MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Highly touted center-back Eric Schoenle has barely missed a minute of action in four years at West Virginia. The team captain also leads his side in goals scored through 12 games this season.
Schoenle’s impressive credentials still don’t guarantee him an automatic place in the Mountaineers’ starting 11. The Yardley, Pa. native sat on the substitutes’ bench at Dick Dlesk Stadium Sunday alongside fellow seniors Travis Pittman, Shadow Sebele and goalkeeper Pat Eavenson as WVU Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc sent a youthful side containing six freshman outfielders into battle against Buffalo in the Mid American Conference.
LeBlanc was looking for a reaction to West Virginia’s shock 3-2 reverse at home to Elon in non-conference play on Oct. 2. The Mountaineers outshot the Southern Conference side by 17-1 in the first half and held a 2-1 lead after 86 minutes before giving up two cheap goals. He got exactly what he was looking for from his players, particularly after Schoenle made his belated entrance on 36 minutes.
“I was pretty fired up when I got in there,” Schoenle told reporters after West Virginia’s 2-0 win lifted the Mountaineers to 7-3-2 for the season and 2-0-1 in the MAC.
“If I’m not included in the team that’s just the way it is,” Schoenle said. “I’m a team player. I’ve got to keep my head straight and respond. I thought we all did a pretty good job of that today.”
Schoenle earned and converted the penalty kick on 57 minutes that eased WVU to victory after sophomore forward Andy Bevin broke the deadlock six minutes into the second half. It was the 6-foot-2-inch defender’s fifth goal in seven games.
“He hit five as a sophomore, so it’s not good enough as far as I’m concerned,” quipped LeBlanc after Sunday’s game. “He’s got to get about 15 for me to be happy.”
Schoenle, who weighs 150 pounds, slipped out of contention as a potential Major League Soccer draftee last year as doubts surfaced over his ability to cope with the physical side of the professional game. It seems unfeasible that he’ll be snubbed for a second time next January, especially as brute strength gradually gives way to technical skill. Schoenle, much like former Italian international center-back Fabio Cannavaro, relies on his pace, agility and speed of thought to counter his opponents rather than sheer muscle.
Where the 21-year-old really excels is in his comfort on the ball and his threat at set pieces. Schoenle owns that rare quality of being able to dribble out from the back line to join his forwards during the offensive phase, and he can launch counter attacks with his precise long-range passing and intelligent heading.
West Virginia’s possession against Buffalo improved after Schoenle’s introduction and the Mountaineers gradually wore down their stuffy opponents. The visitors packed the midfield and looked to hit their lone striker with long balls. WVU coped with the threat, but were unable to quickly transition to offense in the early stages after the initial defensive header had been won.
“When Eric is heading a ball it goes places, so you’re able to pick up a lot of second balls further up the pitch,” LeBlanc said. That allowed West Virginia’s playmakers like Bevin, Uwem Etuk and Ryan Cain to receive the ball in more threatening areas higher up the field and put Buffalo under immediate pressure.
The source of Schoenle’s threat in opposing penalty areas is twofold. His height combined with his astounding vertical leap allows him to soar above his markers. Perhaps more importantly, he darts around the box like a 5-foot-9-inch striker. Both of those qualities give him an unerring knack of getting to the ball first. Knowing what is coming is one thing. Stopping it, as Buffalo were the latest to find out, is another.
Hartwick will be next to combat Schoenle’s impressive goalscoring form when they travel to Morgantown this weekend, assuming that WVU’s leader has done enough to reclaim his starting spot.
“We had some lessons that needed to be learned from throwing the game away against Elon,” LeBlanc said. “Hopefully they’ve been learned.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.