MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s trip to Akron on Oct. 20 stood out when the Mid-American Conference announced its 2012 schedule as the potentially defining game of the season. Nothing has changed.
The Zips lead the standings with four shutout wins from four games going into Saturday night’s table-topping clash with the Mountaineers in Akron. WVU, having dropped two points in a 1-1 tie at Western Michigan on Sept. 29, likely need a victory to bring the regular-season title and November’s MAC Tournament back over the Ohio River.
Akron’s senior goalkeeper David Meves tied Evan Bush’s school record of 48 career shutouts in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Michigan. That result lifted Caleb Porter’s side to 10-1-2 overall and extended its streak without losing a goal to 661 minutes.
“If there’s any team capable of scoring goals, it’s probably ours,” said West Virginia head coach Marlon LeBlanc in an interview with TopDrawerSoccer.com. The Mountaineers have found the net 24 times in 13 games this season with 13 different players getting on the score sheet. WVU’s strength lies in the diversity of its attack, though LeBlanc concedes that his side needs to be “a little bit more cautious” on the road this Saturday.
“We’re going to have to pick and choose moments when we can go out and press them and be as aggressive as we typically are,” LeBlanc said.
Seniors Uwem Etuk and Eric Schoenle are among five Mountaineers who started the last meeting between these two teams – the second-round NCAA Tournament game in November 2010 that Akron won by a misleading 3-2 result. The Zips outshot their opponents 11-2 in the first half, taking a 2-0 lead through Darren Mattocks’ double before Scott Caldwell added a third on 70 minutes. Akron became NCAA champions that year with a roster featuring seven players drafted into Major League Soccer shortly afterward. Five were selected in the first eight picks – Hermann Trophy winner Darlington Nagbe, Perry Kitchen, Zarek Valentin, Kofi Sarkodie and Michael Nanchoff.
“It was very hostile,” said Etuk of that last meeting. “It didn’t feel like a college game. They had a great crowd. The quality on the field is still there, so I won’t be expecting anything to be too different.”
Caldwell is now a senior with Akron and the team’s leading scorer with seven goals, tied with Reinaldo Brenes. The former United States U-18, U-17, U-15 and U-14 national team player’s quality hasn’t gone unnoticed in Morgantown.
“He’s one of the best players in the country,” said WVU center-back Schoenle, his team’s leading scorer with five goals. “He controls the game really well, he’s got great technical ability and I’m sure they’ll look to play through him. It will be a difficult challenge for us to contain him.
LeBlanc, Etuk and Schoenle are agreed that the Zips, despite that stellar cast of names from two years ago, are as good now as they’ve ever been. Porter’s recruiting nous has kept the wheels churning with a new crop of youngsters that will be top draft picks in years to come. One factor that has closed the gap in West Virginia’s favor is tougher scheduling, according to LeBlanc.
“We were at Maryland last year and we beat Virginia last year,” LeBlanc said. “This year we went to North Carolina, the No. 2 ranked team in the country behind Maryland, and Wake Forest. We’ve been in these environments and these scenarios before and we’ve been able to complete.”
History weighs heavily in Akron’s favor. The Zips lead the Mountaineers 8-2-1 in the overall head-to-head record dating back to 1966 with West Virginia’s last win coming in November 1973, before LeBlanc was born. Such facts play no part in the seventh-year head coach’s preparation.
“We beat Penn State in my first year and somebody told me after the game that it was the first time we’d won against them since the Nixon era,” LeBlanc said. “Those things are really immaterial.
“This group is good enough to beat anybody on any given day. It’s really a matter of whether or not we have the consistency and the quality on the night to get the job done.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.