The West Virginia University men’s soccer team is packing up and leaving what they have known as home since 2012, as they are set to join a new conference in the 2022 season which will help put them in the conversation of being one of the better teams in the country.
Earlier this week it was announced that West Virginia will be leaving the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and will be headed to Conference USA beginning in 2022. This move will not only help West Virginia compete with other teams in the region recruiting wise, but it should help elevate the program to one of the better teams nationally.
Last year, when head men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford was hired his goal was to make West Virginia a top-10 program nationally. This past year, in his first season as head man of the Mountaineers, Stratford was able to lead his team to a 6-3-1 record which was good enough for the 12th best rating percentage index (RPI) in the country.
One might think that the 12th best computer ranking means the program is right where Stratford wants it, but that is far from the truth. West Virginia faced a scheduling problem towards the end of the year that prevented the Mountaineers from competing to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and the Mountaineers missed out on the tournament for the first time since 2017.
Stratford knew he had the talent capable of winning against good teams, as his squad beat the eventual National Champion Marshall 1-0, and beat another tournament team Charlotte 3-0. All that was needed was West Virginia putting itself in the best position to be the most successful program it can be and Stratford as well as Athletic Director Shane Lyons knew the move to Conference USA was crucial for the future of the soccer program at WVU.
“We were very happy with our home and pretty content with being in the MAC,” Stratford said. “It has provided a great home for us for nine years and it really wasn’t a case of them doing anything wrong or any element of disgruntlement towards the MAC. I think it was more looking at the trajectory of Conference USA.”
Conference USA also will provide West Virginia with more quality conference opponents than the MAC and a purer form of a conference schedule. With the addition of West Virginia, Conference USA will have 10 teams at the start of the 2022 season. In contrast, the MAC had a mere six teams this past season.
The nine teams in Conference USA are Charlotte, FIU, Florida Atlantic, Kentucky, Marshall, Old Dominion, South Carolina, and UAB as well as the addition of Coastal Carolina this fall.
Stratford feels that this loaded of a conference with perennial national powerhouses will be able to help elevate his program and is one of the main reasons he wanted to make the jump to Conference USA.
“I think with the addition of Coastal Carolina and ourselves who you know I’ve made no bones about it we’re an aspiring top-10 program and we have every intention of being there as quickly as possible. Then you add Coastal Carolina who traditionally speaking are always a top 25 program have been to multiple national tournaments and always have been very tough. South Carolina have just got a new head coach as well and I know that he’ll have bad intentions when it comes to the conference and what he’s looking to do on a national scale, so I really do feel like Conference USA is going to put itself up there with the best of them.”
Not only will West Virginia be playing tougher competition on the field, they will now have to face tougher competition when it comes to recruiting. West Virginia will now share a conference with in-state foe Marshall while also being in the same geographical region as Kentucky, Old Dominion, Charlotte, South Carolina, and Coastal Carolina.
Although this could seem daunting to some coaches, having to compete with schools in the same conference and same region, Stratford feels like the switch will be a good thing especially when it comes to international recruits.
“I think it will hit home with [international recruits] perhaps even more than some of the domestic recruits,” Stratford said. “From a standpoint of we are going to go to Florida twice, we are going to go to South Carolina twice. That sounds a little bit better, no disrespect to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, it just sounds a little more appealing. I do think it will help from that standpoint. When they will see those games, they’re going to watch us in good weather, in good conditions, on a nice field.”
As noted earlier, West Virginia will now be in the same conference as Marshall. Marshall won the National Championship this past year but lost when they played at West Virginia on March 24th. Stratford can now pitch to recruits that they will be playing the best competition in the country, but they also have beaten the best competition in the country.
Stratford hopes to use this news to help his 2022 recruiting class hoping to use this transition and success this past season as a “springboard.”
“To say hey look you know not only um did we play Marshall this year and beat Marshall who are the National Champions but we’re now going to be in that conference in a year’s time so we’re definitely going to try and use that to it to our advantage,” Stratford said.
As for this year West Virginia will have its sights set on trying to closeout its tenure in the MAC by winning a conference championship and using that momentum to propel its jump Conference USA.
“I have enjoyed competing in the MAC and we will certainly have intentions of leaving [the MAC] with a bang this fall,” Stratford said. And hopefully gain momentum with a championship, a conference championship, feeling like we have something to defend and something to go into 2022 with and make sure that we are right where we want to be at the start of that season.”
Photo from WVU Athletics Communications