Wildcats win conference title; secure first round BYE in NCAA Tournament


Kentucky celebrates forward Ben Damge’s (27) goal during the University of Kentucky vs. Duquesne men’s soccer game on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, at the Bell Soccer Complex in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 3-1. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

Kentucky men’s soccer defeated Florida Atlantic 2-1 in overtime to win the team’s Conference USA championship on Sunday. The win earned the Wildcats an auto bid to the NCAA Tournament and contributed to the Cats earning a first round BYE and home field advantage as the No. 9 team in the bracket.

Despite stumbling late in the regular season with a draw against South Carolina and a loss on the road against Charlotte, the Cats dominated the FAU Owls 3-0 in their season finale. Their momentum carried over into the conference tournament as Kentucky shut down Coastal Carolina 3-1 after having tied the Chanticleers in their season opener. 

The Cats moved on to a second-round matchup against the No. 1 seeded FIU Panthers, another team Kentucky drew in the regular season. In a dominant display, the Wildcats beat the Panthers 3-0 with senior forward Daniel Evans recording two second half goals in the shutout to punch the Cats’ ticket to the championship game.

In the title match, Kentucky once again met the Owls, who were in the midst of a “Cinderella” tournament run, defeating Charlotte with penalty kicks and upsetting Marshall in the semi-finals.

The Owls drew first blood, forcing Kentucky to enter the second half trailing for the first time all season, but Marcel Meinzer scored on a penalty kick to tie the game at one and force overtime. Not five minutes through the extra period, Eythor Bjorgolfsson would score and win the game for the Wildcats, earning himself a tournament offensive MVP award in the process.

When the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed, the Cats heard their name called to be the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament, granting Kentucky a first-round BYE and guaranteeing home-field advantage in the second round. Kentucky was one of four C-USA teams to make the tournament, with Marshall and FIU also earning first-round BYEs, while Charlotte will enter the first round.

The Wildcats’ first opponent will be the winner between Santa Clara and Akron. Santa Clara boasts an 11-1-4 record, with its lone loss coming against No. 3 Georgetown. The Broncos won the West Coast Conference, finishing undefeated in the WCC. Akron, on the other hand, weighs in at 9-5-3. The Zips enter the tournament following an overtime loss against Western Michigan in the MAC.

If Kentucky is able to knock off their second round opponent, the Cats will play either No. 8 Clemson or its opponent, the winner of a first-round bout between Grand Canyon and Denver.

The road to glory would not get any easier if the Wildcats were to make it out of the third round, as they find themselves within the same quadrant as the No. 1 overall seed Oregon State. If the Cats were able to advance further, there would be just two games separating UK from winning their first ever NCAA National Championship.

UK’s second-round matchup kicks-off this Sunday, Nov. 21, though the time is TBD. The game can be viewed on ESPN+.