MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Caleb Porter cut an authoritative figure on Akron’s touchline over the past seven college seasons: arms folded, staring intensely at his team’s movement before bellowing instructions and reinforcing his points with flurries of hand signals.
The Zips arrived in Morgantown last weekend with a rather more understated leader. Jared Embick, who joined Porter’s coaching staff in 2007, stood passively by the away bench in his almond-colored sweater and jeans, his hands tucked into his pockets as a young West Virginia side stretched the eight-time defending Mid-American Conference regular season champions.
Embick has been a driving force in developing the Akron blueprint that favors technically gifted, attack-minded players keeping the ball away from their opponents – think Barcelona on a college budget. DeAndre Yedlin, Scott Caldwell, Chad Barson and Wil Trapp are the latest batch of Zips to have become regular starters in Major League Soccer in the past year.
Akron’s philosophy remains resolute despite the overhaul, and Embick showed his tactical sharpness Sunday night to emerge from Dick Dlesk Stadium with a single-goal victory.
“That’s a good team,” said Embick of WVU after Reinaldo Brenes’ goal edged Akron to a 7-2-0 record. “Some results haven’t gone their way, but it wasn’t an easy game and they’ve got a lot of talent.
“We’ve found ways to win,” Embick told The Soccer Observer. “Maybe that’s just where we are in terms of our program where guys have a lot of belief.”
West Virginia’s head coach Marlon LeBlanc also spoke about belief after his side fell to its fourth consecutive one-goal defeat. The Mountaineers gifted Akron the lead on five minutes when freshman goalkeeper Brent Arnold pushed Eric Stevenson’s shot across his goalmouth. Brenes drilled the rebound into an empty net from six yards. The hosts recovered to control long stretches, even forcing Embick into a formation change to guard his team’s slender advantage.
“It’s a young group that’s still trying to develop a little bit of character,” said LeBlanc, whose starting line-up featured five freshman, three sophomores, two juniors and one senior.
“I think there was maybe a lack of belief that we could go by them and create opportunities,” LeBlanc told The Soccer Observer. “But once we started doing it, we were getting a lot of success.”
West Virginia’s preferred 4-4-2 system this season prompted Embick to push Saad Abdul-Salaam higher up the right flank into a flexible 3-4-3 formation. Stevenson and fellow senior Robbie Derschang bobbed and weaved off the left touchline to pester WVU’s freshman right-back Griffin Libhart, and sophomore Matt Foldesy supported Brenes from an advanced central position.
LeBlanc opted for a 4-2-3-1 pattern instead, helping his team to control the midfield with Houston Dynamo academy product Christian Diaz particularly adept at retaining possession under Akron’s advanced pressure.
The Mountaineers also pressed high up the field. Bryan Gallego’s failure to control a square pass from Abdul-Salaam created a 3-vs-3 break that saw Jay Williams firing a 20-yard shot at Akron goalkeeper Fernando Pina.
Andy Bevin fashioned another shooting chance at the edge of the box by cleverly allowing Majed Osman’s pass to run behind him into space. Pina palmed the New Zealander’s left-footed drive around his post for a corner kick.
“They were uneasy at times,” said Bevin, West Virginia’s lone forward in the opening stages. “But we needed to get to goal quicker and take a few risks.”
An injury to defender Francio Henry forced LeBlanc to shuffle his line-up. English freshman Jack Elliott dropped to center-back and Zak Leedom joined the midfield. Two chances early in the second half almost brought West Virginia level.
Diaz fizzed a 25-yard half-volley narrowly wide of Pina’s top-right corner after Gallego had nodded out Bevin’s free-kick, and the Kiwi planted a header off Akron’s crossbar after Gallego could only flick on Jamie Merriam’s long throw.
LeBlanc reverted to a flatter midfield in a 4-4-2 system as his team sought to press home their advantage. Embick responded by dropping Abdul-Salaam into a back four as the Zips settled for picking their moments.
Zac Portillos was thwarted by an excellent covering challenge by Alex Ochoa as he broke away. Arnold kept the hosts in the game with a kick save to deny substitute Adam Najem after the lively Foldesy nudged him clear in the box. Foldesy steered Riley Grant’s left-wing cross off the base of Arnold’s right post with six minutes remaining as Akron came close to finding an insurance goal.
“The middle part of the game could have gone either way,” Embick said. “The good thing is we’ve won so many games like these that the belief from the guys to get through it is pretty strong.”
LeBlanc was left delighted and disgruntled by the result after West Virginia put Akron on the back foot for long spells.
“We spotted too good of a team a lead tonight and had to play from behind,” he said. “Akron were a little bit better and they deserved to win.
“I’d be more disappointed if we didn’t have chances, and we created a heck of a lot of chances.”
Sept. 23, 2013 — WVU’s Failure To Follow Game Plan Leaves LeBlanc Fuming
Aug. 19, 2013 — Bevin’s Free-Kick Edges Mountaineers Past Buckeyes
Aug. 18, 2013 — SLIDESHOW: West Virginia 1 Ohio State 0