By AVI CREDITOR
The A in MAC might as well have stood for Akron for the last couple of decades.
Akron has won the Mid-American Conference's regular season title 14 times since 1993, including each of the last seven years. Caleb Porter's side is reloaded again for another run at the conference crown and a potential national championship, but the Zips have a new league foe to contend with this season: West Virginia.
After making the move from the Big East to the MAC as part of conference realignment, the Mountaineers go from one of the deeper, more balanced leagues to one of the more top-heavy ones in the country. There's no question who the Mountaineers are looking at as the top dog in their new conference. It's the same one the MAC's coaches voted No. 1 in the preseason poll.
"Akron will be the toughest team," West Virginia senior centerback Eric Schoenle said. "They're in the national championship talk every single year. They're a big obstacle. Right now, we're focusing on us, but at the same time, our talent stacks up with the best teams in the country. It's my deepest team we've had in four years. Before we might not have been able to go 5-to-6 deep in a game, and this year we can go past that. That'll help us in the later stages of the season."
Even though Akron bowed out of the conference tournament in the semifinals to Western Michigan last season and lost the likes of Darren Mattocks from last year's squad, Porter brought in a top-level recruiting class that includes a who's-who of MLS academy products and U.S. youth national team standouts such as forward Alfred Koroma, midfielder Dillon Serna, defender Andrew Souders and goalkeeper Fernando Pina.
So while the Mountaineers see Akron as their top competition after contending with the likes of Louisville, Connecticut, Notre Dame, St. John's and South Florida in recent seasons, they still have respect for some of the lesser-known opponents that they'll be up against for conference supremacy. Hartwick has been an underrated contender in past years, while Northern Illinois and Western Michigan have quietly put together strong, under-the-radar programs as well.
In terms of raising the strength of schedule, West Virginia is playing at North Carolina, at Wake Forest and at Penn State in succession on Aug. 31, Sept. 2 and Sept. 6, respectively, to set the tone for the season ahead.
"Those will be the games where I'm assuming more people will want to watch as opposed to us playing a Stetson or a Hartwick, but the little games are just as important as the big games," Schoenle said. That's one of the things we have to realize this season. Just because we have a North Carolina or an Akron down the schedule doesn't mean we can just focus on those games."
Despite the drop in conference strength, West Virginia coach Marlon LeBlanc does not see a downside to the transition.
"Now more than ever I don't see that as a hindrance to us," said LeBlanc, who has helped build his program into one of the more steady ones in the country over the last few years. "It hasn't been a hindrance to Akron, and we don't anticipate it being a hindrance to us.
"We're at a place right now that clubs are coming to watch us play regardless of who we're playing against. We get a really good following from MLS coaches, because they appreciate some of the things we're doing here. We're not real worried about it. It's the program that makes the conference, not the conference that makes the program."