismanic midfielder Carlos Alvarez, who went No. 2 overall to Chivas USA in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. Though the defense was probably hardest hit. Sean Weir, Max Wasserman, Jossimar Sanchez and Flo Liu have all moved all after helping the Huskies record 12 shutouts in 22 games in a run to the NCAA Elite Eight last season.

But the pieces coming back are plenty fierce, and UConn appears set to bag some goals in 2013. That starts with senior Mamadou Doudou Diouf, who scored 15 goals in 21 matches last year, a total that more than doubled anyone else on the roster. Forward Allando Matheson looks set for a breakout junior year as well after hitting for seven goals in 19 games despite just three starts.

The midfield will have to find a way to replace Alvarez's production, which is anything but an easy task. That could put more on the shoulders of workhorse Colin Bradley, a stout defensive midfielder who played nearly 2,000 minutes last year and was a valuable leader.

While the defense will have to shift some pieces, the return of Jamaican international Andre Blake at keeper will be an invaluable resource at the back. Blake has been the Big East keeper of the year every year he's been in college, and he's already more or less cemented his status as the best college keeper in the nation. His theatrics alone should be good for a shutout or two, and his presence assures that the Huskies will be one of the safest shutout bets in the country this year.

Cincinnati (6-9-4/3-3-2)

The Bearcats had a solid start to the 2012 season until the wheels flew off down the stretch. Over the final eight games of the season, Cincinnati went 1-5-2 and couldn't muster much offense as they got into the teeth of Big East play. They scored a paltry 12 goals in 19 games, and only once all season did the Bearcats score more than once in a game. All six of Cincinnati's wins were by a 1-0 scoreline.

Needless to say, Cincinnati will have to figure out a way to score more goals in 2013 if it expects to up its win tally this season. Only seven players scored for the Bearcats last season, and four of them graduated. That leaves leading scorer Cole DeNormandie's three goals and four assists as the team's top returning totals. Sophomore forward John Manga will likely see an expanded role, as will Jamaican sophomore defender Richardo Israel. He was the defensive anchor as a freshman and made the Big East All-Rookie Team. 

Rutgers (7-7-1/3-4-1)

This season marks the 75th anniversary of the Rutgers men's soccer program, and the Scarlet Knights hope they have the juice to improve upon an up-and-down seven-win year last season. Based on personnel, the odds there are good. They return a whopping eight starters and a further 13 letterwinners from last year's squad. After an adjustment period last season, the experience level at play this season should be in the league's upper echelon.

The further good news is that the majority of Rutgers' attack is back. Led by striker Kene Eze's eight goals, the Scarlet Knights return 88 percent of their scoring from last year. That hits on all three outfield levels, too, as sophomore midfielder Mael Corboz and sophomore defender Mitchell Taintor both put in three goals last season.

Corboz in particular will be a name to watch. As just a freshman, he pulled the strings for Rutgers and added an impressive seven assists to his goal tally. A great deal of the Scarlet Knights' success in a reformed conference relies on Corboz and his maturation from year one to year two.

South Florida (8-6-5/2-3-3)

USF played a rugged schedule last year and still finished with a respectable eight wins, one of which was a first-round victory in the NCAA tournament. They climbed as high as No. 2 in the nation before falling back to earth and out of the rankings by the midway point of league play. With the exception of a 5-0 drubbing against Akron, all of USF's losses were by a single goal, meaning a few tweaks here and there could get the Bulls over the hump in 2013.

The big name to watch here is undoubtedly Ben Sweat, one of the top defensive prospects in the nation. As arguably one of the top 10 defenders in the nation, the senior has MLS scouts' eyes bulging with promise. He helped the Bulls post six shutouts last year and is a preseason All-American. Midfielder Ben Charpie could be just as crucial. He's combined for nine assists over the past two years is USF's leader in the middle.

