MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — WVU men’s soccer has landed in a new league, one that’s being resurrected into somewhat of a national juggernaut.
After playing their final season in the MAC last fall, third-year head coach Dan Stratford and the Mountaineers will migrate to the Sun Belt Conference, and are set to begin competition in that league in 2022.
The Sun Belt, which has been bolstered by an incoming migration of multiple new members, confirmed Wednesday that it will reinstate men’s soccer this fall. The league discontinued the sport after the 2020-21 academic year.
Nine teams will compete in men’s soccer: current full members Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and Georgia Southern; incoming full members Marshall, James Madison and Old Dominion; and incoming affiliate members Kentucky, South Carolina and West Virginia.
“These elite programs will lend instant credibility and help establish the Sun Belt as one of the nation’s premier men’s collegiate soccer conferences,” said commissioner Keith Gill. “They each bring their unique traditions and histories of excellence. We welcome them and look forward to a bright future on the pitch.”
WVU will join the Sun Belt in men’s soccer at the same time in-state rival Marshall becomes a full member of the league. The Thundering Herd reached an exit agreement with Conference USA, allowing it to join the Sun Belt for competition at the start of the 2022-23 academic year.
Apparently, these two budding national soccer powers were destined to take their rivalry to the same conference. WVU announced last June that it was prepared to join Conference USA as a men’s soccer affiliate member for the 2022 season, where it would have faced Marshall annually in league play. Instead, both programs are now heading to the Sun Belt.
“Previously, we had planned to have our men’s soccer team compete in Conference USA, but realignment has changed those plans. Moving our men’s soccer program to the Sun Belt Conference gives us the best chance to compete nationally in a strong soccer conference,” WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons said in a statement. “I want to thank Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod for inviting us to be a part of the league’s men’s soccer lineup, but circumstances change constantly, and competing in the Sun Belt Conference is now the best option going forward for our soccer program at this time.”
West Virginia and Marshall are scheduled to meet Sept. 24 in Huntington, a match that will pit Stratford against Marshall skipper Chris Grassie, his former University of Charleston colleague.
“It’s great. I think it was always going to be a longstanding rivalry between ourselves and Marshall regardless, given the nature of my relationship with Chris,” Stratford said. “But now, to have it in conference, and again, have potentially more bragging rights either way on potential conference tournaments and conference titles, it will go a long way to continue to promote the series here in the state as well.”
The Mountain State Derby fell dormant for a period of 15 years after the 2004 regular season. It was rekindled in 2019 during the NCAA Tournament, and then resumed as a regular season series in the spring of 2021.
“When me and Strats used to work together at [Charleston], we talked about it all the time, like, ‘how is this game not happening?’ We’ve talked about it – we think we can get 10,000 fans,” Grassie said. “We can make this a big event in the future, and then, to have three points on the line just makes it that much more meaningful of a game that is already such a super rivalry and such a super draw.”
West Virginia won the spring 2021 clash 1-0 at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium, becoming the final team to defeat Marshall along its road to the national title. The two sides played to a 2-2 draw last season in Huntington.
The Mountaineers also have history with several other members of this resurgent conference. Georgia State and Georgia Southern played MAC schedules last season. WVU defeated each team in the regular season, but fell to Georgia State in the MAC Tournament.
In addition, WVU fell to Kentucky 1-0 last season in extra time. It was scheduled to play Coastal Carolina in the opening game of the spring 2021 campaign, but that fixture was cancelled.
In his second season with the program, Stratford led WVU to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament, completing one of the best seasons in program history.
The conference has also released WVU’s league schedule for the 2022 season. The Mountaineers will face all eight Sun Belt teams in their inaugural campaign in the league:
Saturday, September 17 – vs. Coastal Carolina
Saturday, September 24 – at Marshall
Saturday, October 1 – vs. South Carolina
Saturday, October 8 – at Old Dominion
Saturday, October 15 – vs. Kentucky
Wednesday, October 19 – at James Madison
Sunday, October 23 – vs. Georgia State
Friday, October 28 – at Georgia Southern