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Rutgers head coach Jim McElderry discusses scheduling challenges with Big Ten expansion



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

With the Big Ten expanding to 18 schools for 2024 after adding Washington and Oregon last week, how the conference plans to schedule in the future remains a major question. For football, the recently released 2024 and 2025 schedules will need to be reworked. Nothing has been reported in regard to basketball. One major question is how scheduling will work with the Olympic sports. With four west coast schools, scheduling league play gets more challenging and will be different per sport based on which programs exist.

For men’s soccer, the Big Ten is adding two programs, UCLA and Washington, growing the league to 11 teams. The Bruins are a historical giant in the sport, winning four national titles and making 14 Final Fours. Rutgers fans remember the painful memory of the 1990 national title loss to UCLA by penalty shootout. As for the Huskies, they’ve become a national power after making the 2021 national title game and finishing No. 11 last season with a 15-2-3 record.

Rutgers head coach Jim McElderry spoke to the media this week ahead of training for the 2023 season beginning on Tuesday. The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 10-5-6 campaign in which RU finished in second place in the Big Ten regular season standings, won the Big Ten Tournament championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. He spoke about adding UCLA and Washington to what is already one of the best leagues in the country.

“It’s exciting. You’re looking at a team like UCLA joining our conference who not only have been very good in the past, but are very good right now. The University of Washington who two years ago were in the Final Four. You are bringing in two huge programs that are national brands but also selfishly for us in men’s soccer, they are top programs. It makes our conference stronger,” stated McElderry.

In terms of what the Big Ten schedule will look like in 2024, McElderry explained the moves are so new that nothing has been determined yet.

“Yes, travel can be a little bit daunting right now,” McElderry said. “I think we have to trust that we can work that out and make good decisions as a conference and as a coaching group in whatever say we have in it. We don’t know how much say we have in these things. I think in the end, you are adding top level programs, really good coaches, and it makes our conference stronger. It’s always good to be part of a quality group programs, quality coaches and makes everyone push even harder.”

Coincidentally, Rutgers will have a test run this season with a non-conference matchup at UCLA on Saturday, September 9. The home and home series began last season when the Bruins beat RU 1-0 at Yurcak Field. Now the two programs will be conference foes for years to come.

In regard to non-conference scheduling and McElderry’s philosophy in finding opponents, having west coast conference games only complicates matters.

“Scheduling is really challenging. Just the way that ours works out and with the travel we have within our conference and the way our conference schedule is, it’s just a challenging time to get these games in during such a short period of time,” explained McElderry. “That is the number one challenge. Sometimes you are just trying to make it work with travel, how much you are on the road, and all of those types of things.”

He added, “We are trying to avoid taking too many flights, if any, in non-conference. This year we are going out to UCLA, but that’s the only flight we have because we also have three flights (in Big Ten play). We aren’t chartering flights so we are dealing with travel. There are lots of difficulties with that.

Rutgers will still play four of seven non-conference games on the road this season, but McElderry was able to schedule two local trips. The Scarlet Knights open the season on August 24 at Delaware. They’ll also travel to Princeton a week later for the 62nd meeting in program history. In late October, Rutgers will also travel to Boston to play Northeastern.

In terms of scheduling locally, McElderry discussed his vision.

“We want to play a team like Princeton every year. A local game we want to play every single year,” emphasized McElderry. “We’re trying to work out something with Seton Hall for the future. Can we get some of our local opponents who we think are really good games from good conferences, good coaches that make sense for us and makes sense for them. All those things go into it.”

As for other factors in scheduling the non-conference, McElderry explained it was a variety of things to ponder.

“We do look at style of play. What’s their facility like if we are playing away? Do we want to play a game on turf? We play out in Northwestern (this season) and they have a turf field. Do we use that to try to prepare ourselves if we can. There are all of those types of dynamics in the mix,” stated McElderry. “Then you are also trying to get good games that prepare your team so when you open up the first conference game of the season, no matter who that is, year in and year out that’s different, that you are ready for that.

One issue is the timeframe of the men’s soccer season. Rutgers has 15 regular season games scheduled to be played in just over two months before the postseason takes place in November.

Speaking on the challenges for men’s college soccer overall, McElderry said, “We don’t have enough weeks in the season to get enough games in and enough rest in my opinion. That’s a big part of it as well. What’s the recovery look like? What are we coming back from? All of that plays a part into it.”

Of course, now McElderry and every other coach in the Big Ten are dealing with the uncertainty of the 2024 season and beyond.

“All of the Big Ten teams are very, very difficult to play against,” McElderry said. “You add in that you don’t even know what your conference schedule looks like in 2024 right now, we haven’t been given that. Obviously on the men’s side in adding Washington less than a week ago, that all has to be re-worked. We are all sitting back and waiting. We’ll see where that all goes. Always exciting to add good teams. No complaints there, just what does it look like, we don’t know.”

For now, Rutgers and McElderry are focused on building off of last year’s success in hopes of an even more successful 2023 campaign. With many key contributors returning from last season, McElderry went in depth on his roster and his optimism with this group on The Scarlet Faithful podcast last week.

In regard to the challenge of moving forward as a team after last fall’s achievements, McElderry isn’t worried about their mindset.

“They’re well aware of how hard it was last year and that it is a grind,” he explained.

Rutgers opens the season on August 24 at Delaware following three scrimmages at Yurcak Field over the next two weeks. More to come prior to the 2023 season kicking off for the Scarlet Knights.

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