Men's Soccer Season Preview
Coming off a year that featured 15 underclassmen providing major minutes, the Mountaineers are hoping for a much smoother – and more successful – 2014.
Despite finishing with a respectable 7-7-5 record in 2013, it marked the second-straight season the Mountaineers were on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament after qualifying four of the previous six seasons.
In an attempt to stabilize the ship, LeBlanc brought in two veteran coaches: Mike Lapper and Scott Bowers. Lapper spent the last nine seasons as an assistant coach with the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer. He also spent 14 seasons as a professional player, including 44 caps with the U.S. Men’s National Team from 1991-95. Bowers previously was the Director of Goalkeeping for IMG Academy for seven seasons, including a stint as the goalkeeping coach for the U.S. U17 Men’s National Team from 2006-07.
The coaching hires coupled with nine returning starters and a strong incoming recruiting class hopefully has the stars aligned for a magical 2014 season and a return to the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia goalkeepers will be looking to improve in 2014 after allowing 26 goals last year, the most since 2003. Senior Lee Johnston and sophomore Brent Arnold will once again go through preseason camp battling for the No. 1 spot.
“We were pretty stout defensively in regards to limiting opportunities, we gave up far fewer shots than we did the previous year,” coach Marlon LeBlanc says. “Lee and Brent both had very good spring seasons and we have two young guys coming in that will challenge in Alec Boerner and Connor Owens. Our job as coaches is to get the best out of them, so if that means we have stiffer defensively in order to get the goals-against number down, then that’s what we have to do.”
One of the biggest changes will be in the addition of a full-time goalkeepers coach, Scott Bowers. Bowers spent the previous seven seasons as the Director of Goalkeeping for IMG Academy, including a stint as the goalkeeping coach for the U.S. U17 Men’s National Team from 2006-07.
“We have a great amount of belief in our core goalkeepers and adding a coach of Scott’s caliber to mentor them, we think that’s going to be a position that sees a drastic improvement.”
Johnston started 17 of WVU’s 19 games during his junior campaign, posting a 7-5-5 record with an impressive five shutouts. He allowed 23 goals for a 1.26 goals-against average with a .662 save percentage. “Lee is long and lean, a little bit of a Brad Friedel type-goalkeeper,” LeBlanc says. “For Lee to come over from Pitt and be in an environment where the program is challenging itself against other top programs in the country was a big experience for him.”
Arnold became the first true freshman goalkeeper to see action in a season since Nick Noble in 2003. Arnold started games against Akron and Penn State, both eventual NCAA Tournament teams, allowing three goals with eight saves in his two contests.
“Brent is big, strong and a little stockier, more of a Tim Howard, Brad Guzan body type,” LeBlanc says. “Getting Brent some games in the fall as true freshman last year and some big games this past spring certainly helped his development.”
While both offer a different look in goal, they are both technically sound and good shot stoppers. And while Boerner and Owens will have an opportunity to unseat Johnston and Arnold, it will be a challenge to unseat the duo.
Defense is a facet of all 11 players on the field, but when you specifically talk about defending, most people talk about the backline. Coming into 2013, West Virginia had a total of 18 starts in the starting lineup. The Mountaineers feel more comfortable in 2014, returning four starters, as well as adding depth at all four positions.
“It was a really young backline that was made considerably more challenging when we lost Nick Raskasky in preseason, who was our most experienced defender with like 16 games played,” LeBlanc says. “People maybe take that for granted a bit, when you look at the fact that we were 7-7-5 last year.”
Raskasky went down with a torn ACL in the final minutes of a 1-0 win against Ohio State in preseason action. Replacing Raskasky proved to be a challenge all season as four different players split time at right back.
A bright spot, however, was the blossoming of Alex Ochoa on the left side. Ochoa started all 19 games as a freshman and added four assists. Ochoa showed the ability to join the attack and fired 21 shots, which ranked sixth on the team.
“When you bring in a freshman like Alex Ochoa at left back and you see the quality he brings to the position, you certainly feel really good about him,” LeBlanc says.
“Anybody has seen us play understands that our fullbacks are a massive part of our system and the way we tactically try and go at teams. You lose the one guy (Raskasky) with experience and leadership in your backs.”
The centerback is a position LeBlanc feels comfortable about with the return of sophomore Jack Elliott, who settled into his own and established himself as the leader of the back four last year. Elliott played in 19 games and started each of the final 12 matches.
Elliott came in as a young freshman in terms of age last summer and coming from England, went through an adaptation period. It was evident that he had the right ideas technically and tactically, but because the collegiate game is so different than what he was used to, it took time for him to settle in.
“He certainly established himself as one of the top guys on our team by the end of the season and throughout the spring,” LeBlanc says. “I think Jack is really the guy we can depend on back there and I think he is an all-conference quality player.”
Playing opposite of Elliott will likely be a battled between juniors Haydon Bennett and Francio Henry. Each have started games over the past two seasons with Bennett playing in 33 games and starting 30, while Henry has played in 24 games with 13 starts.
“Heading into 2014, we are probably about five times more experienced than we were heading into 2013 in the back,” LeBlanc says. “That gives us a lot of hope that we will be a much stouter defensive team in 2014. I think we started to see signs of that in October of last year when they started to gel and come together.”
“We’re going to have some good competition, that is going to be a strength of our team,” LeBlanc says. “It could be a lot better than it was last season.”
