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Five games to watch: Conference chase

Article Written by J.R. Eskilson
Published: October 17, 2014

Conference play picks up speed this weekend in men’s Division I soccer as the top spot in certain conferences is on the line. In addition, other conferences are finally getting into the thick of league play. Which teams have the most to play for?

Five Games to Watch (Oct. 17-19):

SMU (8-3-1, 3-0-1) vs. South Florida (8-4, 3-1), Saturday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m. (ET)

The Mustangs are riding high on an eight-game unbeaten run heading into the weekend. SMU’s latest result was a 7-0 thrashing of Central Arkansas on Wednesday at Westcott Field. It was the most goals SMU scored in a game since 2006. The latest result was not an anomaly. SMU leads the American Athletic Conference in goal’s scored this season and ranks in the top 20 in Division I in most attacking statistics.

SMU is a perennial powerhouse in college soccer, but this year’s success is a bit of a surprise. The Mustangs are young. Three freshmen have been starting in defense recently and done exceptionally well. Freshman defender Jared Rice leads the team in assists with five on the season. Transfer Idrissa Camara leads the team in scoring with five goals. The success of the new pieces has SMU sitting atop the conference standings, but Saturday’s matchup is a big one for both programs. South Florida has won five of its last six and sit in second place in the league standings. The victor of this clash could very well be on its way to a American Athletic regular season crown.

Kentucky (6-3-3, 2-0-2) vs. No. 7 New Mexico (9-2-1, 2-1), Saturday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m. (ET)

The Wildcats and Lobos are fighting to keep pace with Charlotte in the Conference USA standings this weekend. New Mexico has won four in a row since the 2-0 loss to Charlotte on Sept. 26. The Lobos bring a three-game shutout streak into this match as well. Kentucky is undefeated in its last five games and 4-1-2 at home this season with the lone loss coming against Louisville. Kentucky has a sound defense and a very good goalkeeper, which should keep the Wildcats in this game. New Mexico has been magnificent lately in showing patience in breaking down the opposition over the course of 90 minutes. Kentucky cannot afford any slip-ups if the Wildcats want to keep the undefeated record in conference play alive and the pressure on Charlotte ahead of that Nov. 7 meeting.

Loyola Marymount (6-3-3) v. St. Mary's (CA) (7-3-2), Sunday, Oct. 19, 4 p.m. (PT)

West Coast Conference play finally begins this weekend as LMU hosts Pacific and Saint Mary’s (CA)(m). LMU is the defending champions of the conference and entered the season as the favorites to repeat. The Lions had a rocky start to the campaign but have been playing really well recently and bring a five-game unbeaten streak into the conference opener against Pacific on Friday. Three of those five results have come with a shutout, as Craig Nitti and the Lions defense have been sharp in recent games. The Gaels are worthy challenger for the conference crown. A win over Washington in September has been the highlight of the season for St. Mary’s and the lone blemish for the Huskies. Sunday’s showdown will propel one of these sides to an early advantage in the WCC, where the league crown means everything.

No. 9 Penn State (10-1-1, 4-1) vs. No. 24 Michigan State (8-2-2, 2-1-1), Saturday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m. (ET)

Penn State entered last weekend as the last undefeated team left in Division I. After 90 minutes in College Park, Penn State felt the reality of defeat like every other program. Maryland rolled to a 4-0 win and the Nittany Lions were left searching for answers. With six days in between games, Penn State had plenty of time to review film and plan training sessions for this week’s Big Ten showdown against Michigan State. The Spartans are good and have the pieces to push Penn State. Attacking midfielder Jay Chapman should be the catalyst of the Spartans attack against the three-man Penn State back line. Chapman will need to find the spaces between the defense and midfield to operate and then open up the channels against Penn State. It’s easier said than done, and coach Bob Warming will definitely have his group roaring to go on Saturday.

NC State (5-4-3, 1-2-2) vs. No. 15 North Carolina (9-4, 3-2), Friday, Oct. 17, 6 p.m. (ET)

After losing three games in a row to end September, North Carolina has won four straight in commanding fashion. The Tar Heels have scored 12 goals in their last three games. With only four games remaining in the regular season, it appears that the North Carolina squad is peeking at the right time. NC State has the benefit of playing at home in this showdown between rivals, which is always a huge advantage. NC State is 5-3-1 at home this season with recent wins over Gardner-Webb and Louisville. There is plenty of talent between these two teams, which should make this an entertaining contest on top of a bitter rivalry. 

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