The parity expected in Conference USA men’s soccer is beginning to show itself in the early stages of league play.
Eight teams already have at least one win, and only standings leader Alabama-Birmingham has two victories. Without a loss in its first two conference games, New Mexico (5-3-2, 1-0-1 C-USA) finds itself second in the league standings ahead of six 1-1 squads.
The Lobos take that record to Tulsa, Okla., today to battle the Golden Hurricanes, a team projected to win the league in the C-USA preseason poll. UNM has not endured a road loss this season, at 3-0-1 outside Albuquerque’s city limits.
When on the road, the team can focus solely on soccer, senior midfielder Michael Calderon said. There are fewer distractions than there are at home, such as balancing academic work with soccer schedules, and social interactions.
“We go to eat, we go to practice,” he said. “We’re more focused on the game. That’s why we’ve been doing really well on our trips.”
Head coach Jeremy Fishbein will not let that be an excuse for why the team hasn’t won at home in its last four attempts, though. The Lobos enter tonight’s contest following Friday’s scoreless tie against Charlotte in their first C-USA match at the UNM Soccer Complex.
UNM has scored six goals in its four road games. At home the Lobos have recorded 11 goals, but seven of those goals came in a season-opening rout over Villanova. Since then, the team has four goals over five home contests.
“We’ve played 10 games. We’ve been good in nine out of 10 games,” Fishbein said. “In the one game that we weren’t (Charlotte), we came away with a draw which to me is a positive. When you’re not good, to get that result, I think there was a lot of good in that.”
In Conference USA, that could make a difference.
Tulsa (6-3-1 overall) is one of those six teams with a win and a loss in two conference games. The Hurricanes dropped their first C-USA game to Old Dominion and, following a setback to nonconference foe Maryland, captured an overtime victory over South Carolina.
The Monarchs and Gamecocks also carry a 1-1 league record. ODU’s C-USA loss occurred against a struggling Kentucky squad that has three wins overall this season.
“We’re undefeated in the conference right now, so I’m excited for the game,” Fishbein said. “It’s up to us. If we’re good, we’ll be successful.”
Tulsa leads the league in shots with 186 attempts. Its 21 goals in 10 games ranks third among C-USA teams, and Christian Mata’s seven goals put him in second place on the conference statistics list. He is the only Hurricane player to crack the top 13.
Three UNM players make that list. Niko Hansen sits in a four-way tie for sixth with five goals, while Calderon and James Rogers are in a four-way tie for 10th. The Lobos have 17 goals this season.
Though Mata leads Tulsa in scoring, the team has three other players with three goals apiece – Tony Rocha, Akeil Barrett and Kyle Cumings. Mata and Barrett each have five assists.
Calderon said UNM will not care that Tulsa was tabbed as the preseason favorite in C-USA because “that changes all the time.” For example, he said, UNM held a No. 11 ranking in the coaches poll earlier this year but eventually dropped out of the top 25.
“I don’t think the rankings are really important right now,” he said. “I think we just have to go there, do our work from the beginning, press and try to score on our opportunities, and we’ll be fine.”
After returning home from Tulsa, UNM hosts Florida International on Saturday. The Panthers (5-5-0, 1-1-0 C-USA) shutout Marshall in its last C-USA outing but lost earlier in the year to Florida Atlantic.
FIU holds the No. 2 spot in total goals with 22, including five from Roberto Alterio.