AKRON, Ohio – As Caleb Porter addressed his Akron team in the center circle at FirstEnergy Stadium–Cub Cadet Field following last Saturday’s 2-1 win over West Virginia, Mountaineers head coach Marlon LeBlanc chatted merrily to a couple of spectators that approached the visitors’ bench on their way out.
Warm handshakes were exchanged on this bitterly cold night in northeastern Ohio before LeBlanc turned, beaming with pride as he crossed the field to return to his team’s dressing room.
“They’d never seen anybody put that team under the amount of pressure we put them under,” LeBlanc told TopDrawerSoccer.com.
The result, Akron’s fifth win in five Mid-American Conference games, all but sealed the Zips’ eighth successive regular season title and home advantage for November’s MAC Tournament. West Virginia’s first conference loss leaves them with work to do at Northern Illinois and Bowling Green to ensure their qualification. WVU’s away record stands at 0-3-2 this year, but their performance against the nation’s No. 3 ranked team filled LeBlanc with confidence that road wins are coming.
“I don’t know anybody else who challenges themselves on the road as much as we do,” said the seventh-year head coach, whose side narrowly lost 1-0 in back-to-back non-conference games at North Carolina and Wake Forest early in the season. A stalemate at Penn State followed before the Mountaineers tied 1-1 at Western Michigan in their first MAC away game.
A season-ending injury to freshman right-back Nick Raskasky after six minutes capped a disastrous opening spell for West Virginia. Bryan Gallego’s through ball one minute earlier sent Reinaldo Brenes clear on goal and the Costa Rican youth international coolly lifted his shot over the advancing Pat Eavenson to gift Akron the lead. Thereafter, the visitors controlled the first half.
Peabo Doue advanced down the left on nine minutes before skipping across the 18-yard box to send a right-foot shot skidding inches past the far post. Zips goalkeeper David Meves was called into action five minutes later, smothering Andy Bevin’s similar attempt after West Virginia stripped the ball from holding midfielder Wil Trapp.
WVU, with Zak Leedom and Travis Pittman intercepting the Akron defense’s hurried passes, had the hosts on the back foot. Bevin exploited space on the left again on 20 minutes before serving a dangerous low cross that narrowly evaded Majed Osman’s outstretched cleat. Akron’s central defender Chad Barson lambasted his right-back DeAndre Yedlin for failing to track back.
Bevin swept his first-time shot narrowly over Meves’ goal on 30 minutes. This time Uwem Etuk had drifted left to pester Yedlin after a great pass wide by Leedom. Substitute Jamie Merriam beautifully turned his marker two minutes before half-time before dragging his shot across goal when he might have been better waiting for Pittman’s supporting run into the box.
West Virginia’s task became steeper five minutes into the second half when they allowed another sloppy goal. Center-back Haydon Bennett’s unfortunate slip on the rain-soaked field allowed Akron to charge into the penalty box. The Mountaineers failed to pick up their opponents as they sprinted back to lodge eight men behind the ball. Scott Caldwell placed an unerring 16-yard shot through the traffic and into the bottom-left corner from Dillon Serna’s cutback.
Osman fired an immediate response to half WVU’s deficit two minutes later. The London-born striker swiveled 25 yards from goal after taking Etuk’s pass and unleashed a skimming low drive that seemed to pick up pace on the wet grass to slither beyond Meves’ reach. It was the first goal Akron had conceded in 713 minutes of play.
Yedlin, with his shiny blue and pink boots and “Flock of Seagulls” hairdo, continued to look more suited to playing synthesizer in a New Romantic pop band than halting West Virginia’s attacks. Bevin turned the Seattle native inside and out before wasting his cross, and Yedlin picked up a caution on 70 minutes after being outpaced by Francio Henry. Porter ended his highly-rated sophomore’s night of torment seconds later.
That closed the door on WVU’s most prosperous avenue to goal, though the visitors engineered a half-chance to equalize on 78 minutes. Eric Schoenle flicked Leedom’s long throw onto the six-yard line, but Akron’s frantic defenders cleared the ball away a split second before Henry would surely have tied the game.
“It was in the balance tonight,” LeBlanc said. “We were right there. We had chances and at the very end we were in the game with a chance to tie it.
“There’s no doubt we’re capable of beating them,” LeBlanc said. “The performance was great, but nobody sees the performance on the scoreboard.
“We’ve just got to find a way to get the result next time.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.