The No. 20 Mountaineers (8-5, 4-3 Big East) beat then-top five Maryland and Duke on the road, wins that have since lost a bit of luster as both teams struggle to mediocre campaigns at 6-4-3 and 7-4, respectively. WVU followed suit, starting 6-2, then losing 1-0 to South Florida in double overtime on a set piece off an arguable foul before dropping a match at Notre Dame by the same tally. Wins against bottom-feeders Pitt and Georgetown only served to pad a record lacking a marquee victory.
So the question remains: who are these 2007 Mountaineers? The ones that created chances early and relied upon a nearly impenetrable defense to ride out six 1-0 decisions in the first eight outings? Or the squad that has since seen its offensive flow and control disappear against fast, athletic teams with similar talent? West Virginia will attempt to answer that tonight at 8 p.m., when it plays host to top-rated UConn (12-1-1, 6-1-1), a team that has dominated at home, but split a threesome of away games with a win, loss and tie.
"I talk about the evolution of this program, and I think I have the pedal down to the ground to speed that evolution up," second-year West Virginia head coach Marlon LeBlanc said. "What UConn has is a tradition of winning and championships. That persona, that fiber doesn't happen overnight. I know, and this program knows, we have a long way to go to get to the level of a UConn. That doesn't mean on any given night we can't knock off a No. 1. Regardless of how good UConn is and what they have done, I know and these guys know in our hearts that we are good enough to compete."
What LeBlanc doesn't know is how his squad will respond to the change in lineup. WVU went away from what won it earlier games, moving Gift Maworere forward and filling his midfield slot. That bumped forward/midfielder Tony Lindroos, negating the international player's scoring abilities and taking him from what most consider his natural position of forward. The sophomore, who started the final five games last season after being cleared to play midway through the year, will now return to forward. LeBlanc also plans to swap 6-4 Jason Bristol for 6-2 Alex Erwin at center back. Bristol, a former walk-on, is two inches taller and five pounds heavier than Erwin – who LeBlanc believes is beginning to fatigue – and would appear a better match for Connecticut's larger front.
LeBlanc admitted pushing Maworere on didn't work as well as hoped. In a trademark sign of a superior strategist, the 2006 National Coach of the Year noted what was transpiring and, instead of being stubborn, simply made the needed moves. Saying the original switches "unbalanced us in the process," LeBlanc is still seeking that spark that ignited the hot start. The moves would appear, at lest on paper, to help West Virginia regain that against the Huskies' size.
Much of the focus will be upon 2005 Big East Rookie of the Year O'Brian White, a 6-1, 165 pound forward who led the team in scoring with seven goals, six assists and 20 points last season in garnering first-team league honors. The junior has 34 points, this season, including 15 goals, four of which were game winners. The catalyst leads a balanced offense unlike any WVU has faced. Duke and Maryland are offensively-oriented, but utilize a faster-paced attack setup by a speed-over-size approach. UConn mixes the two, pacing the midfield with a trio of 5-11 or taller players led by Ryan Cordiero (4G, 7A), and Akeem Priestly (3G, 7A, 2GW), honorable mention and second-team All-Big East selections, respectively, last season.
That should be an improved match for WVU. The Mountaineers have one of the nation's biggest defensive lines. At times, they struggled to run with faster teams. But versus the more physical play of UConn, it would seem a fine fit.
"We don't want to get caught into a direct style of play," West Virginia goal keeper Zach Johnson said. "We need to play the way we are told to play: move the ball to breakdown defenses and create more chances. We need to keep moving, keep them off balance and switch the field. UConn has a potent attack. It will be a challenge to match-up for our back four, but I think they are one of the biggest in the country. We should have some ability to shut their kind of offense down."
Eliminating the quick start will help. The Huskies have a 19-1 goals advantage in opening period and a32-8 edge total. They have out-shot opponents 225-95 in the first 45 minutes. Connecticut appears to be a different team away from home, however. It tied Notre Dame 3-3 in South Bend, being out-shot 20-15 and having an 8-5 deficit in corner kicks. Ahead 2-0, UConn lost the lead, then needed a 71st minute goal to tie before playing out the game. Its physicality showed, with the Huskies drawing 15 fouls to Notre Dame's 10. Each school was yellow carded twice.
Connecticut also manhandled speedy South Florida, earning the win largely because of the bruising play. Depaul turned that style against the Huskies, gaining more shots and winning 1-0 in a match in which it had 50 percent more fouls than UConn, and three yellow cards to the Huskies' one. Following the win at South Florida, Connecticut has played Georgetown, Hofstra, Florida International, South Carolina, Stony Brook and Canisius, meaning it hasn't truly been challenged in six games over nearly a one-month span – and has been able to intimidate foes with its raw ability.
"They have 20 bookings. We have 17 plus one, that one being me," LeBlanc said. "Anytime two top teams get together, the game doesn't always end up being pretty, does it? It will be hard-nosed and physical. From our standpoint, the emotions and energy will play into it. It's gotta be a priority for us to understand that we can't let the adrenaline rush affect us. We have to play with intensity, but not be tense."
Especially as the game wears on and finesse begins to give way to conditioning, or lack thereof.
"I feel like we are more than capable of handling them," WVU senior defender Andrew Halsell said. "To tell you the truth, it might fit to our strength. Some of our bigger guys, you get those quick, little players and they are tougher to handle. These guys should be easier to track. We'll have to tap into that physical nature, however. You can't be soft or let them bull you around. It has the capability of being a very physical match. It won't just be a thug match, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it get aggressive.
"We'll analyze the game and see when we can exploit weaknesses. We will play long and turn their backs, then push up behind and try to win the ball to keep possession in their end. We're not just going to keep the ball all day, though. We will attack and go for the goal. We'll push the subject, be patient when we can and aggressive when we can."
The poke-and-prod plan and its productivity won't likely be known until into the second half. UConn's quick start should be offset by West Virginia's emotion – as long as the Mountaineers can properly harness the energy.
"Who would have thought two or three years ago we would be hosting the No. 1 team in the country and it would mean something to the community," LeBlanc said. "Last year we averaged 600; this year we average 1,000. If we can get a big crowd, we will be exploding in terms of what this program means to this community. We are going to need every ounce of energy that crowd can provide."
The match has been deemed "Dollar Day," with tickets and select concessions available for only $1. Fans are also encouraged to wear gold and "Gold Rush" Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. The match will be nationally broadcast live by Fox Soccer Channel. UConn leads the all-time series against WVU by an 11-2-2 margin, dating back to 1984. West Virginia defeated the Huskies 3-0 last season.