Summit League men’s soccer has been on a steady membership decline, continuously losing affiliate members and having to find new affiliates to reach the required six members for an auto-qualifier to the NCAA Tournament. Over the past several seasons, affiliate members Lindenwood, Southern Indiana and Eastern Illinois have all since fled to the Ohio Valley Conference. Today, considering the recent Summit league exit of full-member Western Illinois (which fielded a men’s soccer program), the conference once again has dropped down to five soccer-playing men’s teams – one short of an the NCAA minimum six teams for an auto-qualifying bid . The men’s soccer part of the Summit is now left with DU, UMKC, Omaha, Oral Roberts, and St. Thomas.
The already weak Summit League members did little to prepare DU men’s soccer for the NCAA playoffs, despite head coach Jamie Franks tough non-conference schedules. Denver is now at the mercy of the Summit League to find another affiliate willing to shift conferences. This could logically be Lindenwood if the Summit League could poach the team back from the Ohio Valley conference. This is especially possible if rumors persist that the Summit League may someday incorporate hockey into its sports menu.
Another option is the vulnerable Pac-12 where online chatter suggests DU men’s soccer could be added as an affiliate member. The noise is growing around a Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State exit for the Big 12 after the PAC-12 already lost UCLA and USC to the Big 10. That leaves Washington, Stanford, Oregon State and California playing men’s soccer. San Diego State is also an associate member of the PAC-12 in soccer – and is likely to become a full-fledged member. That leaves the conference one team short with Denver, a high-profile men’s soccer team, looking for a landing spot. While there are some other solid teams on the west coast, such as Portland and San Diego, these two teams are already tied to a solid West Coast Conference.
Before the eye-rolling begins, remember that Denver competes quite successfully in the Big 12 in women’s gymnastics. However, the PAC-12 is in chaos with a lack of leadership and realignment uncertainty. This move could end up like DU’s awkward 2011-12 move to the WAC shortly before that league disintegrated a year later, with DU holding the bag.
The most likely soccer landing spot for DU (assuming the Summit League cannot find another soccer-playing men’s program), is the West Coast Conference, as either an affiliate member or as a full-fledged member, as we have discussed many times before. The cost of travel is equal to that of the Summit League and the quality of teams, top to bottom, is better, even if Gonzaga departs. If the Summit League eventually adds hockey, Denver could still remain an ‘affiliate member’ in men’s hockey in the Summit League, though there are still no realistic indications that this is going to happen at this point.
The additional risk posed by the current ‘soccer limbo’ is the possibility of losing highly regarded head coach Jamie Franks. He has openly stated his desire to win a national championship and the Summit League is, today, looking like a poor launching pad for his ambition. Considering the vulnerability of men’s soccer in the Summit League, we can only assume Franks’ phone is ringing with calls from other schools measuring Franks’ interest.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics