Men's Soccer Preview
By Ira Green for MSNsportsNET.com
July 27, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Last year the West Virginia University men’s soccer team entered the unknown. The squad was unaware of what the future held with such a young, yet talented, group with many of the new faces coming together for the first time. Fast forward to the end of the 2009 season and the group was one that quickly jelled, displaying limitless potential and showing fans a glimpse of what looks to be a promising future for the Mountaineers.
Today, this team is a year older and more mature, returning eight starters, including staples on the back line that led WVU to become known as one of the toughest and grittiest defenses in the nation. In the past two seasons, the team has ranked in the top 15 nationally in goals against average (12th with a 0.64 GAA in 2008 and eighth with a 0.61 mark in 2009) and save percentage (fifth with a 0.863 mark in 2008 and 10th with a 0.859 clip in 2009). Not to mention, the Mountaineers have arguably one of the top players between the posts to bolster the defense.
Between an impressive corps of midfielders and forwards and some key additions with the 2010 recruiting class, the Mountaineers seem poised and positioned to make a run at each of their three preseason goals: come together as a group (an often overlooked characteristic of success), compete for the BIG EAST regular season and tournament titles, and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Year in and year out, the Mountaineers continue to face a challenging schedule under coach Marlon LeBlanc. Thirteen teams on the 2010 slate finished 2009 with winning records, including nine squads, which finished in the nation’s Top 55 RPI.
WVU faces a heavy nonconference schedule of NCAA tournament participants including Monmouth and UNC Wilmington, both of whom also won their regular season and tournament titles, along with William & Mary, Old Dominion, James Madison and Elon.
Residing in one of the country’s toughest conferences, WVU’s BIG EAST schedule poses even more challenges. Marquee matchups at home include contests against DePaul, Notre Dame and Pitt, with tough road games at USF and Connecticut.
“I like our schedule for a number of reasons,” LeBlanc said. “It’s balanced pretty well in terms of home and away. It has some major NCAA tournament championship-threat type teams in our conference and nonconference schedule. I think our schedule will test our kids’ character mentally and physically and certainly prepare us for a grueling BIG EAST schedule and hopefully a postseason berth.”
Redshirt senior Zach Johnson has transformed into one of the best goalkeepers in program history and quickly comes to the forefront of the discussion when talking about top goalkeepers in the country. A Lumberton, N.J., native, Johnson gives the Mountaineers peace of mind between the posts.
Last year he earned second team all-BIG EAST honors and was named a third-team selection on the all-region squad. He started all 18 matches in 2009, never missing a minute of action, while boasting a 0.61 goals-against average (eighth-best nationally), a 0.848 save percentage (18th-best nationally) and 10 clean sheets. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he is an ideal professional prospect and is determined to make his final season the exclamation point on what should be a long-lasting legacy.
Behind Johnson lies a great amount of depth in redshirt sophomore Yale Tiley, redshirt freshman Paul Killian and freshman Travis Ives. Tiley and Killian have exuded their desire to compete for the starting spot through their tireless work ethic and competitiveness. Ives, meanwhile, is one of the top goalkeeping prospects out of New Jersey, and much like Johnson, has the size at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, to make an immediate impact.
“I think with the support that we have, we have been able to build some depth at the goalkeeper position in particular,” LeBlanc commented. “Paul Killian and Yale Tiley got the opportunity to play this spring. Both have been in the system, and then you bring in one of the top goalkeeping prospects in America as well in Travis Ives – those three are hungry to get in and play and challenge Zach Johnson, which is only going to help him. Those three also understand that they have the opportunity to learn from one of the best goalkeepers in America.”
A position that has rarely been questioned is the Mountaineers’ defense. Last year, the defense helped hold teams to a lowly 0.068 shooting percentage and less than 10 shots per game, while posting 10 shutouts. The trio of senior Dan Hagey, junior Raymon Gaddis and sophomore Eric Schoenle became a key ingredient to the team’s success on the back line. Gaddis and Schoenle, especially, have flourished under LeBlanc’s watch. An Indianapolis, native, Gaddis’ tenacity and technical skill have helped him become one of the best right backs in the BIG EAST and at the national level, while Schoenle has made a name for himself in just one season. An all-BIG EAST Rookie Team member, Schoenle also was tabbed to two different rookie teams (CollegeSoccerNews and TopDrawerSoccer).
