If you've watched the AU men's soccer team compete in the Patriot League over its five-year PL history, you know this much: AU does not play like a PL team.
Under head coach Todd West, the Eagles play a technical style based on quick passing, spacing, and thoughtful runs, something more akin to the nation's elite squads than to the long-ball, mad-fray-in-the-box approach of most PL rivals.
Because of this, West and his players have never expressed much fondness for the league. If AU (5-9-1, 4-2 PL) had a win for every Eagle who has bemoaned the PL's ugly brand of soccer, it would have more W's than dates on the schedule.
But this year, the Eagles better be happy they're in this league. With only one road win and a mark four games below .500, they still control their own destiny. And a win Saturday over hapless Army (4-12, 1-5) would guarantee a top seed in the PL playoffs, and the right to host.
In most other conferences, the Eagles would've been reduced to the spoiler role a long time ago.
Now, this AU squad, one that's been to hell and back, deserves a lot or credit. It's seen freshman Philip Purdy immobilized from a collision on opening day against Georgetown. It's suffered five of its eight defeats by one-goal margins. It's managed the growing pains of a squad that lost six seniors to graduation - including three defensive starters. And it's learned without departed assistant coach Gary Kingsley, the even-keeled compliment to West's vociferous approach, who left after last season for another job.
AU's resuscitation is a tribute both to West and the kids he's recruited. But it's also a confession about AU's league opposition, the weakest PL field soccer-wise since AU joined the conference in 2001.
Until last weekend, only two of 20 PL games had been won by the road team, a sign of a conference without an elite squad. That's reflected in the polls, where not one squad pokes into the Top 25, or even the 15-team "others receiving votes" category, according to the SoccerTimes.com coaches poll.
Other Mid-Atlantic leagues don't have that same power vacuum.
The Atlantic Coast Conference boasts seven squads in the Top 25, including the No. 12 Virginia side that beat 2004's more experienced AU side, 2-1, in last year's NCAA tournament. Virginia is the fourth-highest ranked ACC team.
The Big East boasts three teams in the Top 25, none of which are Georgetown, which dropped AU 1-0 in September's D.C. College Cup.
And the Colonial Athletic Association - AU's former league - boasts two squads in the Top 25 and a third receiving votes.
When AU dropped to Virginia last year, Cavalier coach George Glenovatch paid AU a pretty hefty compliment. "We feel like that team could compete very well in our conference," he said.
In those heady times, I'm sure more than a few people wished AU could've made such a jump. That year, they probably could've held their own against the best conference in college soccer (though keeping a winning record would've been a stretch). But 2004's team was at the zenith of a recruiting cycle.
This year's squad is in the trough of that cycle. In some leagues, these are rebuilding years, because skill and youth rarely trump skill and experience. But not so in the PL, where skill is usually at a premium. A team with skill, heart and toughness, regardless of experience, is going to have an advantage over a team without as many skill players.
It's not necessarily pretty. But for once the Eagles can't complain.