AKRON, Ohio – West Virginia joined the Mid-American Conference in 2012 with high hopes of challenging perennial power Akron for the regular season and tournament titles.
Their first meeting ended in a narrow win for Caleb Porter’s Zips side featuring DeAndre Yedlin, Scott Caldwell, Wil Trapp and Chad Barson. Last year’s regular season meeting saw WVU dominating large stretches during a single-goal defeat in Morgantown.
Friday’s contest at FirstEnergy Stadium – Cub Cadet Field finally seemed to be going West Virginia’s way when captain Andy Bevin gave the visitors a two-goal lead after 25 dominant opening minutes. Yet the Mountaineers somehow contrived to let the Zips score twice within three minutes before Akron’s Nate Shultz grabbed his first collegiate goal to seal a 3-2 win.
Times have changed in the Rubber City since Porter joined Major League Soccer at the end of 2012. Gone is the UEFA Champions League Anthem that used to play over the loudspeakers as Akron emerged from the dressing room. Functional navy numbers and letters have replaced the golden characters that formerly adorned the Zips’ pristine white jerseys. The intimidation factor is not what it was, and WVU set out to throttle the reigning MAC champions from the outset.
The Mountaineers took the lead on 12 minutes with a sharp move that typified their fast start. Full-back Nick Raskasky won a header in the midfield that dropped for junior forward Ryan Cain to flick a delightful first-time pass over the Zips back line. Bevin kept his composure to control the ball on his chest as he raced clear before bundling his finish beyond Akron goalkeeper Jake Fenlason.
WVU head coach Marlon LeBlanc instructed his players to push high up the field, squeezing the game into Akron’s half and targeting center-back Bryce Cregan as the catalyst for applying pressure. Akron’s familiar passing game spluttered as the visitors choked off Cregan’s options before hounding the freshman into turnovers.
Cain almost doubled West Virginia’s lead on 16 minutes when Houston Dynamo Academy product Louis Thomas galloped forward from right-back to find the Kiwi at the edge of Akron’s penalty box. Cain spun his defender before sliding a left-foot shot inches wide of Fenlason’s post.
Mike Desiderio stripped the ball from Cregan 20 yards out to go clear on goal, but Fenlason gathered the sophomore midfielder’s weak shot. Bevin showed how to finish again on 25 minutes when another Cregan slip put him through against the goalkeeper. Fenlason did thwart the senior forward’s first effort before the New Zealander knocked the rebound into an empty net.
West Virginia last registered a victory over Akron in 1972. Here they were, midway through the first half having had enough clear looks to have scored four times. Locking down that two-goal advantage should have been their priority. Instead, LeBlanc’s team lost focus and was instantly punished.
Richie Laryea received too much time and space in midfield to pick out Stuart Holthusen, another New Zealand native, and the freshman forward angled his shot in off goalkeeper Lee Johnston’s far post within two minutes of Bevin’s second strike.
Akron head coach Jared Embick immediately freshened his line-up with Liverpool Academy product Sam Gainford and senior Clint Caso replacing Sean Sepe and the unsteady Cregan. The Zips leveled one minute later after a piece of outrageous skill from top scorer Adam Najem.
A searching diagonal ball found Najem giving chase with WVU defender Francio Henry tracking his run. Najem took the ball out of the air with a cushioned first touch, delightfully lobbing Henry in the process to set up a clear shooting opportunity. Henry appeared to commit a last-man foul inside the 18-yard box. He earned a reprieve when referee Marc Lawrence issued a yellow card and awarded a free kick on the edge of the penalty area.
Complete absolution did not arrive for Henry and his teammates. Najem drilled the kick low inside Johnston’s left post. The goalkeeper’s side, if the truth be told.
A game that West Virginia had looked to be in total control of was rapidly slipping away. The compact unit that had pinned Akron into its defensive third was now disjointed. A 50-yard gap arose between the defensive and forward lines, while the Zips exploited the space they were now being granted to play through.
Senior defender Saad Abdul-Salaam charged down the right wing before flashing a ball across goal that two of his teammates narrowly failed to reach. Johnston kept the Mountaineers level at the interval with a full-stretch diving save to thwart Gainford after the Englishman had turned Thomas with a delightful dummy.
WVU regrouped and returned to its game plan in the opening minutes of the second half. Jamie Merriam forced a turnover in Akron’s half before working a one-two with Bevin and freeing Cain in the inside-left channel. Cain opted against taking an early left-foot shot, cut inside the covering defender and curled the ball wide of the far post.
The Zips edged ahead on 52 minutes when Shultz nicked what proved to be the winner. Robby Dambrot’s ball into the box looked too far ahead of his attackers until Shultz launched himself into a speculative slide. His toe made a connection with the ball on the 6-yard line to steer it inside Johnston’s near post.
West Virginia’s chances of fighting back were hampered on 57 minutes when Merriam was dismissed following a skirmish in midfield. Referee Lawrence appeared to turn away from the ruckus to signal for the press box timekeeper to stop the clock. In doing so, he missed the crux of the melee. Singling out Merriam alone for ejection seemed harsh.
Akron was happy to play keep-ball against 10 men in the final half-hour, and Embick’s side was equally content to allow West Virginia to hold possession in deeper areas without pressing for a killer fourth goal. The tactic almost backfired when WVU mounted a late rally.
Jack Elliott used his 6-foot-3-inch frame to nod a long throw toward goal and substitute Jack Driscoll guided the ball even closer to the net before Akron’s defense scrambled the ball to safety.
The 2,517 crowd had been treated to a riveting contest before Lawrence’s decision changed the course of events. His call was not entirely surprising given his earlier action in cautioning Henry and awarding Akron a free kick when a red card and a penalty seemed inevitable. Nor had he taken action earlier in the first half when Cain was clattered from behind after spinning away from Cregan.
Lawrence toiled to keep up with play and spent most of the game within a few steps of the center circle, making decisions that he was not best placed to see.
Encounters between Akron and West Virginia are typically high paced, enthralling end-to-end contests. The NSCAA chose this one as its online “Game of the Week.” It deserved a higher standard of officiating.
West Virginia fell to a 6-6-1, 0-1-1 MAC record with the loss. Akron climbed to 8-4-1, 2-0-0 MAC.