COLUMN: Kentucky mens soccer should look to leave the Sun Belt


Isabel McSwain

Kentucky players celebrate with the championship trophy after after the No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 7 James Madison soccer match in the championship round of the Sun Belt Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 2-0. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

Ask any Kentucky fan what conference the Wildcats play in, and you’ll get one answer every single time: the SEC.

Whether it be football matchups against Tennessee, basketball duels against… probably also Tennessee or otherwise, the Wildcats are always a mainstay in the Southeastern Conference.

Kentucky baseball can be seen hosting Missouri, softball hosting Georgia, womens soccer taking on Arkansas, volleyball battling Florida and so on, but you look into the mens soccer corner to see the Wildcats host… Georgia State?

In all fairness it’s not like UK has a choice to be in the Southeastern Conference in the sport, the SEC simply does not host mens soccer as only the Cats and South Carolina field the program, but I fear this difference will only hinder the Wildcats as they move forward.

Why do I say this? Well let’s paint a picture:

Kentucky mens soccer entered the 2022 NCAA Tournament undefeated, earning the No. 1 overall seed after claiming both the Sun Belt regular season and Sun Belt Tournament championships.

Earning a first-round bye and decimating USF 4-0 in the second round, the Wildcats geared up to face unseeded Pittsburgh.

Well, the Panthers won after a late stunner put them up 2-1, a deficit UK couldn’t overcome with less than five minutes left to play.

Do you think the Panthers were ecstatic to have conquered the best team in the sport? Do you think they were amazed by their own win? No. They were eerily calm, as though they never had any doubt heading into the matchup whatsoever.

“I think we showed the level of competition is a lot stronger where we play,” Pittsburgh senior Valentin Noel said after the win.

To Noel’s point, in beating Kentucky and making the Elite Eight, Pittsburgh became the third ACC school to find itself in the quarterfinals. To put that differently, if you picked out an Elite Eight team at random, there was a 37% chance that it would be from the ACC.

The Panthers would go on to beat Portland in the Elite Eight and make the College Cup where they were promptly shut out by No. 13 Indiana, but now that the National Championship game has come and gone, we are faced with Noel’s sentiment coming flooding back.

Who won the National Championship, you may ask? Syracuse. An ACC school.

The championship was the first for the Orange but marked the seventh different ACC school to hoist the trophy.

In fact, including when Clemson became the first current ACC school to win the mens soccer national championship in 1984, 40 teams have been crowned national champions (1989 finished in a draw before penalty-kick tiebreakers were implemented) with 16 of those having been ACC schools.

Additionally, 10 of those schools came from the Big 10 and seven have been from the Pac-12.

Put simply, over ¾ of the last 40 national champions in the sport have come from just three conferences with over half coming from two.

While this isn’t super uncommon in college sports, with nearly ¾ of the last 40 mens basketball national champions hailing from either the ACC, Big East or SEC, as well as over half of the last 40 womens basketball champions hailing from either the SEC or Big East, Kentucky is usually included in the in-group.

Not in mens soccer.

Of the last 40 mens soccer champions, only one, Marshall, is currently in the Sun Belt, with many considering the Herd’s 2020 championship simply a product of the stars aligning just right in its favor.

Kentucky’s 2022 campaign was very impressive, and the Cats did secure some serious wins, such as beating eventual runner-up Indiana 3-0 in Bloomington, but beating Georgia State 5-1 and Georgia Southern 6-0 in conference games did nothing to help the eventual No. 1 overall seed.

Granted, it’s hard to base an entire conference alignment on the greatest season the program has ever had, but if this form, or even close to it, can continue for UK, it’s going to become very apparent that, apart from Marshall and perhaps the occasional West Virginia season, Kentucky is going to be miles above the rest of the Sun Belt.

If the Wildcats truly want to boast one of the top programs in mens soccer on a year-to-year basis it is probably in their best interest to begin looking into other options for their conference.

I don’t know that the Big 10 or ACC would be interested in taking on the Cats as a mens-soccer-only member, but it may be worth a shot to try anyway.

At least the team would be able to put on some of those iconic conference matchups fans have grown so accustomed to in other sports and be tested on a regular basis that way.