The University of Maryland’s break from the Atlantic Coast Conference after six decades will not damage the elite national status of the men’s soccer program. Regardless of league affiliation, the Terrapins will remain among the country’s top teams and contend for a College Cup berth almost every autumn.
But the move, which takes effect in 2014, will disrupt Maryland’s annual tussles with Virginia, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest — matches that have provided not only high drama for decades, but four of the most compelling rivalries in the country.
Despite the change, Coach Sasho Cirovski said he wasn’t upset.
“After the initial shock and after getting to understand the reasons and possibilities, I am good with it,” he said. “Look, Maryland soccer is still going to be great. I love the ACC, but I love Maryland more.”
About the Big Ten, he added: “It’s a good conference and we hope we can elevate it to one of the best in the nation.”
Cirovski hopes to maintain bonds with ACC schools by filling some non-conference dates with soon-to-be former rivals.
The fact is, though, Maryland is leaving behind the most decorated soccer conference in the country. In the previous seven years, ACC schools won won five national titles and finished second once.
The Terps will now become acquainted with a fabled program (seven-time champion Indiana) and a semi-regional foe (Penn State). But they will have to adapt to matches in colder climates and longer road trips. Cirovski will continue to sign top recruits, but part of the allure of playing for Maryland is playing in the ACC. The switch to the Big Ten could cost him a prospect here and there.
Conference ties have fueled four of the top five crowds in Ludwig Field history and helped Maryland become one of the country’s attendance leaders.
Maryland’s absence from the ACC tournament removes a program that won three of the past five league titles and, last week, was the driving force behind 9,000 spectators turning out at Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County for the final between the Terps and Tar Heels.
“It’s going to hurt our conference,” Virginia’s George Gelnovatch said. “Maryland has won national championships and always been in the top four in the ACC. We’re going to need to replace them with Louisville or Connecticut.” They are Big East universities that are reportedly in the mix to join the ACC — and happen to have strong soccer programs.
In terms of conference strength, the Big Ten is formidable. This year four teams were invited to the NCAA tournament: Indiana and Northwestern have advanced to the round of 16 while Michigan and Michigan State lost in the second round.
But only seven of the league’s 12 schools field men’s soccer programs — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue never will — and aside from the Hoosiers, Wisconsin is the only other Big Ten team to win an outright national title in the tournament’s 52-year history. Six ACC schools have won NCAA crowns.
Rutgers, which is expected to take flight from the Big East and join Maryland, would raise the number of Big Ten soccer teams to nine. The Scarlet Knights reached the final four in 1989, ’90 and ’94.
Nine of 12 ACC schools play men’s soccer. Five made the 48-team NCAA tournament this fall: Boston College lost in the first round, Wake and Virginia fell in the second, and Maryland and North Carolina are in the round of 16 this weekend.
On the women’s side, Maryland will depart a conference that sent nine of 11 competing schools to the 64-team NCAA tournament this year and boasts the sport’s most accomplished program, 25-time champion North Carolina. Five of 12 Big Ten teams were chosen to the tournament this year, but none from the league has advanced to the final since Wisconsin in 1991.