Team (2013 overall, conference record):
Akron survived and thrived in its first season in a post-Caleb Porter world. The esteemed head coach moved onto the Portland Timbers at the end of the 2012 season and former associate head coach Jared Embick took over the reigns as the man for the Zips. Embick’s arrival did not change much for Ohio’s preeminent college soccer program. The Zips finished the season with a plus 17 goal differential before being bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Embick’s group also nestled into an 11-game winning streak from October to November. In short, he can coach and he does it well.
This season will be a test though. Akron is replacing a ton of talent. Six starters from the 2013 squad are gone. The Zips brought in 14 new players to help fill the void. It will take some time to get everyone on the same page. Embick and the coaching staff will lean on sophomore studs Adam Najem and Victor Souto to help lead the way through a daunting early season schedule.
While Akron is typically the talk of the MAC, the conference battle was close in 2013 and figures to be just as close this fall. Western Michigan came up two points short of splitting the regular season crown. An early November fixture against Akron that resulted in the Zips pulling out a 2-1 win in double-overtime was the difference at the end of the campaign. The Broncos will be playing with a chip on their shoulders this year as the bitterness lingers.
Hartwick was the only MAC team in 2013 to take a point off of Akron. Unfortunately for the Zips, the Hawks bounced to the Sun Belt Conference in the off-season with a wide smile and a childish glee. The revenge will have to wait for another time. The Hawks surprisingly finished third in the conference last fall.
West Virginia’s performance in the MAC has not been quite as successful as many thought when the Mountaineers arrived in 2012. A fourth place finish in the conference standings and a loss in the conference title game highlighted the slate last season for the former Big East program. New Zealand striker Andy Bevin leads the squad in his final campaign. The Kiwi will likely need a double-digit output in goals to keep the Mountaineers in the hunt for a conference crown.
An eight-player freshman class highlights the 2014 campaign for Bowling Green, which will be relying on the youth to climb from the bottom half of the conference table and into a playoff spot this fall. Sigma FC product Ty Smith headlines the fresh faces. Bowling Green coaches are hoping he has the same success as previous Sigma FC products like Cyle Larin (Connecticut) and Mark Anthony Gonzalez (Evansville).
Buffalo and Northern Illinois round out the six-program conference. Sophomore Russell Cicerone is the player to watch for the Bulls. Cicerone nabbed the MAC Newcomer of the Year honors last season after scoring six goals in 17 games. NIU will depend on senior forward Isaac Kannah to help carry the team out of the cellar of the conference. Kannah bounced back from a sluggish sophomore season with a six-goal effort last fall.
Brief conference bio:
Team (2013 overall, conference record):
1. Florida Gulf Coast(m) (8-7-2, 6-1-1)
2. Northern Kentucky (9-4-6, 5-2-1)
3. Lipscomb (10-6-4, 5-2-1)
4. North Florida (8-7-3, 2-4-2)
5. Jacksonville (4-11-3, 2-4-2)
6. Stetson (3-10-4, 2-4-2)
7. USC Upstate (1-11-2, 1-6-1)
The A-Sun looks considerably different from 2013. Mercer and ETSU left the conference which dropped a once sizable conference to a seven-program party. Florida Gulf Coast is still around, but the Eagles were only selected as preseason co-favorites in the coaches’ poll. The patient, beautiful play of FGCU drew most of the attention in the conference in the past, but it has also helped its competitors raise the level of their games to stay with the soaring Eagles.
Northern Kentucky surprised a few with a charging run up the table in 2013. Goalkeeper A.J. Fleak became a minor internet celebrity with his goal (!!) in September against Wright State. Northern Kentucky was picked to finish third in the conference in 2014 alongside North Florida. Jay Bolt and Alex Morrell made the preseason All-Atlantic Sun Team.
Jacksonville, Stetson, USC Upstate took up the bottom three spots in the preseason poll respectively. All three are looking to improve on lackluster campaigns last year and hoping the smaller conference will offer more light on some of their growing programs.
At the top though, it is clear air for Lipscomb and FGCU, which are expected to battle for the crown this year. Versatile Omar Djabi is hoping to lead Lipscomb to the promise land and cap a successful collegiate career. He’ll be up against the odds with FGCU trotting out five preseason All-Atlantic Sun members including the talented forward pairing of Felipe DeSousa and Henry Penagos. The Eagles also boost a stacked defense with FC Dallas prospect Aaron Guillen playing alongside Rodrigo Saravia. It should be a fiercely competitive year in the A-Sun this fall.