Meet Conference USA, the new home for WVU men’s soccer

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After finishing out one last season in the Mid-American Conference, Dan Stratford’s Mountaineers make the move to Conference USA for the 2022-23 season.

After six months of bottling up the secret, the young gaffer is glad the proverbial cat has left the bag — but he’s even more excited about the new step up in competition in his team’s new league. But just how tough is Conference USA?

Led by the defending national champions, three C-USA programs finished the 2020-21 campaign in the top 40 in RPI (for what it’s worth, West Virginia finished 12th and missed the NCAA Tournament). All three of those teams made the Big Dance, with one — Marshall — taking the title home. At an individual level, two C-USA student-athletes were selected in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, including Kentucky’s Aime Mabika, who was selected by Inter Miami in the first round.

Plus, with the introduction of both WVU and Coastal Carolina, C-USA will grow to a 10-team league, giving the Mountaineers a fuller conference schedule year in and year out.

Let’s get to know WVU’s future conference opponents:

Marshall

  • 2020-21 record: 13-2-2 (1st in C-USA, College Cup National Champions)
  • Coach: Chris Grassie (fourth year)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 2

WVU’s in-state rival is the clear headliner awaiting the Mountaineers in its new league. Just as the programs’ fanbases are quite close and acquainted, so too are the two programs’ coaching staffs — Stratford worked on Coach Chris Grassie’s staff at the University of Charleston, helping the Golden Eagles compete for the Division II national title before taking the head spot at Marshall in 2017. The next year, with Stratford as his replacement, the Golden Eagles finally won that coveted national championship.

Grassie picked right up with the Thundering Herd where he left off in Charleston. His teams at Marshall have made steady improvements every season, eventually taking the College Cup in 2021.

The all-time series between West Virginia and Marshall belongs handedly to the Mountaineers, 16 wins to six losses and a draw. It was renewed in 2019 after 15 years of dormancy, however, just as the Herd were joining the national spotlight — in the last two meetings, the teams are knotted at 1-1, while Marshall has enjoyed spots in the national polls.

Charlotte

  • 2020-21 record: 6-3-2 (2nd in C-USA, NCAA Tournament berth)
  • Coach: Kevin Langan (ninth year)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 14

One of the other two C-USA squads to make the Big Dance, Charlotte enjoyed yet another winning season under head coach Kevin Langan in 2020-21. In fact, the gaffer has yet to lead the 49ers to a losing campaign in nine seasons, including seven NCAA Tournament appearances.

Langan took over one of the league’s most historic programs. In 1996, the 49ers — then led by John Tart — made a run to the national semifinals, the first in C-USA history to make it that far in any sport. 15 years later, Jeremy Gunn took the 49ers to a national runner-up 2011 season.

Charlotte and West Virginia faced one another for the second time in history in 2021 (the first time what just a season prior). The Mountaineers took a decisive 3-0 victory over the 14th-ranked 49ers.

Kentucky

  • 2020-21 record: 12-5-2 (3rd in C-USA, NCAA Tournament berth)
  • Coach: Johan Cedergren (ninth year)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 11

The first affiliate member on this list, Kentucky joined C-USA in 2005, joining the league alongside South Carolina. Interestingly enough, the Wildcats also made the jump from the MAC to its current home as the SEC does not sponsor men’s soccer. This allowed the “SEC Derby” to foster, in which the Wildcats square off against South Carolina as a nod to their regular home conferences.

Kentucky dominated its non-conference competition in 2020-21, however they struggled with a .500 mark in the league under Johan Cedergren. Still, they made their third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and its second Sweet 16 trip in just as many seasons.

Cedergren has put the Wildcats in a good position — they’ve earned six NCAA Tournament berths in nine seasons, including a quarterfinal run in 2018, while earning a record of 89-47-20 in that span. However, in the 30-year history of Kentucky men’s soccer, they have never faced off against West Virginia.

FIU

  • 2020-21 record: 4-4-1 (4th in C-USA)
  • Coach: Kyle Russell (first year)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 10

The Panthers had a rocky 2020-21, finishing an even .500 both within the league and overall while missing the postseason. That may be a disappointment on the surface, but it is a good foundation for a team under first-year head coach Kyle Russell.

