It is a mark of the high standards being set in Morgantown that West Virginia’s 4-0 rout of Florida Atlantic in the Mountaineers’ Mid-American Conference debut Sunday spurred discontentment from the team’s players and coaches.
When a local reporter asked after the game how far the team was from peaking, he drew a caustic response from WVU’s loquacious Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc.
“Very far,” LeBlanc said. “Did you watch my team play today?”
West Virginia moved to a 5-2-1 record on the year with its third straight win and its second four-goal display in three games. The Mountaineers’ defense has given up just five shots in the past two games, only one of which was on target. Yet the sense of frustration emanated from a significant drop-off in performance level from WVU’s 2-0 win over American on Sept. 15 – a display that LeBlanc described as “probably the best” in his seven years in charge.
The lull that swept around Dick Dlesk Stadium Sunday didn’t stop with the players. Only two members of the typically boisterous Mountaineer Maniacs student supporters’ group populated the standing area behind the goal line while the 1,079 crowd remained strikingly subdued. Perhaps it was a collective hangover from the football team’s home game against Maryland the previous day. Perhaps the enervation stemmed from the scheduling of a double-header that saw WVU’s women overcome No. 7-ranked Oklahoma State in a preceding game at noon.
Even LeBlanc confessed that there was “something about playing on Sunday afternoons” – an unexplainable shakiness in his players’ ability to be 100 percent mentally attuned to the challenge.
A couple of set pieces allowed West Virginia to finally break down Florida Atlantic’s packed defense. Freshman right-back Nick Raskasky broke the deadlock on 30 minutes with his first collegiate goal, volleying home from six yards after Majed Osman flicked on a long throw by Zak Leedom. Fittingly, on this disjointed day, it wasn’t the cleanest of strikes.
Leedom’s wriggling on the right side of the penalty area three minutes before the interval was ended by a clumsy challenge by Owls’ defender Tyler McNabb. Goalkeeper Jeremy Crumpton couldn’t prevent Travis Pittman’s penalty kick from sneaking inside his left post. Kyle Underwood effectively ended the contest on the stroke of half-time, seizing on a loose ball inside the penalty box before curling a delightful shot high into Crumpton’s top-right corner.
Raskasky interrupted WVU’s pedestrian second-half display to notch his second goal on 78 minutes. The Tacoma, Wash. native nodded the ball over the line from underneath the crossbar after Osman’s initial header rebounded from the goal frame.
Such has been the diversity of LeBlanc’s offense this season that Raskasky’s double carried him to a joint share of the team’s top scorer mantle with center-back Eric Schoenle and holding midfielder Pittman.
“I love it here because my whole life, growing up, I’ve never really been a defender,” Raskasky told TopDrawerSoccer.com after Sunday’s game. The Seattle Sounders Academy product spent most of his high school and club career playing as a forward, so he feels comfortable in LeBlanc’s system that requires full-backs to push on as auxiliary wingers during the offensive phase.
“Even in the first half the coach said I wasn’t getting up enough, so in the second half I tried to make a big commitment to get my runs going forward,” Raskasky said. “It happened to pay off twice for me.
“As long as they keep giving me the ball two yards from goal I can’t really do much else.”
Sterner challenges lie ahead this week for West Virginia. Iona College travels to Morgantown Wednesday in non-conference play coming off an impressive 3-1 win over No. 25-ranked Monmouth. The Mountaineers go on the road Saturday to Western Michigan in MAC action. Stu Riddle’s side boasts a 7-2 record following last Friday’s 2-1 loss at Michigan State.
“They’re a dangerous team,” LeBlanc said. “They’re very good, very organized, they’re hard-nosed and they’re physical.
“I think we’re going to have a difficult task as we move forward through this league.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.