For the first time in school history, a UCF Knights team can officially say, “We’re number 1!”
The UCF Men’s Soccer team hit another milestone as the Knights were ranked No. 1 nationally in the United Soccer Coaches poll with a 9-1-2 record and seven of eight first-place votes.
This comes at the heels of last Friday night when UCF was the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA midseason top 16 committee rankings for the 48-team NCAA Tournament.
Why is that important? The Top 16 seed gets a bye into the round of 32. The Top 8 seeds would host each round through the round of 16. The top 4 seeds would host each round until the College Cup Final Four.
The NCAA DI Soccer Committee announces its Top 16 Men’s teams for results through October 19, 2023.— NCAA Soccer (@NCAASoccer) October 21, 2023
What does this all mean? It means the Knights are a serious national title contender. Not bad for a program in its first year in the Sun Belt Conference, as the Big 12 does not sponsor men’s soccer.
How did UCF Soccer get to this point? Well, you have to go back to December 5, 2016, when UCF hired Scott Calabrese as head men’s soccer coach.
In his first six seasons at UCF, Calabrese has led the Knights to three consecutive American Athletic Conference regular season titles and NCAA Tournament appearances (2018-2020), as well as two Sweet 16 appearances (2019-2020). This year, the Knights are close to a lock to earning a top 16 national seed for the third time during the Calabrese era (#14 in 2018, #9 in 2019).
To put that in perspective, prior to Calabrese, UCF had never won a conference regular season title, never made it past the round 32, and never received a top 16 national seed.
Calabrese has brought an exciting offense to UCF. The Knights are on pace to finish in the Top 15 in scoring in the country for the 4th time, currently ranking 14th in the NCAA in goals per game (2.17). The offense has scored at least 2 goals or more in 10 of the 12 matches including scoring 8 goals in the last two matches, led by Lucca Dourado with 9 goals this season, 3 goals away from 40 career goals which would rank him 5th all-time at UCF.
But the big story this season has been the defense. The 2023 Knights defense which Calabrese said is his best defense in his seven seasons at UCF has only allowed 11 goals in 12 matches with 4 shutouts. The Knights rank 34th in the NCAA in goals allowed per game (0.91) which is on pace best for the fewest goals allowed in the Calabrese era. It would be the first time since 2018 (46th) that the Knights would finish in the top 50 in fewest goals allowed per game — a massive improvement over last year when they ranked 127th.
One main reason for the huge improvement has been the growth of sophomore Juanvi Munoz who is in the mix to win Sun Belt Goalkeeper of the Year. The other reason for improvements has been the depth at the backline which is the deepest Calabrase has ever had led by Anderson Rossa, Zane Bubb, Jonas Fritschi, Timothy Arias, and others who are athletic and skilled.
It is fitting in a way that the first UCF team to be ranked No. 1 would come from one of the soccer programs. While American Football is UCF’s most popular sport, one can argue that UCF “Futbol” is the DNA of UCF Athletics, with the rich history of the women’s program, which played for the national title in 1982 and reached the College Cup in 1987 led by UCF’s Greatest Athlete ever produced in Michele Akers.
UCF Hall of Famer Jim Rudy was the Head Coach of both the men's and women’s programs as he started both programs. He left UCF after 1987 season for the UMass women’s soccer head coaching job as he told me due to UCF's lack of commitment to the soccer programs at the time.
One wondered, including me, if history would repeat itself with UCF's move from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12, considering the Big 12 does not sponsor men's soccer.
But UCF Director of Athletics Terry Mohajir made sure history would not repeat itself signing Calabrese to a contract extension through 2027 and finding a new home for the program in the Sun Belt which is currently the 3rd strongest conference in Men’s Soccer.
2️⃣ Sweet 16 Appearances— UCF Men's Soccer (@UCF_MSoccer) August 20, 2021
3️⃣ NCAA Tournament Appearances
4️⃣ @American_MSoc titles
7️⃣ more seasons!@CoachCalabrese has inked an extension that will keep him with the Black and Gold through 2027! ⚔ #ChargeOn
: https://t.co/azemba2exM pic.twitter.com/PHII3TIZ8O
I asked UCF Head Coach Scott Calabrese prior to the Georgia Southern match about his thoughts on the program being ranked No.2 at the time being the highest in program history. He said while there is pride that comes with that accomplishment that, “They play for trophies, not rankings”.
With two regular season matches left in the regular season. The Knights sit on top of the Sun Belt with 16 points which is one point ahead of Marshall and West Virginia who have been in the top five in the country with UCF for most of the year.
If the Knights win at Georgia State on Friday and at home against James Madison on Halloween, the Knights would lock up the Sun Belt regular season title and be the No. 1 seed at the Sun Belt tournament which the higher seed hosts. In that scenario, UCF could play all postseason home matches at home until the College Cup in Louisville.
UCF will be shorthanded for Georgia State’s match as the Knights will be without Munoz who will serve his suspension due to the red card he got in the win at South Carolina.
Who knows what will happen the rest of the year as soccer can be the most random and cruel sport when it comes to results. But in a season of firsts, this Knights team reaching No. 1 will have a lasting impact on all of UCF Athletics that any Knights team can indeed play themselves into saying “We’re No.1!”