AKRON, Ohio – Last weekend’s Mid-American Conference Tournament at Akron’s FirstEnergy Stadium-Cub Cadet Field was supposed to herald West Virginia’s avenging of October’s loss at Northern Illinois to secure another crack at the No. 1 ranked Zips.
Instead, the Mountaineers were back on the bus to Morgantown before Akron had taken the field for Friday’s second semi-final against Bowling Green. Jayson LeSeth’s goal for the Huskies secured a second 1-0 victory for Northern Illinois over WVU in two weeks. It also ended West Virginia’s hopes of a place in the NCAA Championship, and left head coach Marlon LeBlanc lamenting a familiar tale from a season that his team ended with an underwhelming 9-6-2 record.
“I don’t think we necessarily deserved to lose this game, but we certainly didn’t deserve to win because we didn’t score,” LeBlanc told TopDrawerSoccer.com shortly after the final whistle.
The result seemed unlikely in the opening 20 minutes as WVU targeted the Huskies’ right side and created numerous early chances. Top scorer Eric Schoenle glanced a header narrowly wide of the far post in the second minute, and striker Jamie Merriam forced NIU goalkeeper Jordan Godsey into his first save on seven minutes with a near-post flick from Shadow Sebele’s low cross.
Sebele missed his kick two minutes later after excellent work on the left wing by Peabo Doue, and NIU’s desperate defenders charged down Uwem Etuk’s follow-up shot. Yet West Virginia’s fruitful wide play came to an abrupt halt midway through the first half.
“Our entire attack was supposed to be predicated on that and then the second half we came out doing it again after some stern words at half-time,” LeBlanc said. “That’s the part that really is the most disappointing, because the goal came at a time when we were no longer trying to do the stuff we’d talked about doing.”
Northern Illinois took advantage of what LeBlanc termed a “major lack of discipline” from his side late in the first half. LeSeth delivered a low, inswinging free kick from near the left touchline on 33 minutes that eluded everyone inside the penalty box before nestling in WVU goalkeeper Pat Eavenson’s far corner. Eavenson prevented Matt Pritchard from doubling the Huskies’ lead on 43 minutes with a vital 1-vs-1 save.
West Virginia’s second-half onslaught began early. New Zealanders Andy Bevin and Ryan Cain got back to attacking down the left side on 55 minutes. Cain picked out Etuk with his cutback, but the former D.C. United Academy player scooped his effort high and wide of the frame.
Midfielder Craig Stephens, the third Kiwi on WVU’s roster, pushed forward as LeBlanc tinkered with his line-up. The Wellington native thumped a shot off the junction of bar and post on 59 minutes from the left corner of the box. Bevin backpedaled two minutes later to loop his header from Cain’s cross toward the top-right corner. The ball lacked enough pace to beat Godsey, who tipped it over his bar.
NIU was barely able to move the ball out of its own half as the final 20 minutes approached, though West Virginia’s attacks were becoming more desperate as its season slipped away. Merriam bludgeoned his way to the byline on 78 minutes before pulling back a cross that might have struck a Huskies player on the arm, and Stephens couldn’t quite reach Bevin’s return ball into his path as he surged into the penalty box.
Center-back Schoenle, one of 42 players named to the Hermann Trophy Watch List at the start of the season, joined the front line in the last five minutes as WVU searched for its aerially proficient skipper with one final chance. It never arrived. The Mountaineers were left to slope out of a side exit while Northern Illinois celebrated reaching its fourth MAC championship game in seven years.
The Huskies, who lifted last year’s title with a 1-0 win over Western Michigan after the Broncos eliminated Akron on penalty kicks in the semi-final, lost Sunday’s final 2-0 to Caleb Porter’s regular-season champions.
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.