SMU (10-5-5/6-2-0*)

The Mustangs are a huge addition for a conference already bursting with talent. SMU won Conference USA last year and got to the tournament title game before falling to Tulsa. That both Memphis and SMU are coming over together will add a built-in rivalry from the jump. They face each other for the only time in Memphis on Oct. 23.

One of the biggest losses is midfielder T.J. Nelson, who was taken by FC Dallas in the MLS Supplemental Draft in the offseason. SMU will miss his relentless motor in the middle. But the Mustangs do return highly touted senior keeper Jaime Ibarra, who was both the C-USA player and defender of the year last season. They also bring back a talented group of juniors that will likely lead the vanguard of what SMU hopes is a conference title challenge. Super talented Akron transfer Alfred Koroma is expected to contribute right away. 

Two big losses will challenge SMU. Tyler Engel bounced for North Carolina and Aaron Simmons is now with UCLA. Junior Damian Rosales returns to anchor a back line that was the team's strength. In a league with so many good scorers, having a duo like Ibarra and Rosales sitting at the back makes for one of the better defenses in the league.

UCF (8-7-3/5-3-0*) 

Almost everything UCF did last year had Deshorn Brown's fingerprints on it. The Jamaican danger man was one of the most intimidating forwards in the country and scored 13 goals, three of those game-winners. Unfortunately for the Knights, they only got one season out of the Mobile transfer before he jumped to MLS after his junior season. He was taken by the Colorado Rapids with the sixth overall pick and is pushing for an MLS Rookie of the Year nod. 

With Brown gone, attention turns elsewhere for a UCF program that looks to be in rebuilding mode after signing the No. 28 recruiting class in the country. Mexico native Omar Vallejo stole some of Brown's thunder down the stretch last season, tallying three goals and four assists in the Knights' final five games. The senior forward's role will increase dramatically this year. The Knights lost their entire back line from last season, so the leadership from keeper Sebastian Evers will be crucial. Jamaican Romario Williams started 16 games last season and is a name to watch in the midfield.

Memphis (8-7-3/4-3-2*) 

Memphis is entering its new conference digs with some momentum in tow. The Tigers opened last season against Wisconsin by setting a program record for single-game attendance, and the season follow-up wasn't bad. They rounded out the regular season with a solid 2-1 win over SMU before ending their year in the first round of the C-USA tourney. Enough talent returns for optimism to be high in southwest Tennessee, although plenty of work remains.

A lot rides on the shoulders of 6-foot-3 target striker Mark Sherrod, who will likely be the bellwether for Memphis' season. The talented senior has 31 goals and eight assists over the past two seasons, and his 19 goals as a sophomore set the school record. Last year, he became the only player in C-USA history to win the conference's offensive player of the year plaudit in back to back seasons. As one of the most productive front men in the country - and entering his senior season to boot - Sherrod is the centerpiece of this team. Memphis goes as he does.

If Memphis can stay sturdy behind him, the Tigers will be a tough out. Senior Ireland native Liam Collins is the leader in the midfield after taking home back-to-back C-USA first-team honors. Collins had seven assists last season and has 18 in the last two combined, cementing his partnership with Sherrod as one of the country's most potent one-two punches.

Temple (10-6-3/6-1-2**) 

The Owls will be facing a wall of uncertainty this season, perhaps more so than anyone in the conference. They'll face an incredible eight teams on their schedule for the first time, and each of their first four conference opponents were NCAA tournament teams a season ago. But if anyone from the A-10 is up to the challenge, it's Temple. The Owls qualified for the A-10 tournament for a third straight year last season and were a model of consistency in the process.

The good news is that Temple returns 19 players, which includes the hugely impressive Jared Martinelli. The Mechanicsburg, Pa. native is coming off a massive freshman campaign in which he led the team in goals (nine) and assists (10) and started all 19 games. After such a hot start, he'll get much more attention from opposing defenders as a sophomore.

The return of junior forward Chas Wilson (six goals) and senior defensive midfielder Jake Lister (four goals) will be a boost for a team making a step up in conference competition.

*Denotes Conference USA record

** Denotes Atlantic 10 record

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