No. 5 West Virginia men’s soccer continues its big run in the early days of 2021 when it hosts yet another Big Ten opponent in Ohio State at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium in Morgantown on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
The Mountaineers made a meteoric rise to the top five from the unranked pool after knocking off No. 3 Pitt and No. 17 Penn State and drawing with Loyola (MD) to stay unbeaten. Such a jump is rare in college sports and somewhat unprecedented within the WVU men’s soccer program — and gaffer Dan Stratford says that new number is simply a testament to their hard work so far this season.
“We’ve reminded [the players] of what got them there to this point, and it’s still one game at a time,” he said. I’ve been in a fortunate position to, in my coaching career up to now, with my time at Charleston to have a very, very high number by my name, and that comes with a certain level of expectation, it comes with a certain additional burden that you have to carry, and we’ll have to handle that.”
Ohio State has gotten off to a rocky start to the season, managing just one win in four games out of the gate to make the Mountaineers clear favorites over the Buckeyes. Soccer is a fickle game, though, and contests like this can be especially difficult for a team like West Virginia when it has a freshly-painted target on its back.
“Not only does [the ranking] mean something for us, it means something for Ohio State when they’re prepping for the No. 5 team in the country,” Stratford said.
A pair of Englishmen on each side will take the spotlight in this clash, led by WVU midfielder Luke McCormick. The Derby, England native picked up honors at the conference and national level as he added a goal and an assist in each of WVU’s ranked wins.
McCormick has emerged as a leader for the Mountaineers in his third season both on and off the pitch. THis is bolstered by the fact that he has made strides in his own mentality, as he started his college career with an “explosive” temperament.
“His work ethic is what has led to a lot of his success, and quite honestly, [he’s] led by example in terms of how we want that front three to sometimes press,” Stratford said. “Certainly the aggressive intent as a first defender, but when it’s his turn to get to the ball, that aspect of things has laid the foundation for the team to win the ball back high and then as a result, he gets more actions, more involvement, more possession closer to their goal, and that’s exactly where we want him.”
The irony is not lost on Stratford praising one of his best offensive players for his play on defense — but at the same time, that is the mentality with which he wants his team to play.
For the Buckeyes, Laurence Wootton is leading the goal-scoring duties He has scored two goals in Ohio State’s three matches thus far, while adding an assist as well from the midfield.
Stratford was laudatory towards his upcoming opponent, noting that like many of his own players, Wootton has experience overseas. Before moving to Columbus, he spent time in Cardiff City’s academy.
Given his versatility, however, WVU won’t exactly know what they will see out of the sophomore until the ball is kicked off.
“You can tell that he’s a quality footballer, no doubt, and they’re at their best when he’s kind of the engine in the middle of the field,” “He has a bit of a license to get forward as well, so we’ll have to remain watchful of him, we’ll have to see, quite honestly, just exactly how they shape up in the center of the field in terms of best utilizing him, whether he plays a bit deeper and they show us a little bit of respect in that regard, or if he has the freedom to join their attacks.”
These two programs have an extensive history with one another, squaring off 21 times since 1963. History favors the Old Gold and Blue, leading the series 11-6-4.
WVU and Ohio State most recently faced in 2019 after a 10-year hiatus at the Buckeyes’ Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. West Virginia took a comfortable victory on the road in that go-around, with the aid of a score from a then-freshman McCormick.
Kickoff between the Buckeyes and the No. 5 Mountaineers is set for 7 p.m. ET, and it will be shown on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.