FIU has an interesting history. It has a pair of national championships — albeit Division II titles — from 1982 to 1984. In 1986, they made the move to Division I, and within 10 years, they ran all the way to a national runner-up season in just its third tournament berth. Since then, the Panthers have made seven NCAA Tournaments, most recently in 2017.

WVU has faced FIU three times in history, in 1972, 1989 and 2002. The all-time series belongs to the Panthers, 1-2.

Florida Atlantic

  • 2020-21 record: 6-4-2 (5th in C-USA)
  • Coach: Joey Worthen (first year)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 0

FAU just completed its seventh season in the league, but still have yet to make an NCAA Tournament. After one year, Joey Worthen is looking to change that.

Like their “International” rivals (FIU), the Owls are relative newcomers to Division I, making the move in 1993. They haven’t had quite as much success in the time since, but they did find some in their previous leagues, winning A-SUN and Atlantic Soccer conference titles in 2004 and 2007, respectively.

The Mountaineers and the Owls played for the fourth time in 2012, with WVU triumphing 4-0 in Morgantown. The all-time series is 3-1 in favor of West Virginia.

South Carolina

  • 2020-21 record: 8-7-1 (6th in C-USA)
  • Coach: Tony Annan (newly hired)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 22

The other half of the SEC Derby, South Carolina brings arguably the richest history to the C-USA program roster. They have made the most trips to the NCAA Tournament by far and won two conference titles since joining the league in 2005.

Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, they were forced to start a new chapter in that long history after Mark Berson — the program’s first head coach — retired after 43 seasons. Tony Annan was announced as the new head coach in April, joining South Carolina from the Atlanta United system.

WVU and South Carolina have met just once in history — a 2-1 Gamecock win in Columbia in 1982.

UAB

  • 2020-21 record: 3-12-1 (7th in C-USA)
  • Coach: Jeff Kinney (second season)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 8

UAB enjoyed a successful stretch during the lengthy tenure of Mike Getman, who led the Blazers to a 280-192-47 record in 27 seasons. Unfortunately, the program hit a rough patch in his last few seasons, finishing with four straight losing campaigns to make way for Jeff Kinney, the Blazers’ current coach.

Kinney has had a tough time getting the program back on its feet, posting losing records in his first two seasons at UAB.

WVU and UAB have yet to face each other on the soccer pitch.

Old Dominion

  • 2020-21 record: 1-4-3 (8th in C-USA)
  • Coach: Alan Dawson (24th season)
  • All-time NCAA Tournament appearances: 14

Alan Dawson has brought the Monarchs to new heights during his large stint on the ODU sideline. Under his watch, they reached 12 of their 14 NCAA Tournaments and brought home six conference championships — three in the regular season, and three in tournaments.

Most of Dawson’s years at ODU have been spent competing in the Colonial Athletic Association, however they switched to C-USA in 2013. Just one year later, they ran the table in the conference tournament — their first of two C-USA titles.

West Virginia and Old Dominion have a relatively extensive history with one another — the Mountaineers have a 3-1-2 record across all meetings, most recently taking a 2-1 road victory in 2010.

Coastal Carolina

  • 2020-21 record: 6-2-1 (1st in Sun Belt, Sun Belt Tournament Champions, NCAA Tournament berth)
  • Coach: Shaun Docking (23rd season)
  • All-Time NCAA Tournament appearances: 17

The Chanticleers are set to join C-USA a season before the Mountaineers, helping to bring the league to 10 teams by 2022.

They bring both a rich history and a long-tenured coach to their new competitive home. After 24 seasons, Shaun Docking has racked up a 295-138-40 record (that’s a winning percentage of 66.6), while bringing the program to 15 of its 17 NCAA Tournament appearances. In fact, Coastal has made 11 of the last possible 12 trips to the big dance.

Coastal has spent the last five years asserting dominance over the Sun Belt, which is set to dissolve its soccer league this summer. It won its fourth Sun Belt Tournament Championship in five tries this past season after posting its 12th straight winning season.

West Virginia and Coastal Carolina have faced five times in history, with the Mountaineers notching three victories, a loss and a draw. The most recent meeting was a 5-2 goal bonanza in Morgantown in 2019.



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