AKRON, Ohio – West Virginia was denied a place in its first Mid-American Conference Championship final Friday after losing 3-2 in overtime to Bowling Green at FirstEnergy Stadium – Cub Cadet Field.
Second-half goals from MAC Player of the Year Andy Bevin and junior forward Jamie Merriam gave the Mountaineers a foot in Sunday’s final after Pat Flynn put the Falcons ahead before the interval. Jacob Roth’s penalty kick tied the score with eight minutes remaining, and Max Auden won the game for the Falcons after 59 seconds of overtime.
The win was Bowling Green’s fifth in a row since losing to West Virginia in Morgantown on Oct. 25. The Falcons will face either defending champion Akron or No. 4 seed Western Michigan in Sunday’s final.
“We didn’t play well in the first 45 minutes,” Mountaineers head coach Marlon LeBlanc told The Soccer Observer after the game.
“We went into the locker room and made a number of half-time adjustments that worked, but we just defended poorly in the last 25 minutes of the game.”
Neither side posed a serious goal threat during the first half-hour of this first semi-final. Senior forward Bevin drove an early free kick into the Falcons’ wall before sending a teasing cross to the back post. Zak Leedom could not get enough elevation on his jump to connect with a scoring header.
Freshman midfielder Joey Piatcyzc came closest to finding an opener for the Mountaineers on 14 minutes when Merriam fed him the ball 25 yards out. Piatczyc’s drive forced Falcons goalkeeper Nick Landsberger to tip the ball over his crossbar at full stretch.
Bevin tried his luck from a similar distance on the ensuing corner kick. His effort sailed harmlessly over the top, and Piatczyc was similarly off target minutes later as WVU kept up the pressure.
Bowling Green had spent much of the opening period content to form an orange curtain across its defensive third with seven players sitting deep. That left Eric Nichols’ side with few attacking options when it did win possession.
A rare Falcons chance arrived on 31 minutes. West Virginia substitute Christian Diaz was caught on the ball in midfield, allowing Flynn and Auden to escape on a 2-vs-2 breakaway. WVU defender Jack Elliott held up the initial attack before goalkeeper Lee Johnston made an acrobatic diving stop to thwart Auden on the second wave.
That spark of offense lifted Bowling Green. Flynn put the Ohioans ahead two minutes later with his 14th goal of the season. The sophomore forward was initially freed by a long ball clipped over West Virginia’s defense. Johnston, Elliott and Francio Henry crowded him out at first, forcing Flynn to square the ball to Ryan James in the middle of the penalty box.
James saw his shot deflected onto the bar by Elliott before seizing on the rebound to tee up Flynn to drill the ball home from 10 yards.
The goal finally brought the contest to life. Merriam weaved through on the right of Bowling Green’s 18-yard box before forcing Landsberger into a low save at his front post. The Falcons retaliated with Auden drawing a similar save from Johnston.
Scoring chances continued to arrive early in the second half. Johnston had a lucky escape after spilling a deep free kick at the edge of his penalty box. The Falcons were unable to find a shot on target as WVU’s defense backtracked to the 6-yard line.
Henry almost brought the Mountaineers level when he connected with Bevin’s inswinging corner, but the 6-foot-3-inch defender could not steer the ball on target from six yards. Merriam quickly struck a sweet volley from 25 yards that flew straight at Landsberger.
West Virginia equalized on 55 minutes from the head of top scorer Bevin. Piatczyc delivered an enticing, looping cross from the right wing that gave the New Zealander a running jump against Bowling Green’s static defenders. Bevin planted a superb header into Landsberger’s left corner from 10 yards out.
Merriam could have edged the Mountaineers ahead within a minute when the ball dropped to him inside the penalty area. Composure was required. Instead, Merriam slashed his volley high and wide.
The junior from Gaithersburg, Maryland redeemed himself on 61 minutes to put WVU ahead. Merriam fastened onto a long ball over the top by Mike Desiderio, held off his opponent and steered a low left-foot shot under Landsberger from 16 yards.
Bowling Green had little choice but to throw bodies forward in the closing stages to save its season. The reward came eight minutes from full-time when referee Dimitar Chavdarov ruled that Roth had been tripped as he dribbled into a congested penalty area.
Cleveland native Roth dusted himself off before placing his kick high to Johnston’s left as the goalkeeper guessed low to his right.
Auden could have won it for the Falcons in the closing minutes when he was sent through on Johnston’s goal. The goalkeeper pulled off a vital stop to keep the Mountaineers alive.
Less than a minute of overtime had elapsed when Auden received the ball inside WVU’s penalty box. He managed to hold off his marker and steer the ball beneath Johnston from close range to send the No. 3 seed into Sunday’s final.
West Virginia entered the MAC Championship with high hopes after sweeping the conference’s post-season honors. LeBlanc was named Coach of the Year after leading his team to 11-6-1 overall, 3-1-1 MAC. Piatczyc was named as the conference’s top freshman on top of Bevin’s award.
“I think we’d all give up those awards up to be playing for a title on Sunday afternoon,” LeBlanc said.
“It’s disappointing that this type of game can end your season.”
West Virginia (4-2-3-1): Johnston – Ehrenworth, Elliott, Henry, Thomas – Piatczyc, Desiderio – Merriam, Bevin, Leedom – Arslan
Bowling Green (3-4-1-2): Landsberger – Kumher, Genrich, Roth – Shea, James, Martin, Lekarev – Sullivan – Flynn, Auden
Referee: Dimitar Chavdarov