The benefits New Mexico reaps from playing more competitive men’s soccer conference comes at an increased cost in travel expenses.
Many schools in Conference USA, which UNM joined this season, are located at the eastern end of the United States. Aside from Tulsa, Okla., every school is at least 1,000 miles from Albuquerque. The Lobos averaged roughly 657 miles per trip in their old conference, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
An additional travel distance equals additional costs. Kurt Esser, a senior associate athletic director who oversees the Lobo soccer programs, said round-trip tickets to travel in C-USA have averaged roughly $450 per person. Tickets were $350, or $100 less per person, when UNM was a MPSF member.
On the whole, Esser said the travel budget increased by $18,000 as a result of the move. Fundraising efforts conducted by head coach Jeremy Fishbein have helped to cover the costs, Esser said.
“We went into it with some realization that we would be spending more per flight,” Esser said, “but we felt it was more important for our men’s soccer program to make that jump.”
On a competitive level, UNM (8-3-2, 4-0-1) has already reaped some of the benefits from its participation in C-USA, particularly in its ratings percentage index. The NCAA lists the Lobos at No. 11 nationally in RPI, a metric that ranks teams based on record and strength of schedule.
Five C-USA teams hold RPI ratings in the top 50 out of 203 NCAA Division I schools: UAB at No. 18, Old Dominion at No. 28, Charlotte at No. 30 and Tulsa at No. 49.
ODU overtook UNM for the conference lead by a two-point margin.
The Lobos travel to South Carolina this Saturday while the Monarchs play at Florida Atlantic.
UNM finished eighth nationally in RPI in 2011, according to the NCAA, but the Lobos were the only MPSF representative to crack the top 35. California State Bakersfield was 36th that year while Air Force was 66th.
“Parity is one thing, but parity with good top-end is important as well,” Esser said. “When you have parity, you have to make sure that it’s fruitful. You can look at a conference and they can have parity but all the schools be 150 or above in the RPI.”
The additional travel distance led to a change in how UNM’s games are scheduled. Last year UNM played several weekend series with opponents, playing one game Friday night with another game Sunday.
Fishbein said that led to a different rhythm for Sundays from fatigue.
To accommodate travel, UNM this year has played several midweek and Saturday games. The Lobos had just one game a week over the last two weeks. This allows additional time dedicated to recovery.
“You can be at your best every game, and they’re night games,” Fishbein said. “It’s just a little bit more energy. Those Fridays-Sundays where it’s a Sunday afternoon, there’s just not that good a game with energy and fatigue. We’re getting a much higher-caliber match.”
Esser said the longer plane rides also allow more study time for players’ academic studies as well.
The players don’t seem to mind the travel. UNM has yet to be beaten on road trips with four wins and a tie. Only one other C-USA team, Old Dominion, hasn’t lost on the road.
“We love going on road trips,” midfielder Ben McKendry said. “Some teams don’t travel well but we’re a team that doesn’t mind going halfway across the country to play a game. We enjoy each other’s company. We enjoy team meals together. It doesn’t bother us too much.”