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Small programs face make-or-break games early

Any college coach will tell you that it takes time for a team to jell. That a team will look very different in November than it did in September. That, in the beginning of the season, it's about finding your stride (albeit quickly) and setting the tone for the year. Those axioms are all true, but unless a team plays in one of the top-tier conferences, time is not a luxury. That doesn't mean it's a walk in the park for major conference programs -- there's nothing easy about playing a ranked opponent almost every game. But when a team plays in a conference that has no automatic bid and that sends only one or two teams to the NCAA tournament, getting a postseason ticket punched often comes down to the nonconference schedule, most of which is played out in the season's opening weeks. Former Akron goalkeeper Evan Bush (now with Cleveland's USL team) summed it up well last season when talking about the Zips and playing in the MAC: "[It helps] that our nonconference schedule is one of the better nonconference schedules in the country. We know we need to pick up some good signature wins before we get into our conference." RPI reflects such necessity. Last season, Loyola College (Md.) went undefeated in the regular season and entered the NCAA tournament 17-1-1, but was given the No. 9 seed. Compare that to fourth-seeded Michigan State, which entered the tournament 13-5-1, or No. 6 seed Indiana, which came in at 12-6-3. Saint Louis understands this disparity, as well. When the first RPI of 2008 was released in early October, the Billikens were No. 9 in the NSCAA coaches' poll. Based on the RPI formula, Saint Louis was 34th. Teams from stronger conferences should have an advantage when it comes to calculating rankings. Teams that play tougher opponents deserve to be rewarded come tournament time. However, it also puts greater stress on smaller programs to perform out of the gate. Every year, a team from a weaker conference seems to hit its stride down the stretch, only to find itself left out of the postseason because of September losses. This need for smaller programs to prove themselves early helps explain a number of the "wait, who won?" double takes that happen every season. For a ranked team, it's just the first or second game of a long season. For a bubble team, it can spell the difference between playing on Nov. 20 and sitting at home. It's why a 0-0 draw at No. 6 Creighton to open the season could be significant for Loyola (Ill.). Last year, just two teams from the nine-team Horizon League got an invite to the NCAA tournament. (The ACC had six of its nine teams represented.) Loyola (Ill.) secured the league's automatic bid by winning the conference tournament, coming up big when it mattered most. If that had not been the case, the Ramblers were probably looking at a longer offseason, given their 12-6-3 record (3-3-2 Horizon). This year, Loyola has already shown a determination to set itself on a different track. Although the University of Illinois-Chicago is the Horizon League favorite and a top national pick, if (and it's a big "if," considering we're just a game into the season) the Ramblers can win their next game against Canisius, come away with a win over Saint Louis (possibly even a draw), fare well in conference play, and play well against reigning national champ Maryland on Oct. 6, Loyola should stand a chance of getting into the tournament regardless of how UIC does.

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Yes, that is a lot of hypotheticals, and I'm not making any assertions that this will occur. The point is, if the Ramblers had been crushed by Creighton, gaining credibility would be an even greater uphill battle -- at least as far as the RPI goes. Now, instead of playing out of a hole from Day 1, the field is still level. Now the next game is just that, the next game, as opposed to being almost a must-win game. Sounds a little dramatic, but smaller-conference teams will attest that seasons can come down to such games. These kind of results also help build confidence, which is just what a team needs to start the year and keep racking up wins. One early result doesn't guarantee MAC/Horizon/Southern/take-your-pick-small-conference team an invitation to the NCAA tournament. But losing games against top nonconference opponents certainly isn't the way to get there.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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