While it was a learning experience for everyone involved with West Virginia’s move from the Big East to the Big 12 last year, the Mountaineer men’s soccer team also had to get accustomed to new surroundings and a different style of play in its inaugural season in the Mid-American Conference.
With the exception of Akron, West Virginia typically encountered much smaller crowds at the road venues it played in in the MAC, and the Mountaineers also frequently wore the bull’s-eye on their chest that comes with being a frequent NCAA participant from a power soccer conference.
And for years, veteran coach Marlon LeBlanc’s WVU teams earned a reputation for rising to the occasion against top-ranked opponents, particularly in league play. Yet last year in the MAC, there were fewer opportunities to do so.
“We have to find different ways to motivate our guys to get up for games,” LeBlanc recently noted. “My teams always seem to play their best when it’s a top-10, top-15 team and there is a whole lot on the line. When we struggle is when it’s not that ranked team, and we had a lot more of those a year ago than we typically had.”
There are some good teams in the MAC, Akron consistently ranking among the top programs in the country, but the overall depth is not quite what West Virginia was accustomed to coming from a Big East soccer conference that frequently sent multiple teams to the national tournament.
Consequently, the play in the Big East was far more consistent across the board. LeBlanc explains.
“When UConn plays Louisville or Notre Dame, you get a little more consistency with them,” he said. “When Bowling Green plays Akron, they are a different team than when they play another team because they get up a little bit more for those games. We always got every team’s best shot.”
Despite that West Virginia still performed well, finishing tied for second with Northern Illinois during regular season play and qualifying for the four-team MAC tournament. However, the league only had three teams finish the season with above-.500 records – Akron, West Virginia and Western Michigan – and LeBlanc thought there were times when the mental approach of his players was not what it should have been.
“Our performances in some of those games was not to lose rather than to win,” he said. “Our performances in the Big East were to win and that was the biggest difference for us in terms of our mental standpoint. You can’t go out that way.”
There is also the matter of style of play, too. LeBlanc prefers a wide-open, flowing style typical of the teams the Mountaineers played against in the Big East. However, most of the teams WVU faced last year in the MAC employed a more deliberate style, preferring to pack it in and take fewer chances, particularly if they scored first.
“They prepared to play ugly and do whatever it took to get a result and we just couldn’t play many of those types of games,” LeBlanc admitted. “It’s hard to prepare your team for that, especially when you are not accustomed to playing that way and playing that way in a training environment.
“We don’t recruit those types of players,” LeBlanc continued. “We may try and simulate what we’re going to see in training, but my guys are also trying to break into the lineup and we’ve got guys trying to show what they can do, so it’s hard when that’s not in your DNA to try and replicate that style of play.”
In the same breath, LeBlanc concedes that what his team faced last year is a legitimate tactic used by many successful soccer programs around the country and it is something his players have to be better prepared to face this season.
“Credit to the coaches and the teams that we played against because they utilized a tactic that is built on slowing us down and shutting us down,” he said.
At the end of the day, LeBlanc believes his team must do a better job of dictating the style of play and making teams adjust to the way they play instead of the other way around.
“One of the things that we probably did too much was worry about the opponent instead of kind of feeding ourselves a little bit more,” he explained. “We played too much not to lose and we need to reinforce a little bit more is us playing like us, regardless of the circumstances.”