MORGANTOWN, W.Va. –Examining a three-game road trip that failed to yield a single goal and ended with two losses and a tie could have a demoralizing effect on some teams. West Virginia is not one of them.
The Mountaineers’ recent swing through No. 1 ranked North Carolina, Wake Forest and Penn State has allowed the Mountaineers to discipline themselves offensively and sharpen up their defensive play, according to the team’s Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc.
West Virginia tallied just six shots on target during those three games combined: 1-0 defeats to the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons and a stalemate with the Nittany Lions.
LeBlanc’s high-powered offense rebounded last Sunday in a 4-2 win over Oakland. Nine of 16 goal attempts hit the target and four different players made the score sheet.
“We’ve got so many explosive players that we sometimes lack the patience to know we don’t have to score every time we get the ball,” LeBlanc told TopDrawerSoccer.com after Sunday’s game. “Today we did a much better job of completing passes, bringing the width into play, and letting the outside backs join the attacks.”
in their opening two games against the deeper-lying defenses of Hartford and Stetson, a tendency to “hit the home run on the first ball,” as LeBlanc calls it, left West Virginia vulnerable to counter-attacks. The subsequent road matches against top-ranked teams that want to play an attacking game gave the Mountaineers’ midfield more space to keep control of the ball and develop their attacks rather than frustratingly rushing to thread the eye of a needle through a packed defense.
WVU’s newfound composure surfaced to devastating effect against Oakland. Andy Bevin lashed the hosts into a fourth-minute lead with a rasping half-volley from Peabo Doue’s cross. Defender Eric Schoenle’s towering leap allowed him to head the Mountaineers back in front on 33 minutes shortly after Raphael Reynolds had scrambled an equalizer for the Michiganders. Freshman Ryan Cain blasted his first collegiate goal on 78 minutes, and fellow Wellington, New Zealand native Craig Stephens notched a fourth before Miche’le Lipari’s late consolation.
“It’s nice to see a well-balanced attack,” LeBlanc said. “It makes it hard for your next opponent to scout you and say ‘We’ve got to stop this guy.’ We have quite a few weapons and when we’re clicking we can bag a lot of goals. We have the quality. It’s the consistency we’re trying to find.”
Keeping possession is something that LeBlanc stresses to his team. His players responded against Oakland by waiting to exploit 2-vs-1 situations on the flanks. They worked the ball to the endline so they could cut it back into dangerous shooting positions for the forwards. They carried it into areas where they could slip passes into the box for their crisscrossing runners. It seems that the coach’s preaching is being turned into practice.
“The important thing is keeping hold of the ball up front and not giving it away cheaply, because that’s when we’re most susceptible,” Bevin said. “We need to use the quality that we have and be smart about what’s the best pass.”
Schoenle added to WVU’s offense Sunday, regularly stepping forward after cutting out Oakland’s through balls to provide an extra man in midfield. That too was resulted from playing at North Carolina, Wake Forest and Penn State, according to LeBlanc, as his 6-foot-2-inch center-back frequently had to come out of the back line to close down forwards who dropped into midfield. Schoenle’s impressive display brought lofty comparisons from his head coach.
“He’s like a Lothar Matthaus throwback,” LeBlanc said. “He intercepts everything. A Cannavaro throwback. One of the great things that he does is when he intercepts a ball he’s able to still keep it in bounds and keep possession for us. He’s cerebral that way.”
Sunday’s game was the first in a four-game home stand for WVU. American come to Morgantown Saturday followed by the Mountaineers’ Mid American Conference debut against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 23 and a clash with Iona on Sept. 26.
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.