“Sometimes it gets forgotten about how good of a defensive team we are,” LeBlanc explained. “The old adage that defense wins championships will eventually come through for us. We have guys who will fight and play hard every single minute of every single game. Because of that foundation that we have in the back, we always know that we’re going to be in every game, regardless of who we’re playing.”
Alongside Hagey, Gaddis and Schoenle will be juniors Nick Claudio and Ruben Garrido and redshirt sophomore Connor Gorman, who is expected to return after missing the past two seasons with a knee injury.
Although the group loses Jason Bristol, Ryan Gillespie and Kyle West to graduation, WVU vows not to miss a beat with incoming recruits Zachary Claudio, Allan Flott and junior college transfer Uzi Tayou. A Charleston, W.Va., native and the younger brother of Nick Claudio, Zachary was last year’s Gatorade West Virginia Boy’s Soccer Player of the Year. Flott, standing 6 feet, comes to WVU with outstanding high school accolades and club team experience. Tayou also has tremendous size at 6-feet-4, 205 pounds, but more importantly brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to an already established and noteworthy defense.
“No one can ever take our team lightly because of the corps and leadership that we have in the back,” LeBlanc reiterated.
As tough as WVU’s defense is, the midfield position is arguably WVU’s deepest in terms of numbers and talent. While the midfield is usually associated with setting up plays and linking the front and back lines, the Mountaineers’ midfielding corps went above and beyond. As a group, it accounted for seven goals and 10 assists for 24 of WVU’s 36 points – or 67 percent of the team’s points.
With the graduation of Gift Maworere, a skillful and determined leader, the Mountaineers must find a leader to step up take the reins of this group. Age-wise, that person is expected to be senior Alex Silva, who led the Mountaineers with three goals last season. Teaming up with Silva will be the lethal contingent of sophomores Abel “Shadow” Sebele, Travis Pittman, Nathan Adams, Tuan Doan and Garrido, who will rotate between midfield and defense.
The Mountaineers’ quickly improved with the addition of freshman and early enrollee Julio Arjona, who began attending WVU in January and played in the team’s spring season, and Oregon State transfer Matt Drake. Arjona, most notably, was a U.S. U-17 National Team Standout and a 2009 NSCAA Boys’ Youth All-American. A junior, Drake played in 13 matches with the Beavers, gaining valuable collegiate experience.
“Our midfield is going to end up being one of the best in America,” LeBlanc said. “We have guys in there that can make major contributions, and we have a lot of depth in there as well. We think that’s going to be the strength of our team. If we can get goals out of our midfield, that’ll be even better. That midfield group is loaded with talent, options and players who are poised to step forward and make an impact.”
What may have been the most examined group on the Mountaineers’ roster last season, the forwards head into 2010 with a major positive: experience. Entering last season, WVU only had two forwards – Adam Mills and Michael Pitrolo – with collegiate experience and a tremendous amount of youth, all of whom were quickly thrown into the fire.
However, with juniors Mills and Pitrolo and sophomores Moeryhan “Peabo” Doue (two goals in 2009), Uwem Etuk (two goals in 2009) and Matt Strauss, WVU seems more assured of its offense heading into the season. Throughout the year and even during the spring, the group showed significant signs of development and maturation. In a game that often sees little scoring, the team tallied at least one goal in 10 of its 18 contests during the fall. Not to mention, with the squad’s defense, one goal at most could turn into a result for the Mountaineers.
The team was provided more scoring options with the additions of Yannick Iwunze, Brooks Nucilli, junior college transfer Franck Tayou and Jay Williams. A Paris, France, native, Iwunze has a tremendous amount of international and club experience and has the ability to find the back of the net. A Fairmont, W.Va., native, Nucilli, the 2009 West Virginia High School 3A State Player of the Year, finished his scholastic career with jaw-dropping stats at 93 goals and 77 assists. Tayou will provide a big target up front for the Mountaineers as well as an experienced leader, while Williams’ speed and tools can make him a lethal weapon.
LeBlanc knows, though, that in order to make a run at the NCAA tournament, WVU will have to capitalize more on its scoring chances in 2010.
“Anyone who watched West Virginia soccer last year saw a team that, more times than not, held a lot of the possession and play and just struggled on that final element, which was sticking the ball in the back of the net,” he said. “I personally believe that a lot of it comes down to confidence, attitude and a desire to really believe that those guys individually can step forward and make a play when we need them to.”
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