WVU’s Depth Makes Them A Threat In MAC

Written by Ian Thomson

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – You would be hard pressed to find a more complete display of modern, expansive attacking soccer in the country this past week than that served up by the West Virginia men’s team last Saturday.

The Mountaineers shredded Washington D.C.-based American 2-0 at Morgantown’s Dick Dlesk Stadium with a performance that highlighted the many ways in which Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc’s side can hurt its opponents. Seniors Eric Schoenle and Uwem Etuk grabbed a goal in each half as WVU served notice that they will be a force in the Mid American Conference during their debut season.

WVU’s Uwem Etuk (10) celebrates his game-winning goal while teammates Shadow Sebele (9) and Jamie Merriam (22) give chase (Photo: Ian Thomson)

West Virginia has been making steady progress during LeBlanc’s reign, reaching the quarter-finals of the Big East Championship in the past two years before losing to eventual winners Louisville and St. John’s. The Mountaineers have also reached the second round of the NCAA Championship in the past two years, losing out to eventual winners Akron in 2010 and Maryland last year.

“Last year I said that was the deepest team we’d ever had and that was true,” LeBlanc told The Soccer Observer following Saturday’s game. “This is the deepest team I’ve ever had.

“More so now because I can make changes that actually change the game versus just changes for the sake of taking guys off.”

Movement The Key To WVU’s Offense

LeBlanc doesn’t like his team’s style of play being pigeonholed by numbers. He prefers to emphasize the number of players committed to the attacking phase and the number his team can quickly station behind the ball when defending.

West Virginia loosely set out in a 4-3-3 shape Saturday with imposing freshman Jamie Merriam leading the attack. Etuk and New Zealand U-20 international Andy Bevin assisted from the flanks and senior Shadow Sebele provided support from the tip of LeBlanc’s three-man midfield. The deeper lying Travis Pittman and Craig Stephens shielded WVU’s back four, transitioned defense to offense and recycled the ball when the front players needed to change the angle of attack. American Head Coach Todd West sent his team out in a matching formation.

WVU’s drive to attack was evident the first time Bevin received the ball on the right. Four teammates stormed the penalty box to get on the end of his cross, forcing American to concede a couple of corner kicks. Bevin isn’t a right-winger by any means. He’ll frequently drift infield looking to get on the ball while Sebele will break out to the flank, or full-back Nick Raskaky will advance to provide width and allow Bevin to roam inside. The movement between those three players echoes that of Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and Chance Myers when Sporting Kansas City are on song.

It’s apparent that LeBlanc has drummed into his team that defense is a means to attack. His players’ commitment to retrieving possession was clear when American’s Alassane Kane advanced down the left side. Raskasky, Schoenle, Pittman and Sebele quickly formed a square closing in around the 6-foot-3-inch senior, hemming him against the touchline and choking off his passing options.

Slight Formation Change Shifts Game In WVU’s Favor

West Virginia were slightly on top in the opening stages, though American created a couple of good chances to take the lead. The game swung definitively in WVU’s favor on the half-hour when LeBlanc made a substitution and tactical adjustment that threw off the Patriot League side. Ryan Cain replaced Merriam and Bevin moved into a lone striker role.

The trio of Etuk, Cain and Sebele supported from deeper-lying forward positions in a 4-2-3-1 formation and their intelligent interchanging runs caused numerous problems for American’s defense. Coupled with that, Bevin provided a different puzzle for American’s central defenders with his sharp turns and layoffs compared to Merriam’s physicality and pace.

“We became a little bit more multifaceted in that triangle in the midfield with Uwem being able to get inside a bit more, same with Shadow,” LeBlanc said.

As if the coach’s front four and his marauding full-backs Raskaksy and Peabo Doue don’t provide enough attacking threats, WVU also pose danger from set pieces through 6-foot-2-inch central defender Schoenle. The Yardley, Pa. native notched his first goal of the season with a soaring leap above Oakland’s defense on Sept. 9. He doubled his tally on 34 minutes after a clever short corner allowed him to break free of his markers.

Bevin, Cain and Sebele teased American’s defense out from the penalty area before the latter swung a pinpoint cross to the back post. Schoenle sped toward the six-yard line like a runaway freight train to place his header beyond goalkeeper Billy Knutsen.

Schoenle almost grabbed a second on 39 minutes from Sebele’s deep inswinging corner, but American midfielder Charlie Hunter knocked his back post header off the goal line.

Repeat Performance After Interval Eases Mountaineers To Victory

LeBlanc’s second-half game plan followed a similar pattern. Merriam returned at the head of a 4-3-3 system before making way for Cain on 65 minutes. The full repertoire of West Virginia’s attacking play shone through. Merriam’s bulldozing charges into the box, Bevin’s feints and instant changes of direction, intricate crossover runs to shake off defenders, full-backs joining the offense, three or four players attacking the penalty area to make themselves targets for open-play crosses.

A second goal was inevitable and it came via a 4-vs-4 break on 58 minutes that was expertly exploited. Bevin slipped a pass to Etuk in the inside-right channel and the senior from Herndon, Va. elegantly side-stepped inside American’s covering defender before stroking a left-foot curling shot low into Knutsen’s far corner.

Etuk celebrates with WVU fans after putting his side 2-0 ahead against American (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Pittman found Doue racing down the left side with a beautiful crossfield pass one minute later before sprinting into the box to get on the end of the defender’s cross. The holding midfielder’s commitment to join the attack was impressive, but he couldn’t keep his header underneath the crossbar.

Substitute Zak Leedom and Cain fired high in the closing stages, but WVU didn’t need the cushion of a third goal. An American team that arrived in Morgantown with a 4-2 record, scoring 15 goals and conceding five, had been wondrously dissected.

It was a performance that had LeBlanc brimming with delight, though he’s quick to point out that his team is far from being the finished article. Florida Atlantic provides the next test for the Mountaineers Sunday in their MAC debut.