Thomas has been the captain of the ultra-successful U18 Houston Dynamo team, earning opportunities to play with the Dynamo Reserve team. Icolari led his Colorado Rush team to the final eight of the U18 Development Academy this season.
After losing all-conference honorees and four-year starters Uwem Etuk, Travis Pittman and Shadow Sebele the previous season, the four midfield positions were wide open heading into the 2013 season.
Sophomore Christian Diaz took the role of general and did an admirable job as the year went on, getting more comfortable with the speed and competition of the game. Diaz started all 19 games in the holding midfielder role, adding two goals and one assist.
“The sky is the limit for Christian. He is a savvy player who knows how to pull the strings and dictate tempo,” LeBlanc says. “What were looking for from Christian is to improve the physical side of things: to be a ball winner, to be fitter, to tackle, to dominate.”
Another youngster in sophomore Mike Desiderio provided quality minutes at midfield. Desiderio came to the Mountaineers off a recent injury and playing sparingly off the bench in seven of WVU’s first nine games last year.
LeBlanc had a hunch and penciled Desiderio in the starting lineup on Oct. 5 against Northern Illinois and he did not disappoint, starting the final 10 games of the season.
“He came in and ironically we had an unbelievable stretch where we lost once in a five week period and Desi gave us a little bit of fight and grit,” LeBlanc says. “He was somebody who was willing to compete and do the dirty work. He had a little injury that held him back in the spring, but the hope is that he is back to full strength.”
Junior Zak Leedom is back for his third season and he is looking to stay injury free for the first time in his WVU career. Leedom played in all 19 games in 2013, starting 10 with three assists.
“When you play hurt and get used to playing hurt, you get caught trying to manage games rather than being at your best,” LeBlanc says. “I think Zak is at a point and time where heading into your junior year you find that consistency, you find the ability to be the dependable guy. He’s a good leader and when you have players like that, it becomes contagious.” The workhorse in the midfield will continue to be junior Jamie Merriam, who will also get to play up front with the forwards on some occasions. Merriam saw action in 19 matches with 15 starts in 2013, netting two goals and tying for the team lead with seven assists.
“Jamie is a brave kid, the kind of guy who is going to take the shot when the pressure is on,” LeBlanc says. “You want those guys to have the ball at the end of the game. Jamie knows he has the green light, but he also knows he needs to involve his teammates and make sure they get touches.”
LeBlanc said that last season they were making sure to tactically cover themselves so they weren’t exposed, specifically Merriam. Last spring was spent putting the personnel in a shape on the field that better highlights the strengths.
“What we have done around him really frees things up, it benefits him and with the experience coming back, we don’t feel like we’re leaving ourselves exposed on the other side of the ball,” LeBlanc says.
A number of freshmen will have the chance to come in and compete for immediate playing time.
Jad Arslan and Joey Piatzycz were each four-star recruits with Arslan ranking No. 99 recruit on the CollegeSoccerNews, while Piatzycz was ranked No. 109 and No. 80 on the TopDrawerSoccer IMG Academy Top 150.
“Our midfield has a lot of competition and we’ve added one of the top players in the country in Joey Piatzycz, who will compete in either of the midfield positions. Joey’s been a Sporting KC reserve team player, so he has played at a high level,” LeBlanc says. “Jad Arslan led his team in scoring in the Academy.”
Michael Peprah is an under the radar recruit who has drawn comparisons to former Sebele and is expected to develop into an all-conference caliber player. Additionally, Austin Stout and Colin Hester will provide necessary depth.
All-region and all-conference forward Andy Bevin returns for his senior season looking to build on an already fantastic career. Through three seasons Bevin has 18 goals and 11 assists for 47 points in 56 games.
Bevin netted a career-high, team-leading and conference-leading nine goals in 2013, joining Franck Tayou (nine in 2010) as the only players to have nine or more goals since 2006.
“Andy is deceptively fast. He doesn’t look like it, but his ability to maintain pace on the dribble and to seal off defenders when he receives the ball allows him to get in behind,” LeBlanc says. “The cohesion he had last year had a lot to do with him being with us in the spring, versus the spring prior when he was trying to make the Olympic team and wasn’t with us.”
Bevin has been double-teamed defensively for the majority of his career and LeBlanc hopes that with so much talent surrounding him this year that teams also will have to focus other players.
“We know he’s going to score goals and we know he’s going to create goals. We know he will draw everyone’s attention that we play against,” LeBlanc says. “We have more pieces around him that will help him be more successful and make it very difficult for team to just zero in on Andy.” Junior Ryan Cain has five goals in two seasons, including three in 2013 with seven starts in 19 games. Cain has shown brilliance at times and players bigger than he is, often times taking on much bigger defenders.
“Ryan is an emotional player and sometimes it gets the best of him, but other times it is what makes him, him,” LeBlanc says. “A great example is when he kicks the ball away in his first ever game and gets sent off. At the same stage at No .9 Indiana, the defending national champions, he hits a turnaround shot left footed to beat them on the road.”
Freshman Tolu Ibikunle will provide a completely different look for the Mountaineers with a stocky frame and a back to goal center forward, different than Bevin or Cain. Colin Hester is a savvy, creative player who can break you down on the dribble. Hester will likely partner with Cain because he plays similar to Bevin, such as coming underneath.
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