MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University laid on pyrotechnics during the pre-game rituals before Thursday’s men’s soccer clash against No. 9 ranked U.C. Irvine.
They need not have bothered.
The Mountaineers and Anteaters served up plenty of entertainment in a back-and-forth game that the visitors edged by 3-2 in front of 936 fans at Dick Dlesk Stadium
A microcosm of recent WVU seasons was played out during the 90 minutes. Head coach Marlon LeBlanc’s side showed in spells that they can match the best teams in the country. Yet a bout of collective uncertainty midway through the first half yielded three UCI goals in 14 minutes to smooth the Southern Californian school’s path to a 4-0 record on the year.
“We kind of collapsed at that stage for some reason,” LeBlanc told The Soccer Observer after the game. “We were too deep in the midfield to be able to get out to them.
“We pushed a little bit higher in the second half and we found some good attacks out of it.”
Steady rainfall throughout the morning produced a slick playing surface that the visitors immediately made use of, though their early possession often lacked forward intent.
Early chances arrived for the Mountaineers when they forced UCI’s back line into turnovers. New Zealand native Ryan Cain brought goalkeeper Michael Breslin into action on 10 minutes with a firm strike after fellow Kiwi Andy Bevin and Joey Piatczyc sprang a quick counter. Jamie Merriam headed over a minute later when Louis Thomas pushed forward from right-back to send in a dangerous ball.
Bevin nodded his team ahead on 17 minutes after some great hustling by Cain. The junior forward cut off an intended pass by UCI defender Matt Tilley before sprinting down the right flank to deliver a deep cross. Piatczyc improvised to thigh the ball back across the 6-yard line for Bevin to power a header into the roof of Breslin’s net.
West Virginia’s midfield seemed content to concede the ball and sit behind the halfway line despite the rewards that Bevin and Cain were earning from their diligent work. LeBlanc barked at his players to push higher up, but Irvine found their rhythm to equalize before the instructions registered.
A long stretch of patient UCI possession on 24 minutes eventually dragged West Virginia’s defense out of shape. Gerardo Gonzalez found space on the left of the Mountaineers’ penalty box, and Eduardo Calzada converted his cross with a close-range header.
The visitors were in the groove. Midfielder Mats Bjurman began dictating play with his scheming passes and surging runs. Center-forward Cameron Iwasa dropped away from the attentions of Jack Elliott and Francio Henry before resurfacing in threatening areas down the inside channels.
Bjurman headed Noah Gaines’ cross over the bar before two further attacks tested WVU goalkeeper Brent Arnold. The 6-foot-1-inch sophomore spilled a cutback from Dennis Martinez before recovering the rebound. Arnold’s handling was more secure when Gaines galloped forward from right-back again to fire in a dipping 25-yard shot.
UCI’s attacks kept coming. Two goals in rapid succession gave them a healthy lead at the interval. Calzada notched his second of the night on 36 minutes when he reacted sharpest to a loose ball inside WVU’s 6-yard box to stab it past Arnold. Martinez headed home from a similar range within two minutes after the hosts failed to cope with a wicked corner kick.
LeBlanc issued some stern words to his players during the halftime interval. Arnold and Henry were withdrawn with Lee Johnston taking over in goal and junior defender Haydon Bennett tasked with stabilizing the back four. West Virginia clawed their way back into the game with a goal on 56 minutes.
Bevin used his heel to guide Bennett’s long pass into Merriam’s stride on the right of the 18-yard box. The junior forward worked a yard of space before drilling a low shot beyond Breslin.
The play became stretched in the final 30 minutes as WVU poured players forward in search of the equalizer. UCI tried to keep three forwards high up the field to maximize their counter-attacking opportunities. Breslin reacted sharply to beat Mountaineers substitute Jad Arslan to a through ball at one end. Johnston tipped a shot over at the other end as Calzada foraged for his hat-trick.
Cain’s appetite for defending from the front line led to a set-piece chance on 74 minutes when Jack Birkenbeuel fouled the Kiwi after being outmuscled at the edge of Irvine’s penalty area. Bevin struck a sweet, curling free kick toward Breslin’s far corner only to see the ball whistling millimeters outside the post.
West Virginia’s best chance to salvage the game had passed.
“It was a great night for football,” LeBlanc said. “It’s a shame that we had to be the team that loses the game.
“College soccer gets a bad rap, but if you would have seen this game today you would have been entertained and excited.”
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