Retooled WVU ready for self-test

New men's head soccer coach Marlon LeBlanc vows to offer an offensive enhancement to formerly defensive-based West Virginia. And what might read as a major enigma was aided via one promising aspect: Talent.

LeBlanc, WVU's first-year head coach after a five-year stint as an assistant at Big Ten power Penn State, is more of an offensive stylist than former Mountaineer coach Mike Seabolt. The latter's lockdown, responsibility-before-run defense handcuffed foes, but left little in the way of creativity or pressure on goal. The focus of LeBlanc's 4-4-2 set is to increasingly utilize the center midfielders to aid strikers, giving WVU newfound freedom for better push behind forwards Andy Wright and Alex Yost.

The risk-reward approach will get its first test at 7:30 p.m. tonight versus 2005 MAAC champion Fairfield at Dick Dlesk Stadium in the second annual WVU shootout. Pitt and Buffalo kickoff the tournament at 5 p.m.

"Coming in here this was supposedly a defensive group, a group that had to defend to stay in the game," LeBlanc said. "I don't believe that at all. We have a number of guys that can excite the crowd and go forward and score goals and play a brand of that soccer. There is a lot that I like about this group."

Starting with the center mids and backs. West Virginia's strength is down the middle, with junior defenders Reed Cooper and Andrew Halsell in front of keeper Nick Noble, just two shutouts shy of the school-record 28. Cooper has played in 43 career games and Halsell, a quick, 5-11, 160-pounder, returns after a steady 2005 season. Noble, at 6-4, is also blessed with superior athleticism and a large wingspan. The senior owns WVU's single-season goals against average (0.77) and set the single-season shutout record last year with 12. He has yet to allow a goal in preseason matches versus Virginia Tech (1-0) and Marshall (2-0).

The offensive push will be keyed by center mids Dan Stratford and Gift Maworere. Stratford tallied the team's second-most points last year (13), netting four goals in 18 shots-on. He also converted both his penalty kicks. LeBlanc likes Maworere's (MA-wore-ee) tenacity and his ability to spread the ball and bring other players into the run. The 5-8, 160-pounder played for his Zimbabwe national team.

"He is a kid that, as a freshman, has no fear," LeBlanc said. "You will appreciate that when you see him play live. He wants the ball under pressure and he makes guys around him better. That is special for a freshman player to have. He is learning on the fly, but there is no pressure on him. We have depth in behind him where he doesn't need to worry about making mistakes. He has a great line that can back him.

"Our center backs and two center mids are big time. They can play for any team in the country; they are just as good as anywhere."

The ability to mix promising-but-unhoned talent with veteran leadership and experience pleased LeBlanc, who had been sold by several sources that West Virginia was so defensively-oriented that it simply waited for other teams to make mistakes, it being unwilling or unable to push the game itself. What he found was so much to the contrary that the former Nittany Lion player thought WVU should have scored more than three goals in the two preseason wins.

"I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the amount of talent we already do have in this program," he said. "The experience I like as well. This is a group of guys who have been to the NCAA Tournament. That is irreplaceable, ask any coach. You can't put a figure on that. The difference is that West Virginia made the tournament last year; can we do it again this year? Can we do it next year and the year after that? That is the difference between the top 10 programs and a program that is trying to get there."

The Mountaineers were picked fifth in the Big East's eight-team Blue Division (there is also a Red), which, to LeBlanc, signifies exactly where pundits rate the program – though two of those, Connecticut and Notre Dame, are in the Soccer America preseason top 10 at eight and 10, respectively. South Florida, a Red Division team, was ranked ninth nationally. Seton Hall and Providence were also selected ahead of WVU in the Blue Division.

"That shows you that they are not really respecting what we have done in the past," LeBlanc said. "That is ok, because we have to earn that respect. The true mark of a great program is one that is in (the NCAAs) every single year. This can be a top program. We have speed, we have size, we have athletic ability. That's a good base for us to get started with."

Like any scheme change, the most important aspects are a feel for playing together and knowing what a teammate will do in a given situation. That is difficult to emulate in practice, and thus the first two tests – against upset minded teams that have solid skill – should show LeBlanc how West Virginia works on the field and what tweaks and changes can be made. Still, the games will be more about what the Mountaineers can do and less involved with match-ups or stopping opposing styles.

"My philosophy is that we are going to do what we do as well as we possibly can and put it on the other team to stop us," LeBlanc said. "We have a lot of speed in the center and up the width of the field that is going to cause anybody problems. On set pieces we are going to be a dangerous squad because we have big - over six-foot - guys who can go forward and score goals with their heads. If we do what we are supposed to do how we can do it, what they can do to stop it is pretty much a mute issue."

Note: WVU vs. Fairfield follows Pitt vs. Buffalo. Sunday's matches start at 1 p.m. (Pitt vs. Fairfield) and finish with the 3:30 kickoff of WVU and Buffalo. The Bulls and Stags combined for a 27-7-5 record last year, with Buffalo losing on extra time penalty kicks in the MAC title game to an Akron team that beat West Virginia 5-0. Buffalo allowed just 12 goals in 20 matches last year. WVU is 2-0 all-time against the Bulls.

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