On Nov. 16, the Big East conference announced that the Akron Zips would be joining the conference in men’s soccer after the Mid-American Conference stopped sponsoring the sport. This move coincides with the Big East sending three teams to the 2022 NCAA Tournament, one of which is in the quarterfinals, and every other club being within two games of a conference playoff spot.
The Zips made a smart decision moving to a great soccer conference because of the competition level and the Big East’s history of success. This does not get discussed enough, but soccer is the second-most competitive sport sponsored by the Big East outside of basketball, it’s bread and butter.
The Big East began sponsoring men’s soccer in 1982, right on the heels of its rise to national prominence in college basketball after the Georgetown Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing, made the national title game. Since its foundation, the conference has had three national champions, 13 College Cup appearances, at least one team in the final coaches rankings every year since 1996 and hundreds of All-Americans. The Hoyas have been the standard of success in recent times, winning the 2019 National Championship in thrilling fashion and making the College Cup in 2021, but other teams have been just as powerful.
The Seton Hall Pirates, who won the conference tournament in the spring of 2021, and the Creighton Bluejays, who take on the seventh-seeded Blue Devils in the quarterfinals on Saturday, joined Georgetown in this year’s national tournament. Since the 2012 season, the conference has had at least two teams in the tournament almost every year, with the exception of 2018. This move occurred with less fanfare than the Bryant Bulldogs moving to the America East Conference, but Akron is a really good program and helps build on the conference’s competitive reputation.
It all starts with a man named Jared Embick, the current head coach of the Zips. Embick was initially hired in 2007 as an assistant coach under Caleb Porter before becoming the associate head coach in 2010 and the head coach in 2012. Embick is 124-53-25 as the team’s head coach and has a 234-66-41 overall record in the program, which includes his time as an assistant. Since arriving in Northeastern Ohio, Akron has won 74.6% of its matches, the best in the nation in that span. The program has also had 23 players selected in the MLS SuperDraft, which includes first overall selections in 2009 (Steve Zakuani) and 2018 (Joã
ão Moutinho) and two second overall picks.
The Zips finished first in the MAC in each of the last 11 seasons, winning their 21st regular season title in 2022 with a 5-0-3 record in conference play. Despite their dominant regular season, they lost the MAC Championship against the Western Michigan Broncos, 2-1. Despite the result, Akron earned the No. 16 seed and a first-round bye with an 11-3-5 overall record, but were eliminated in the second round against the Pittsburgh Panthers, 3-0.
This is only a small bump in Akron’s soccer history, as the program has been to five College Cups and is 1-2 in national title games since 2000. The Zips defeated the Louisville Cardinals— then a Big East school— in 2010, but lost to the Virginia Cavaliers in 2009 and the Maryland Terrapins in 2018. They are essentially the Gonzaga men’s basketball of men’s soccer, a national powerhouse thriving in a comparatively weaker conference.
The benefits of joining the Big East are starting to play out. Beyond the fact that they could compete for the conference tournament title starting next year, Athletic Director Charles Guthrie notes that the men’s soccer team has a Top 10 recruiting class coming in 2023. I am not an expert when it comes to soccer recruits, but just like the UConn Huskies’ return to the Big East in 2020, this move should only make attracting high school talents that much better.
As a result of the Zips joining the conference as the 12th men’s soccer program, the Big East is going to have divisions for the first time since 2012. The teams will play each of their divisional opponents once and three teams in the other division during conference play. This only totals eight conference matches a season, down from 10, but makes conference points that much more critical to earn.
The Midwest Division features Akron, Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Marquette and Xavier. None of those schools were in the original Big East in 1979, but all consistently have national title hopes. All of these schools are within 1,000 miles of each other, and their relative proximity harkens to the days when West Virginia, Notre Dame and Cincinnati— among others— were in the conference.
The East Division features Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova. All of these schools are essentially rivals with each other in basketball and are connected by I-95 in some way. The fact that these teams get to play each other every single season is going to create enough sparks to power the East Coast for at least eight years.
Overall, I think this move provides a major boost to the opponents the program plays as well as a divergence from consistent success. One thing I have noticed about Big East men’s soccer is that the conference standings fluctuate more than a fish on land from season to season, and it is hard to gauge which teams are consistently good and which are not. Simply put, the Zips will not always be at the top of the table.
Although Akron will be joining the conference in just men’s soccer, the move boosts the entire conference’s image while providing another program that strives to win a national championship in college athletics. Regardless of how the Bluejays do against Duke, I am excited for Big East men’s soccer in the fall of 2023.