CCU men's soccer

CCU defender Marcelo Lage celebrates a goal in their 2-1 win over Georgia Southern on Oct. 25. Lage leads the team with 5 goals and scored a goal in the Sun Belt tournament over the weekend. Coastal won their fourth Sun Belt title in the past five years Sunday, beating Georgia State in penalties. Photo by Ian Livingston Brooking.

Coastal Carolina will take its men’s soccer program to Conference USA.

“Coastal Carolina is a nationally-respected and accomplished men’s soccer program,” Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said in a news release. “Adding them to an already strong lineup of teams will further enhance one of the conference’s most successful sports.”

Head coach Shaun Docking is pleased with the transition.

“It’s a fantastic move for us,” Docking said. “We’re very thrilled and honored to be invited into Conference USA. It’s definitely a great move for our program.” 

The Chanticleers are currently in the Sun Belt Conference and have been since 2016. Much like their time in the Big South, Coastal dominated during their five-year stint in the Sun Belt, winning three regular season conference titles and four tournament titles. The Chanticleers won the 2020 Sun Belt championship back in November, defeating Georgia State on penalty kicks.

The move comes after what was a difficult year for Sun Belt men’s soccer. While the conference did add Central Arkansas earlier in 2020, the conference saw two programs (Appalachian State and Howard University) not participate in the fall season. The pandemic forced Appalachian State to cut their men’s soccer program entirely. Howard University, which is an FCS football school and is primarily in the MEAC, had all fall sports skip out on the fall season after only FBS football was to be played. 

That left just Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Central Arkansas to battle it out on the pitch in the Sun Belt Conference in the fall. 

Coastal Carolina Athletics Director Matt Hogue said that the university was given clearance by the Sun Belt Conference to look at joining another conference.

“There were some collaborative discussions among the Sun Belt and with Conference USA,” Hogue said. “Eventually, we just reached a point where we got the go ahead [to go join Conference USA].”

Hogue said the university had hoped to remain under the Sun Belt Conference but it just wasn’t “feasible“ in regards to an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament under the current landscape.

Under Docking, Coastal has made it to 15 NCAA Tournaments in his 23 years of coaching. While a majority of those appearances came from winning the conference tournament, there were at-large bids in 2002, 2011, 2012 and 2015.

The two conferences that Coastal has been a part of in the past are typically one-bid conferences, meaning the conference tournament champion is likely the only team that will make it to the NCAA Tournament from that conference.

This is why the move to Conference USA is critical. Should the Chanticleers put together a strong conference outing but end up falling short in the conference tournament, their RPI should be good enough to at least get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. 

“That’s the major factor in our decision in pursuing this,” Hogue said. “Our program has been one of the strongest in the nation in the last five or six years. We have a program at a very high-level with high expectations. Our goal is to always reach the postseason, whether it’s getting an automatic bid or compiling a strong enough resume. Obviously after that our goal is to advance as deeply as we can once we reach the postseason.”

The Chanticleers will join a stacked Conference USA, which includes the likes of Kentucky, Charlotte, Marshall and Old Dominion. 

Junior defender Marcelo Lage said matchups with those teams and the strong non-conference schedule that Coastal seems to put up every year should improve their chances of securing a postseason appearance. 

“Those games will boost our RPI for sure,” Lage said.

Kentucky was the No. 3 overall seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament, making it to the Elite Eight. Marshall went 16-3-3 in 2019, making it all the way to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. The Charlotte 49ers are a typical opponent for Coastal every year, with both teams being ranked at times. In 2019, Charlotte defeated Coastal in overtime 2-1. Charlotte also is known for its miracle run to the NCAA championship game in 2011. They ultimately lost to North Carolina.

Aside from a stronger conference schedule, Docking hopes that joining Conference USA will get the program more exposure.

“A lot of guys get drafted out of that league,” Docking said. “You get more pro scouts coming to watch a game.” 

One of the biggest eye-opening matchup‘s will be with Florida International. The Panthers of FIU are coached by Kyle Russell, the former assistant head coach at Coastal Carolina. Russell was also a defender for the Chanticleers from 2005 to 2008. After he was done with his collegiate career, Russell became a student volunteer during the 2009 season before ultimately becoming an assistant from 2010 to 2014. He was named associate head coach in 2015 and held the title until his departure in the spring of 2020. 

Russell is currently 1-1-0 at FIU and has the Panthers ranked No. 25 in the nation. Docking praised his former assistant on the work he’s done so far.

“He’s done a great job already with the program,” Docking said. “We have to go down there in the fall. I know he’s going to have them ready for us.“

Coastal Carolina began their spring season on Saturday with a 2-0 loss to Virginia Tech. They will compete in the spring as a Sun Belt program. Coastal Carolina will become a full member of Conference USA in men’s soccer in the fall season. 

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