Conference USA can now be called a collegiate men’s soccer powerhouse.
Marshall’s NCAA title win in May provided the gratification of a championship, but credibility had already been established for the league on the pitch thanks to its depth of top-level teams.
Kentucky’s run to the Elite Eight in the 2018 NCAA Tournament helped establish the cachet of C-USA men’s soccer, and now the Wildcats are looking to match what the Thundering Herd did last season, and help continue a prominent period for C-USA men’s soccer.
“I think that the league definitely prioritizes soccer,” Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren told the Herald-Leader before this season. “Maybe we were sitting pretty and feeling pretty good about ourselves in ‘18 and all of a sudden now, two years later, we finished third in the league rather than winning it. It just forces us to stay on our toes and make sure that we’re always looking at doing things better.”
This weekend marks a significant moment in that pursuit, as No. 10 Kentucky travels to play No. 5 Marshall on Saturday night in Huntington, West Virginia.
UK is still undefeated this season with a 5-0-1 (W-L-D) mark that features four defensive shutouts and two impressive road results: A scoreless draw at Coastal Carolina in both the C-USA and season opener on Aug. 26, and a comeback 3-1 win at Louisville earlier this month.
For its part, Marshall has gone 4-1-2 against a formidable schedule featuring four teams ranked in the United Soccer Coaches poll at the time of the match.
In the most recent poll released Tuesday afternoon, three of the nine C-USA men’s soccer schools are in the top 25, led by the Thundering Herd and Wildcats. West Virginia, ranked No. 4, will join the league next season and will also travel to Lexington for a non-conference match Oct. 19.
The spotlight on C-USA men’s soccer was amplified by Marshall’s championship, the first national title won in a team sport by a C-USA school while affiliated with the league.
But the quality of the league has been in place for years, evidenced by how quickly Cedergren lists other schools, including Charlotte and Florida International, that consistently challenge Kentucky.
“All the other coaches here at Kentucky would say that they like playing in the SEC because it’s the big time. So for us, there are very few games on the schedule that we feel like, ‘Well, seven or eight times out of 10 we’re going to win this one,’” Cedergren explained. “Men’s soccer being so competitive, anyone can beat anyone on any day. It’s very rare that you walk in on game day, not having the pulse being 10 beats per minute higher than normal.”
The quality of C-USA men’s soccer has been reflected in recent postseasons as well.
Since 2010, the conference has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament each season, a period that dates back to when traditional college soccer powers such as SMU and Tulsa were part of C-USA.
That time has seen banner moments for the league, with New Mexico reaching the national semifinals in 2013 prior to the runs made by UK in 2018 and Marshall last season.
“It’s also a magnet for a lot of players, seeing the trend of how a conference evolves,” senior midfielder Marcel Meinzer said. “You can see in the past, no one really talked about Conference USA, and then not only Marshall now, (but) us making that run in 2018 … you can see that a lot of guys (are) trying to transfer and get into schools like us.”
After Marshall’s breakthrough just months ago, the question of potential now shifts to Kentucky, which has made seven NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s since joining C-USA in 2005, all of them under Cedergren.
During his time in Lexington, fifth-year midfielder Bailey Rouse said Cedergren has strengthened the culture and direction of the UK team.
“I think as time has gone on, everyone understands what is asked of them and they make sure that everything we do on a day-to-day basis is aligned with our goals of accomplishing a Final Four and ultimately winning conferences and hopefully competing for a national championship,” Rouse said.
Part of the national title-winning formula for Marshall was a reliance on international players. Last season, 15 of the 25 players who appeared in a match for Marshall were born outside the United States, and that number is 14 of 23 so far this season.
This also doesn’t take into account the significant presence that international players have on Marshall’s large roster, which features a remarkable 53 players listed for this season.
While Marshall might be an extreme example of reliance on international players — this season’s Kentucky roster features 10 players out of 26 that were born outside of the United States — Cedergren, who is from Sweden, cited his own experience as a college player at Cincinnati when explaining the role of internationals in college soccer.
“I think if you look at all the national champions, since I was in college in the late 90s, I think again all the top programs have international players,” Cedergren said. “I think everyone finds their niche in regards to where do they have a network, where do they feel like there’s good value, where do they feel like the personalities match the kind of culture that you have on your team?”
The composition of players based on native country means little compared to the way they interact on the field. Marshall’s model of international reliance isn’t for everyone, but the way Marshall head coach Chris Grassie molded his team now serves as the go-to example for C-USA soccer success.
It’s something Cedergren and his team hope to soon emulate, starting with Saturday’s match.
“I think the ACC is kind of the league for soccer if you ask people around college, but Conference USA has done really well for a long time now,” Cedergren said. “I do think that you can see the potential.”
No. 10 Kentucky at No. 5 Marshall
When: 7 p.m.
Online: ESPN Plus