The American Athletic Conference consists of teams formerly of two notable soccer conferences: the Big East Conference and Conference USA. There’s also that other team from the Atlantic 10 Conference.
“If you put our programs side by side, we have the worst program history,” coach Seamus O’Connor said. “[But] no games are decided on paper.”
Despite a winning non-conference record, the Owls appear to be an afterthought within their conference and are expected to struggle against increased talent. Temple has begun the conference season with a 2-0 victory against Houston and a 1-0 loss to Southern Methodist.
The conference schedule difficulty can be seen in The American teams’ postseason appearances. After migrating from the A-10, where the La Salle Explorers were the conference’s sole postseason representative in recent years, the Owls will now face several conference counterparts who have been ranked nationally and taken part in the NCAA tournament. Among that group of conference members are Central Florida and Connecticut, which have combined for 45 NCAA tournament berths.
The conference RPI is also a sign of greater competition to come. Through its 2013 non-conference schedule, Temple earned a 5-3-1 record. As of Sept. 23, two of Temple’s nine non-conference opponents ranked in the Top 100 RPI – Marshall and Delaware. Both resulted in losses. Entering its conference schedule, Temple will face seven Top 100 RPI teams.
Senior defender Karly O’Toole, who transferred from Syracuse as a freshman, and sophomore defender Taylor Trusky, who recently transferred from University of Pittsburgh, both have some experience with the former Big East teams that are now members of The American. The two defenders are aware that competitiveness of games will reach a new level within conference play.
“[Trusky and I] came from the Big East so we know what to expect in terms of speed of play, the physicality,” O’Toole said. “Some of these teams are even better than the ones from the Big East. So, going into it, it’s just the mentality that we will not go down without a fight.”
“Although it does give us that experience, it changes year by year,” Trusky said. “Every game is a new game and a new team. I think we just have to come in, no matter who the team is, and just play our hardest.”
Largely due to the A-10 being held in less esteem than the Big East and C-USA, a preseason conference poll had Temple picked to finish last in the conference. Being picked last in the conference has not discouraged the Owls, as they cherish their underdog role and hope to prove themselves against greater competition.
“I think everyone that plays us comes in thinking it’s an easy game and we’re the exact opposite,” Trusky said. “We come in thinking we can’t lose anything and we play our hardest. We want to upset every team we can.”
Though their non-conference victories have been seen as irrelevant when projecting conference success, the Owls said their defense, which has recorded the second most shutouts in conference history, and physicality will give conference opponents difficulty.
“[The non-conference record has] proven that you’ve got to beat us,” O’Connor said. “You’re going to have to earn it. We may not have the most talent in terms of resumes on paper, but like I said, games aren’t decided on paper. You have to go out on the field to decide the game. Teams don’t enjoy playing us because our girls are very committed. They’ll fight for every ball and make you earn your win. I think that has been very evident in the non-conference games.”
As they are fueled by the lack of expectations, the Owls plan on playing every game strategically and in a physically aggressive manner. “[There’s] no expectations,” O’Toole said. “Like Seamus says, ‘They picked you last. You have nothing to lose.’ Going into it, every other team is picked to be better than us. We’re always going in as the underdog. I kind of like the situation that we’re in because we can’t let anyone down. I think it’s all motivation to prove everyone wrong.”
“After the first two games, I know we’re not the worst in the conference,” O’Connor said. “We’re somewhere in there. We’re right there. We’re going to surprise people. I know we’re able to play here. How many games we’re going to win, I don’t know. But I know we’re going to give teams problems.”
Brien Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BErick1123.