November 5, 2012 – The conference postseason is upon us.
By the end of this weekend, every men’s Division I soccer league will have crowned its champion, deciding who gets a ticket automatically punched for the NCAA tournament and who has to wait — sometimes with fingers crossed — for an at-large bid.
Some conferences award the automatic bid to the conference tournament winner. In others, the postseason berth goes to the regular-season champions.
The ultimate winner is anyone’s guess. After all, we’re in an era where talk of parity is considered passé. Everyone already knows about the clichéd (albeit largely true) adage that any team is capable of contending on any given day.
College soccer coaches openly talked about parity, sometimes as a relatively emerging concept, when I started covering the men’s game six years ago. The sport was shifting as everyone readily admitted. The playing field was leveling. The amount of talent was increasing across the country.
However, while soccer insiders and fans alike were quick to admit the gap between No. 1 and No. 48 was narrowing, the same assertions weren’t being echoed for conferences.
From a league perspective, the traditional hierarchy of perennial powerhouses remained.
There was the Atlantic Coast Conference, so consistently dominant that it seemed to be only a matter of time until the entire nine-team field received an NCAA tournament bid.
There was the Big East, emphasis on big. The two-division, 15-team behemoth of a league was the ACC’s only true competitor from a top-to-bottom talent standpoint. In 2005, the super conference had seven teams in the national postseason bracket.
The Big Ten and the Pac-12, neethe Pac-10 (never mind the fact that the leagues only field six and seven men’s teams, respectively), had teams constantly contending in the upper strata. But neither league was consistently competitive enough to challenge the ACC and Big East’s best of the best status.
That was before. Before unseeded UC Santa Barbara came out of the Big West Conference to win the College Cup. Before the University of Akron shook off the mid-major label that accompanied the Mid-American Conference team and became a force to be reckoned with, not to mention national champs. Before the Atlantic 10’s Charlotte advanced to last year’s national final.
Speaking of the College Cup, the last two Final Fours have featured four teams from four different conferences in each of the last two years. The field consisted of North Carolina, Charlotte, UCLA and Creighton in 2011. It was Akron, Louisville, Michigan and North Carolina in 2010.
And while a pair of tournaments is not necessarily enough to declare a formal trend, the 2012 rankings certainly indicate the pattern’s continuance.
Teams from 11 different conferences held spots in the College Soccer News Top 20 this week: MAC (Akron), ACC (Maryland, North Carolina, Wake Forest), Big East (Connecticut, Notre Dame, Marquette, Georgetown, Louisville and St. John’s), Pac-12 (UCLA), Mountain Pacific (New Mexico), Ivy (Brown, Cornell), Big South (Coastal Carolina), Atlantic 10 (Charlotte, Xavier) Missouri Valley (Creighton), Big Ten (Indiana) and Colonial (Old Dominion).
Go down two more spots on that list to No. 22 (Southern Methodist out of Conference USA), and you get a literal dozen.
That is not to say that there is not an advantage in playing for a major conference program.
The ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12 teams traditionally attract – or at least are on the list of – many top recruits. Nineteen of the teams on College Soccer News’ 2012 top 30 recruiting class rankings hail from one of the four aforementioned leagues, including seven of the top 10. For reference, Division I men’s college soccer is comprised of 22 conferences and four independent programs.
In part, that’s because history is easier to sell than promise and potential. But what appeals more to players is not the number of national and conference titles a program has in its record books, but the chance to be part of a team that actually wins one.
Teams in traditionally strong conferences used to be the only ones that seemed to offer a regular shot at achieving those top-level victories. There was always the occasional unseeded Cinderella story – a la UMass in 2007 – but what we’re seeing now is not an occasional blip. Instead, more and more programs from across the country are seeing their stock rise, regardless of conference affiliation.
While the ability to play against many of the nation’s best programs was one of the selling points for elite conferences. Today, teams from less competitive conferences can more than make up for their league’s lack of depth by playing nonconference games against top-caliber opponents.
That’s not to say we will never see another almost all-ACC Final Four like we did in 2009 (Akron being the lone exception amongst UNC, Wake Forest and Virginia).
Considering the Big East’s representation among the current rankings, it is possible we could have a similar College Cup play out this year among the Blue Division.
However, while such a one or two conference-dominated NCAA tournament would have once been considered completely within the norm, the college game has evolved to a point where such a scenario is now more the exception to the rule.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org