MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dan Stratford’s team has been on a collision course with program history over the last four weeks. The club that started the season unranked is suddenly one of the two best teams in the nation.
Over the past few weeks, the Mountaineers have claimed. First to Number 16. Then to No. 4. And most recently up to No. 2.
When the United Soccer Coaches rankings were released Tuesday, the Mountaineers didn’t have much time, if any, to celebrate. All their hard work through the first six matches of the year could have evaporated if they allowed their focus to slip away from the task at hand — remaining unbeaten, and taking care of business at home against a scrappy Dayton team.
West Virginia did take care of business, securing a 1-0 win on the strength of Sergio Ors Navarro’s second goal of the season in the 18th minute. Marcus Caldeira was held scoreless for the first time in a match this year.
“There’s an aspect of how the rankings have transpired over the last two weeks, in particular, where, yeah, we’re reminded that we’re human,” Stratford said Tuesday night.
This isn’t the first time Stratford has had the Mountaineers ranked among the nation’s best clubs. In 2021, West Virginia achieved its highest-ever placement in the United Soccer Coaches poll when it was slotted third in the country. That team advanced all the way to the NCAA Quarterfinals, where it ultimately fell on the road to Georgetown in penalty kicks.
West Virginia was ranked No. 6 in the initial 2022 poll, but didn’t live up to the preseason ranking.
A year later, Stratford and co. are once again achieving new heights in terms of national perception — their No. 2 rankings in the United Soccer Coaches poll and Top Drawer Soccer Top 25 are the best in program history. This time around, though, things feel a little different.
“I think with this ranking and what we’ve done this season, it feels a little more authentic,” he said. “We’re number one in the RPI, or at least we were before today. And we’ve earned it. We’ve played some really, really tough opponents and got fantastic results.”
Now comes the hard part for the players. They, of course, have to keep winning (or, at least, not losing) in order to maintain a top-two national ranking. Maybe equally as important, in the eyes of their head coach, they also have to own their newfound and regained national spotlight.
The former-Mountaineer-midfielder-turned-head-coach acknowledged it’s still early in the season. West Virginia has nearly 60 percent of its matches left to play. Among the remaining opponents are No. 12 James Madison (H, Oct. 8), and No. 1 Marshall (H, Oct. 18), along with the majority of this season’s Sun Belt Conference slate.
But WVU has already taken down the then-No. 3 ranked Portland Pilots and played to a 2-2 draw at No. 5 UCF. The Mountaineers are certainly battle-tested.
Stratford has won a pair of Division II national championships as a head coach. He was also part of the Mountaineer men’s soccer team in 2006, the last time the program made it this deep into a season without a loss.
The London, England native may be in just his fourth year as the Mountaineer head coach, but he has a good understanding of the personality, from a player’s perspective, it will take to maintain this level of success.
“There’s an edge. I said borderline arrogance,” Stratford said with a smile. “It’s a confidence and a belief in what we do, and the way that they do it, and understanding that we have to earn it every time — but that we will.”
West Virginia’s next contest is this Friday, at home against a Georgia Southern team that has won just two matches dating back to the start of last season. The contest is part of a five-match stretch during which WVU will face only one team that currently has a record above .500.
The schedule gets significantly more challenging after that. Only time will tell how high West Virginia is ranked when the Mountaineers welcome a nationally ranked JMU team into Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium in early October, or the top-ranked Thundering Herd 10 days after that.
Aside from more tallies in the win column, Stratford hopes to see that “borderline arrogance” come to the surface within his players. He wants his team to own the spotlight and, ultimately, the top spot in the nation.