For the third time since 2011, West Virginia’s men’s soccer program has a new conference affiliation.
The latest one allows the Mountaineers to be members of a reinstated Sun Belt Conference, putting them in a nine-team league that will also feature Marshall, James Madison, Old Dominion, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Kentucky and South Carolina.
Like West Virginia, the Wildcats and Gamecocks are Sun Belt members in men’s soccer only.
“This has been a long development and process for us at WVU, specific to some of the movement and things that have happened in recent years,” WVU head coach Dan Stratford said. “I first have to commend the Sun Belt on their ambition to bring men’s soccer back and not only bring it back, but to bring it in this format with the quality of programs that we have.”
West Virginia most recently competed in the Mid-American Conference from 2012-2021 after leaving the Big East. Now the Mountaineers will compete in the Sun Belt, which did not sponsor men’s soccer in 2021 or from 1996-2013. The Sun Belt previously had men’s soccer from 1976-1995 and 2014-2020, and now shows a league where the nine members have combined for north of 100 all-time appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been perhaps a challenging two years in light of the pandemic for a lot of men’s soccer programs, so I couldn’t be more grateful to the Sun Belt to share an ambition that aligns with so many of the coaches that ultimately want to compete for national championships and be part of something incredibly competitive,” Stratford said. “Glad that we can finally make this announcement and start recruiting some of the best talent domestically and internationally as well based on the quality of the conference.”
Marshall, the 2020 national champion, becomes a full-time Sun Belt member July 1, as do James Madison and Old Dominion, which like the Thundering Herd, leaves behind Conference USA.
“I’ve been really proud to be a new member of the Sun Belt and I have to thank [Deputy Commissioner] Kathy Keene for that,” Marshall head coach Chris Grassie said. “You guys have worked incredibly well with us, not just to make sure that we have the affiliates in and such a strong soccer conference, but that the format was correct.
“You listened to us about concerns and we set up the league in a way that we’re going to have rest and recovery and get the best product on the field. From day one with the Sun Belt affiliation, I’ve been really proud to be a member and we’re going to do great things as a conference.”
Led by Grassie, Marshall was National Champion in the spring of 2021 after the 2020 season was pushed back.
Grassie previously worked with Stratford at the University of Charleston. Stratford served as an asisstant under Grassie, who left for Marshall in January 2017 and was replaced by Stratford as the Golden Eagles’ head coach.
WVU and Marshall will now meet on an annual basis as members of the same league. While the two programs have played three straight seasons, the 2019 meeting was the first since 2007.
“It’s a fantastic game for the state,” Grassie said. ‘When me and Strats used to work together at UC, we talked all the time like, ‘how is this game not happening?’ We think we can get 10,000 fans and make it a big event in the future. To have three points on the line just makes it just that much more meaningful for a game that’s already such a super rivalry and draw.”
WVU and MU will battle in the upcoming season on September 24 in Huntington.
“It was always going to be a long-standing rivalry with ourselves and Marshall regardless, given the nature of my relationship with Chris,” Stratford said. “Now to have it in conference, potentially more bragging rights either way on conference tournaments and conference titles will go a long way in continuing to promote it in the state as well.”
West Virginia also enjoyed success in its previous conference, winning the MAC in 2019 to dethrone Akron, which had won seven straight league crowns before that. Last season, the Mountaineers won twice in the NCAA Tournament to reach a national quarterfinal, before their season came to an end.
“Previously, we had planned to have our men’s soccer team compete in Conference USA, but realignment has changed those plans,” WVU Director of Athletics Shane Lyons said. “Moving our men’s soccer program to the Sun Belt Conference gives us the best chance to compete nationally in a strong soccer conference.”