Daniel Stratford wasted no time in turning West Virginia men’s soccer into a player for the national title, and in 2022, he and his team want to turn their “miracle” 2021 into a statement.
In fact, the former WVU star player needed just two weeks of a full campaign to bring his squad into the national conversation as the Mountaineers catapulted from unranked to the top five in 2021. West Virginia further solidified its place by the end of the season, fighting all the way to the NCAA Elite Eight.
WVU Men’s Soccer 2022 Season Preview – The Gold and Blue Nation Podcast
Technically speaking, the team made an undefeated run through the NCAA Tournament, taking their elimination in a penalty shootout. The Mountaineers were nevertheless left with that same losing taste in their mouths and returned to Morgantown with a hunger for 2022.
WVU’s upcoming campaign presents several new challenges for Stratford and his team. This is the first year in which WVU enters the season ranked inside the top-15 since 2008, and it is the first time in program history that it’s a preseason top-10 team. Many teams would struggle with that kind of pressure, but Stratford’s experience at the University of Charleston has prepared him for this task.
“We out-worked a ton of teams last season, we wanted it more than a ton of teams last season, and I think the experience I had at Charleston where we were often the No. 1 team in the country and the head scout for pretty much every team we played, we’re going to have to deal with that a little bit this year as well,” Stratford said.
Similarly, the Mountaineers have a brand-new slate ahead of them as they look to navigate the all-new men’s soccer Sun Belt Conference, which was reinstated for the 2022 season and instantly became one of the toughest leagues in the sport. WVU was selected to win the SBC, but the presence of teams like No. 8 Kentucky and No. 14 Marshall attest to the challenge the league will present.
Here is a preview of WVU’s campaign before it kicks off Thursday against Robert Morris:
Strength in [returning] numbers
Much of WVU’s 2021 squad is back for 2022 as 14 lettermen including eight starters return for another campaign. Leading the way is the German center-back duo of Bjarne Thiesen, an All-American in 2021, and Aaron Denk Gracia, one of WVU’s three captains this season. That duo aims to replicate a stellar season in the defensive third in which WVU held opponents to just .619 goals per game – the fourth-best mark in the nation.
In front of him is junior midfielder Ryan Baer, another team captain. Baer had 19 starts as a sophomore and logged two assists, including the game-winning set-up against Pitt.
Stratford said Baer, who can be considered a sophomore again due to the free year of eligibility in 2020-21, has made a big step up this preseason and could be poised for a breakout 2022 campaign.
“His future and his potential in this program we would rate really, really highly,” Stratford said. “I’m looking forward to a lot of those freshman and sophomore players that had a big impact for us last year stepping up into even more of a role this year, as well as some solid senior leadership amongst the group.”
WVU also brings back much of its attacking prowess, including junior striker Ciro Bourlot Jaeggi. The 2021 all-conference honoree from Argentina caught fire in the final month of the regular season, scoring four goals in three games as he worked his way into a starting role.
Bolstering the back line
While two-thirds of WVU’s defensive trio will be back for 2022, Stratford has the tall task of replacing former captain Kevin Morris, the program’s all-time leader in appearances. Morris spent his fourth and fifth years at West Virginia as the centerpiece of the defensive line, an important position that Stratford will have to fill.
Ideally, the gaffer wants a rotation of four center-backs. The top two candidates in the preseason were Dyon Dromers, a versatile midfielder with a strong right leg, and Malo Blondeau, a freshman from France looking to make his debut this season. Stratford lauded the newcomer during the preseason and gave him some opportunity in the squad’s August exhibitions.
Stratford also mentioned Kyle Lehnert and Noah Gold as potential candidates for the position as well.
The search for a shot-stopper
There’s another big spot in the defensive third with a question mark: the all-important goalkeeper position. Steven Tekesky, another captain and fifth-year senior in 2021, became another one of WVU’s most prolific players last season and will be another tough replacement for Stratford.
Echoing the competition over at Milan Puskar Stadium, the gaffer said it’s a four-horse race for the starting goalkeeper position. Redshirt senior Jacob Castro is the only returner with game experience at WVU, and was the third player given the captain’s armband for 2022. He did, however, play just 13 minutes in 2021 and missed the first two weeks of preseason with an injury.
Lorenzo Nunez and Marc Bonnaire also return to the roster in 2022. Neither have game experience, but both showed promise in the early weeks of preseason.
WVU also added Jackson Lee, an Australian transfer from George Mason. The junior started all 16 matches in 2021 and recorded one clean sheet.
Leadership is an obvious need in that position, but that doesn’t mean Castro is the clear-cut favorite to take the job. That will go to whoever impressed the most in the preseason.
“I think first and foremost, their job is to keep the ball out the back of the net,” Stratford said. “If they add an element of distribution and our ability to play out and play through them and for them to help us possess and build the game, then again with the identity we want to have that’s a really important aspect and strength that frankly all of the goalkeepers possess.”
No. 6 WVU kicks off its 2022 campaign on Thursday when it hosts Robert Morris.