The Secret’s Out: Stratford looks forward to stiffer competition in C-USA

Coach Dan Stratford wants to turn his WVU men’s soccer program into one of the top 10 teams in the country — and in 2022, his team will take a step up in competition to get there.

After playing through one last campaign in the Mid-American Conference in the upcoming fall 2021 season, West Virginia will move to Conference USA as an affiliate member. The Mountaineers will make the jump along with Coastal Carolina, joining programs like Charlotte and Marshall, the latter of which captured the national title in 2021. These additions will grow C-USA to a 10-team league — larger than the current 6-team structure of the MAC.

The move seemed to come out of the blue when it was announced by C-USA on Monday afternoon — even the players learned of the news at the same time as the general public. Stratford says, however, the discussions were posed to him as early as late January or early February.

“We obviously went through a pretty lengthy process of considering all the factors,” he said. “Considering the quality of where we were, what was working for us well, looking at the quality of opponents, looking at the finances in relation to the changing conference from a standpoint of travel and different things like that.”

Throughout the talks, Stratford says he was afforded a lot of “freedom of choice” in the move. Once everything fell in line, he says WVU Director of Athletics Shane Lyons and CFO Simon Dover turned to him to make the final call for his program. Lacking any ill will toward the MAC, the choice wasn’t very hard to make for the young gaffer.

“Looking at the quality of games and opponents that we’ll have and the way that we feel that that conference is trending, I feel like [C-USA] has already proven and will continue to prove to be one of the strongest men’s soccer conferences in the country,” Stratford said. “That had the most to do with it ultimately, was just the quality of competition on a consistent basis.”

Stratford has a history with conference realignment at West Virginia. After spending four seasons on the pitch for West Virginia as one of the top players in the Big East conference, he joined coach Marlon LeBlanc’s coaching staff in 2011. That year, West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12 — a league that lacks men’s soccer — forcing LeBlanc’s program to join the MAC.

Ten years later and now at the helm, a transition like this is somewhat familiar for Stratford. There have been some hurdles in making the switch, he says, especially as the program tries to leave its current MAC home respectfully, but it has largely moved forward without any issues or distractions.

“I have really been able to do my job, I have really been able to worry about what we were doing this spring season, focus on trying to get results and perform as best as we could for this spring,” Stratford said. “Those phone calls, those conversations have gone on really behind closed doors and in other offices to [mine], which has made my life incredibly easy.”

Stratford had his mind made up early in the process, mostly due to the clear step-up in competition in Conference USA. Beyond the national champions Marshall, two more future conference foes (current C-USA competitor Charlotte and fellow new addition Coastal Carolina) both qualified for the NCAA Tournament, which had a smaller 36-team field instead of the full 48 teams. Had the field been its normal size, it is possible that C-USA affiliate Kentucky, who finished the season ranked 36th in RPI, could have made the tournament as well.

On the other hand, just one team from the MAC — league champion Bowling Green — made the tournament as an automatic qualifier, despite West Virginia finishing the season at No. 12 in RPI.

In fact, that postseason miss was a slight point of contention among WVU’s players at the conclusion of the season. Stratford said that players began to pose questions about a possible conference move after finishing 6-3-1 in the MAC without a trip to the NCAA Tournament — but the coach was forced to keep mum about the ongoing talks.

Now that the secret is out, the West Virginia locker room is excited about the news and looking forward to facing stiffer competition.

“I know it’s going to be harder, but like I said, we have some pretty high ambitions for what this program is trying to achieve, in which case we’re going to need those types of tests during the regular season as well,” Stratford said.

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