I think it’s safe to say that over the last several years the Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer program has proven itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Division I Collegiate Soccer landscape. Following back-to-back trips to the NCAA men’s soccer tournament, one of which resulted in the program’s first appearance in the College Cup Finals, expectations are understandably high. These successes and resulting expectations couldn’t come at a more interesting time for this storied program and for the Charlotte Athletic Department as a whole.
I always find that in order to better understand where you’re going, it helps to first know where you’ve been. While the university boasts its inception as the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina in 1946, the school didn’t enjoy conference athletic affiliation until about 1965. From 1965 until 1970, Charlotte was a member of the Dixie Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in the NAIA. During this time, growth began to take over the university, the athletic department, and the city of Charlotte as a whole. Charlotte left the DIAC in 1970 and competed athletically as an independent from 1970 through 1976.
It was not until 1976 though that Charlotte athletics really began to make its presence known in Division I collegiate athletics. From 1976 through 1991, Charlotte competed as a charter member of the newly formed Sun Belt Conference, enjoying their first and only trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four in 1977. Then in 1991 Charlotte joined the Metro Conference which in 1995 joined with the Great Midwest Conference to create Conference USA.
During Charlotte’s 10-year membership in Conference USA (1995-2005), the men’s soccer program made their first-ever College Cup appearance, enjoyed two Conference Championships, and competed in the NCAA Tournament twice (’96 and ’97). During their stay with Conference USA, Charlotte faced a litany of national powerhouses, not just in men’s soccer but across the board athletically. Previous opponents during their original Conference USA tenure included Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Houston, South Florida, Marquette, Memphis, and UAB.
Charlotte originally left Conference USA following the 2005 spring athletic season for the Atlantic 10, a more basketball-focused conference. During Charlotte’s hiatus with the Atlantic 10, the men’s soccer program enjoyed the most success of its storied history. Since the inception of the men’s soccer program at Charlotte in 1976, the team has not enjoyed more success and national recognition than during their time in the Atlantic 10.
As previously mentioned, an appearance in the College Cup Finals in 2011 is the jewel in the quite heavy crown of a program that has scratched and clawed its way to the top of an ever-expanding national soccer landscape. They captured a regular season conference championship in 2011, and enjoyed three trips to the NCAA Tournament (’09, ’11, and ’12), making an appearance in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament Finals in 2007.
For the first time in almost eight years, Charlotte now returns to compete in Conference USA. The landscape is different, if not downright unrecognizable. Charlotte will now face conference opponents they haven’t seen in years, if ever. The team has enjoyed success these last eight years as a member of the Atlantic 10, gaining much needed and deserved attention and respect from storied Division I soccer programs, fans (both local and across the country), and coaches looking to add competition to their non-conference schedules. The question is, after their time away from Conference USA, can Charlotte continue to carry the fire with them into what might as well be a brand new conference? I think they can.
One thing’s for sure, the spotlight is on. The new opponents are preparing for a fight, the nation has seen what Charlotte Men’s Soccer is capable of, and don’t expect “America’s Conference” to take the 49ers’ return lightly.