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College Cup Preview: Fearless WVU Ready to Push Pace vs Traditional ACC Power Clemson in National Semifinal



WVU in College Cup
Image credit to WVU Athletics

John Krysinsky 

Friday, December 8th | 6 PM ET | Louisville, KY | Lynn Family Stadium | ESPN+

The ACC may be the traditional powerhouse conference in NCAA Men’s College Soccer.

After all, the conference has certainly lived up to its billing once again with two teams in the College Cup, as No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 9 Clemson are back on the big stage.  This is the fifth straight season in which two ACC teams have advanced to the NCAA Men’s College Cup to be played for the first time ever at Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium.

ACC teams have won the last two NCAA titles, with Clemson in 2021 and Syracuse in 2022.

The West Virginia Mountaineers are not only looking to crash the ACC party in their first-ever College Cup appearance, but Dan Stratford’s team has helped make the case for the strength of the Sun Belt Conference this season, which also placed five teams in the NCAA tournament.

For the Mountaineers, the competition in the Sun Belt was equally as brutal as the ACC this season.  Not only did the Mountaineers survive, they thrived in a conference that included the last NCAA champion that didn’t come from the ACC — in-state rival Marshall (2020-21 champs), plus NCAA tournament teams Kentucky, James Madison and Central Florida.

The Mountaineers enter the College Cup with a record of 17-2-4 without losing a game at home in Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium this season, where they made their run to the Final Four with three wins.

WVU Men’s Soccer Advances to First-Ever Final Four

While Clemson arrives in Louisville as a traditional men’s college soccer power, making this their 10th College Cup appearance, winning three times, this will be WVU’s first-ever appearance in the College Cup.  The Mountaineer program has blossomed in just four seasons under the guidance of Stratford, a WVU alum, who previously led the University of Charleston to multiple NCAA Division II National Championships prior to his arrival in Morgantown.

This will be the sixth overall appearance in a College Cup for Stratford, having guided Charleston in the previous decade to the Division II’s Final Four five times in six years as both an assistant and head coach.

The veteran coach is focused less on being in the limelight, as much as guiding his players in making the most of the experience.

“It’s more the way that you manage your players.  The size of the Stadium, the field things like that, it’s the event, the occasion you manage the individuals in the group,” Stratford said.

“Do they need added motivation, excitement? Or do they need a calming voice in the room? We’ll need to make sure we get our finger on the pulse on how the players are feeling, and react accordingly, and put them in the best possible place to go out, and really enjoy it.”

This match-up will provide a clash of styles, as Clemson will look to keep the ball for long stretches with a well-organized defensive structure that has been very difficult to score upon in the postseason, while WVU will look to get forward and strike quickly.

Both teams are playing at a high level, which should make for a great match.

A Closer Look at Clemson 

The Clemson Tigers started the season as a middle of the pack ACC team, with a 5-3-1 record after nine matches, finishing the regular season with a 4-2-2 record against grueling conference competition, which was good enough for a second place finish in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and a number four seed in the ACC tournament.

Since starting the season with three losses in nine matches, the Tigers haven’t lost a match since, albeit living dangerously.

First, the Tigers went through the ACC tournament with two penalty kick shootout wins, including the ACC Championship Game vs North Carolina.  Once in the NCAA tournament, the Tigers have been tough to score against and have found timely goal scoring in posting a 3-0 opening round win vs Charlotte, then beating 8-seed New Hampshire, 1-0, and topping 16-seed Stanford, 2-0, in the Elite Eight.

With no goals conceded in the last three games, Mike Noonan’s squad is not giving an inch and dictating terms of their matches.

The three-back system and a midfield that fights for every ball which Clemson implores, they’re always well-positioned and can build play out of the back and always have numbers behind the ball — and fight for every second ball and in winning balls back.  Early in the season, the Tigers were a bit more of a work in progress, but now, as they’ve reached the 21st match of the campaign, they’re a team that is winning possession battles, have a feisty midfield and wear down each opponent they face.

However, since ACC play, the Tigers may not have faced a team that can score in a matter of seconds, like the Mountaineers.

