In its second year of existence, the American Athletic Conference is wide open.
That’s a good thing for the men’s soccer team, which has started the season 1-1-5 through Sept. 19. Temple finished fourth in the conference last fall, after being picked to place last in the preseason coaches’ poll.
This year, the conference has seen some realignment, as Louisville and Rutgers have departed after only one season and Tulsa has joined to round out the American.
Tulsa coach Tom McIntosh is in his 20th season at the helm of the Golden Hurricanes. Despite that wealth of experience and having coached in three different conferences already, McIntosh said it will be a challenge due to one specific reason.
“The biggest thing with [the American] is the travel can be pretty demanding,” McIntosh said. “Even though you’re flying, you still have long travel days … We’ve been through that, and kind of know how to handle those situations, so that will help [us].”
Tulsa is a small school of about 3,400 students, but that hasn’t prevented the program from achieving success. Two years ago, the Golden Hurricanes won the Conference-USA tournament.
Overall, Tulsa has reached the NCAA tournament eight times in its 34-year history.
Southern Methodist is another smaller school that has gained success in recent years. Just fewer than 11,000 students attend SMU, a school that is home to a soccer program that has qualified for the NCAA tournament 29 times and won seven conference tournaments since its founding in 1975.
Tim McClements, in his seventh season as the Mustangs’ coach, said there were many things he and his team needed to become acclimated with The American in its inaugural season last fall.
“Making the move [from Conference-USA] to the American, you’re flying to different schools,” McClements said. “[You’re in] different parts of the country, staying in different hotels … getting used to all the different venues and settings.”
McClements added The American’s diversity makes it one of the more prestigious men’s soccer conferences in the nation.
“It’s an elite conference because you’re getting a variety of top teams from around the country,” McClements said. “At any time, any one team can beat another … in general, the competition is so stiff that it makes it very difficult.”
Temple must perform well in this demanding portion of the schedule in order to turn its season around. They start with a home match against Cincinnati on Sept. 27.
Much like McIntosh, Temple coach David MacWilliams places emphasis on travel with making a conference schedule difficult. But unlike Tulsa’s coach, MacWilliams said the jump from the Atlantic 10 Conference to The American made that part easier.
He said playing games on Friday and Sunday in the A-10 would prevent his players from being able to recover physically, as well as making it harder to scout teams. In The American, the schedule is hard because of strong play across all eight teams.
From a technical standpoint, senior goalie Dan Scheck said there were some noticeable differences between the A-10 and the American.
“The A-10 was a more physical type of game,” Scheck said. “[There are] a lot more bigger and athletic guys, whereas in the American, there are more technical guys … teams are very good on the ball, and there’s a lot of skill.”
One aspect the Owls have going for them is the fact that winning the conference tournament can be done from a lower-finishing team. Last year, fifth-seeded University of Southern Florida knocked off fourth-seeded Temple in the first round 1-0, and then proceeded to win the tournament and qualify for the NCAA tournament.
The conference schedule could thus prove to be a sort of “second season” for the Owls, who need to perform well in the American to salvage what has been a tough road for the Owls thus far.
Sophomore defender Matt Mahoney said that the start of play in the American may be exactly what Temple needs.
“I think it will be a new start for us, which is good,” Mahoney said. “I think we’ll be able to get a clean sheet in the beginning of it, and go from there.
Steven Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @SteveSportsGuy1