MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s men’s soccer team will look back with regret to Oct. 27 should it fail to earn a place in this season’s NCAA Tournament.
The Mountaineers trotted onto the field at Northern Illinois University’s soccer complex in DeKalb on that bitterly cold, windy day, before an announced crowd of 304. Mont Ventoux, the barren Alpine peak famed for its punishment of cyclists during the Tour de France, could have presented a more welcoming environment.
“Mentally we just didn’t get up for it,” said WVU’s senior midfielder Travis Pittman. “We do an excellent job of getting up for the top-seeded games, but sometimes when we think we’re the better team we just go in flat. That can’t happen, ever.”
It happened that day. A listless 1-0 loss left the Mountaineers facing their own steep climb just to stay in contention for a NCAA berth. Last Saturday’s 1-0 win at Bowling Green sealed West Virginia’s place in this weekend’s four-team Mid-American Conference championship hosted by Akron. Friday’s semi-finals offer WVU the chance to avenge that defeat against Northern Illinois – a hurdle that could possibly determine whether it receives an invite to the national championship.
“I think we definitely need to win the semi-final,” WVU’s head coach Marlon LeBlanc told Top Drawer Soccer. “If you look at our overall record, outside of the Northern Illinois game we don’t have a loss on our schedule that you could point to and say it was terrible.”
Two of West Virginia’s defeats came by a single goal in back-to-back road games at North Carolina and Wake Forest. Elon scored twice in the final three minutes after trailing 2-1 to hand LeBlanc’s side its only home defeat of the year. Akron held on for a hard-fought 2-1 win against WVU on Oct. 20. In the win column, the Mountaineers have registered victories over Oakland and American, two teams that lifted their regular-season conference titles, and they tied Big Ten regular-season joint winner Penn State on the road.
“Hopefully we can beat NIU and put ourselves in a situation where our RPI is strong enough to have us in consideration for an at-large bid,” LeBlanc said.
The defeat in DeKalb prompted a bout of introspection from LeBlanc, who criticized the leadership and character of his side as well as examining his own tactics and preparation. The seventh-year head coach resolutely maintains that his team is good enough to win the MAC tournament this weekend, and good enough to win the national championship.
“I know he’s trying to help me and help the team,” said senior left-back Peabo Doue of LeBlanc’s recent pointed remarks toward his upperclassmen. “Every detail that we do when he stops our play in training is good for us. We need to get the right things embedded in our heads because this could potentially be the last game of our careers.”
Victory over NIU would likely see West Virginia facing Akron in Sunday’s final assuming the nation’s top-ranked team takes care of Bowling Green on Friday. The Mountaineers outplayed Caleb Porter’s regular-season champions for long spells during last month’s clash in Ohio. Returning to FirstEnergy Stadium–Cub Cadet Field holds no fears for LeBlanc’s players, even though it means being subjected to some heckling from the Zips’ boisterous home support.
“It’s really a great soccer atmosphere, from the warm-ups to the end of the game,” Doue said. “It’s good for our team because it’s a big stage. There’s a lot of people watching and I think that’s when we perform best.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.