On the attacking front, senior midfielder Ousmane Sylla has been the go-to  threat both in goal scoring and play making for the Tigers this season, with 12 goals and 10 assists on the year. He ranks in the top 50 in Division I in eight categories, including being ranked fifth in the country in total points (34).  But, as Stratford pointed out, Clemson is not a team that relies on one player, as they have four attackers with five or more goals.

“They are a team with an abundance of quality and depth and the system and formation we see will be much different than that of Loyola Marymount,” Stratford providing his assessment of Clemson earlier this week.

“They look quite dangerous going forward and can be very aggressive in their approach to progress the game in an attacking fashion. At this stage, you have to play some of the best teams in the country and Clemson is one of those programs.”

West Virginia’s Keys to Victory

West Virginia fell to in-state rival Marshall in the Sun Belt Championship game, 3-2, surrendering a late goal in a terrific match-up of two of the best teams in the nation.  Earning a No. 5 overall seed in the tournament, WVU stayed at home through the Elite Eight, reeling off wins versus Louisville (1-0), Vermont (2-1) and Loyola Marymount (3-1) to reach the College Cup.

The start of the past two Mountaineers NCAA tournament matches have seen Stratford’s group willing to let the game open up.  WVU scored within the first two minutes in the Vermont win, then after surrendering an early goal to Loyola Marymount, they quickly found the equalizer in the Quarterfinal last Saturday in Morgantown, then added two more goals.

WVU will look to constantly exploit the open lines in the Clemson back line, and will keep coming and pushing for chances, even if they play direct much of the match, primarily looking for Marcus Caldeira, who is among the best at leading a line as a lone forward in college soccer — as WVU will use the center forward in the 4-3-3 line.

Caldeira and Yutaro Tsukada are tied for the team-high in goals at 12.

Of late, it’s Tsukada who’s carried the scoring load, scoring in the last seven matches, while also leading the squad in assists as well, with nine.

Caldeira started off the season with a bang, and Stratford was asked about the sophomore from Ontario, Canada, who’s cooled off as late, as opponents have been zoning in and marking him very tightly.

“The quality of the opponent has continued to improve as well as the amount of attention that he is getting,” Stratford said.

“He is going to be one of the first two names on the opponent’s scout, and that comes with a certain adaptation to his game to make sure he can still be effective. I think he’s in a good space and excited to have another chance to score again.”

WVU — going with four in the back — will typically have two midfielders parked in the middle, while pushing everyone else forward every chance they get.  If Caldeira draws defenders, that leaves room for others to create scoring opportunities.

Sergio Ors Navarro, Luke McCormick, Ryan Baer, Constantinos Christou and Otto Ollikainen to do a lot of the dirty work in the middle of the field, but they also have free reign to move into open space and attack.

On Saturday, McCormick, a fifth year senior from Derby, England, added his seventh goal of the season for the equalizer in Saturday’s win.

Ors Narvarro, a redshirt junior from Spain, who scored twice in the Sun Belt final vs Marshall, and again on Saturday in the Elite Eight match vs LMU on a brilliant individual effort, is one player who can make something out of nothing.

Saturday’s goal was the game-winner.

The Mountaineers will keep pushing the envelope, and play fearless soccer because that’s what they do best.  There have been numerous times this season where they’ve fallen behind, including in their first showdown with Marshall, in Morgantown.

In that match, they roared back with five unanswered goals.

Again, in the NCAA tournament, they fell behind Loyola Marymount, in the very early going.

That wasn’t a problem for a coach who always seems to show a calm demeanor and a team that never stops pushing for goals.

“Now that we’re here, we hope we can enjoy ourselves, but be incredibly fearless going into the Final Four,” Stratford said.

In a season of many firsts for the WVU men’s soccer program, Stratford and his group of players have been keeping their eyes on the prize.

“For some time now, it’s been accolade after accolade, but now I want the attention being on the cumulative of that,” Stratford added.

“The holistic being that we want to win a National Championship, and we have this incredible platform to do so.  What we’re asking for, is something they’re capable of. Whether that this is Clemson’s first or 10th (College Cup), it doesn’t make too much of a difference.  We have young men that are focused on our goal.”

This story initially appeared on our partner Pittsburgh Soccer Now.

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