The University of Kentucky men's soccer team will aim to take the next step in a breakout season Friday night when it plays Charlotte for the Conference USA regular-season championship at UK's Wendell and Vickie Bell Complex. "We were voted to finish sixth in Conference USA by the coaches in the preseason poll, so to be able to finish either first or second, which we are now assured of, is nice," Kentucky Coach Johan Cedergren said.
The Cats, ranked No. 13 in this week's national coaches' poll, can claim the conference title with a win or a tie. Charlotte, ranked No. 5 in the nation, will take the championship only with a victory.
While Friday night settles conference bragging rights, the real work comes next week when the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will be on the line at Old Dominion.
"We've put ourselves in a place where we have everything to play for still. We need to finish strong. The Kentucky men's soccer program hasn't won a title since 2004, so it's about time for us to do it again," Cedergren said.
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Friday's game has not only been designated as Fan Appreciation Day — offering free admission — but is Senior Night for Wildcats Justin Laird and Dmitri DeChruch-Silva.
UK has attracted 9,589 fans to its new home this season. The 10,000th fan to enter the gates will receive a UK men's soccer prize pack. Also, UK will give out Blue-vuzelas (blue vuvuzelas) to the first 500 Cats fans in attendance.
The Wildcats have not been beaten in their past nine games, going 6-0-3 in that stretch. Their No. 13 ranking matches the program's previous high from 2006.
Kentucky has ridden an elite defense and opportunistic offense to the top spot in C-USA.
Kentucky's 0.55 goals-against average leads the conference and is the best in program history. The Wildcats have allowed just 10 goals this season, compared with the 23 they have scored. The Cats have allowed goals in only two league games.
Charlotte has won three games in a row, and is unbeaten in its last four. The 49ers have played UK three times previously, having won all three.
Charlotte boasts one of the nation's most lethal offenses, averaging 2.31 goals per game, good for fifth-best in the NCAA.
Striker Kyle Parker leads Charlotte with eight goals.
Women also play Friday
The UK women's soccer team continues play Friday night in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Orange Beach, Ala.
Kentucky, which beat Auburn 2-1 in Wednesday's quarterfinals, takes on Tennessee in the semifinals at 7 p.m. EST.
The other semifinal pits Texas A&M against South Carolina at 4:30 p.m. Both games will be televised live on the SEC Network.
Tennessee, the tournament's No. 10 seed, knocked off No. 2 seed Florida on Wednesday.
The Cats, seeded No. 3, did not play the Volunteers during the regular season.
UK is looking for its first SEC Tournament title since 2006 and its third ever.