In 2012, there were nine teams in Conference USA. This fall, there are ten teams. In the mathematical perplexity that is conference realignment, Conference USA is welcoming in four new programs this season while replacing SMU, UCF, and Memphis.
The new look Conference USA definitely covers a wider swath of the country with the introduction of New Mexico, but will that much travel hurt the programs by the time the postseason rolls around in November?
2012 Conference USA Tournament Champion: Tulsa
Conference USA Regular Season Champion: SMU
Players of the Year: Jaime Ibarra (SMU) and Daniel Withrow (Marshall)
Offensive Player of the Year: Mark Sherrod, Memphis
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaime Ibarra, SMU
Freshman of the Year: Cristian Mata, Tulsa
Coach of the Year: Tim McClements, SMU
Teams (2012 overall/conference record):
Florida International (8-8-2/0-7-1)
Florida Atlantic (2-13-1/0-7-0)
New Mexico (17-4-1/8-2-0)
Old Dominion (11-3-3/5-3-2)
South Carolina (5-11-2/2-5-1)
SMU left Conference USA after winning the league and capturing the majority of conference honors in 2012. No worries though; Conference USA replaced the nomadic Mustangs, UCF Knights, and Memphis with four programs that should contend for the league title in 2013.
Charlotte went 7-1-1 in 2012 in the tricky Atlantic 10 Conference, which included a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The 2011 NCAA National Finalists have a strong roster that returns standouts Giuseppe Gentile and Tyler Gibson. The 49ers also brought in transfer Monbo Bokar from NC State, who could be an interesting addition to that lineup. Bokar had five goals in an abbreviated season with the Wolfpack; he’ll be a junior this fall.
New Mexico is also headed into Conference USA. The Lobos bring the winningest record in Division I over the past two years, and a number of MLS prospects include coveted center back Kyle Venter. Center midfielder Michael Calderon is another one to watch in the New Mexico lineup, as he pulls the strings for the attack. The Lobos also have a pretty challenging schedule this year with road games against VCU, Georgetown and UC Santa Barbara, which should help the RPI of everyone in the conference.
Old Dominion is also a new program to the conference that brings an impressive resume with it. The Monarchs have been solid during the regular season, but have not tasted the success in the postseason yet. Behind Tim Hopkinson and Gideon Asante, ODU will be looking to shift that streak of early exits in the NCAA Tournament. FAU rounds out the four newcomers to the conference.
The new guys won’t have an easy go of it though, as Tulsa returns the core of the team that won the conference tournament last season and finished sixth in the nation in scoring offense. Akeil Barrett, Cristian Mata, Omar Mata, and Bryce Follensbee make up the impressive attack line for the Hurricane. Houston Dynamo Academy alum Bradley Bourgeois is one to watch in the defense for the defending conference champions.
The Kentucky Wildcats return All-Conference USA First Team defender Steven Perinovic, but have to replace All-Conferece USA First Team midfielder Matt Lodge and C-USA All-Freshman defender Jacob Speed, who transferred to SMU in the offseason.
UAB is always a contender in the conference as well; however, the Alabama program is replacing a few standouts that have graduated from the program in recent years. The coaching staff is excited about some newcomers including Lars Willemse, a freshman from Netherlands.
Marshall also had a big offseason, as the Herd welcome in its new playing facility this fall. Marshall started last season with bang – racing out to a 10-1-1 record before faltering at the end to finish with an 11-5-1 mark. The Herd needs to replace leading scorer Tom Jackson as well as goalkeeper Daniel Withrow this season.
FIU suffered a similar fate to Marshall, as the program raced out to a great start to the season, but faded at the end. Head coach Kenny Arena continues to shape the roster, and should be in line for an even more successful season this fall.
With all the movement in Conference USA this fall, it is tough to see a favorite, but it should make for an exciting race come November.