After a tumultuous debut season in Morgantown, Dan Stratford is finally getting his first full and normal season as the gaffer for West Virginia men’s soccer.
This is a long time coming for the former Mountaineer footballer, who was officially announced as the program’s head coach on Jan. 20, 2020. His first game wouldn’t come for another 13 months, however, as the 2020-21 season was pushed to the spring due to COVID-19. WVU persevered for a 6-3-1 overall record, including 4-3-1 in the MAC.
Unfortunately, upon the cancellation of the season finale, the Mountaineers fell short of the NCAA Tournament — despite the feelings of the Mountaineers themselves.
“Obviously, it ended very, very disappointing, expecting to be in the tournament, and obviously the way that that transpired was very, very disappointing,” Stratford said. “But no one owes us anything, it’s about what we are ourselves.”
There were plenty of successes in 2021, however, namely an upset over eventual national champion Marshall at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. Wins like that mean a lot to this team — led by Fairmont native Ike Swiger, this team is chock full of West Virginia talent. Even Stratford, a native of London, England, considers the Mountain State home — after his career at WVU, he played stints in both MLS and the UK before returning to the Mountain State, where he’s been coaching since 2011.
“It’s pretty remarkable, I think if someone had said to me at Pittsburgh Airport, oh hey, you’re going to be the head coach of that program in 17 years, I’d have never believed it,” Stratford said. “As an international, as someone that grew up in London my entire childhood — I hope my mom doesn’t see this — but this is home now for me. Morgantown and West Virginia and this University it’s been home for a long time.”
Now he’s hoping to build that same feeling for his squad, most of which is from outside the United States. Only 13 of the 29 players on the roster hail from the United States, with the remaining 16 coming from 10 different countries (It is of note that five of the Americans are sons of the Mountain State).
“Honestly, so much of the culture and what we’re trying to create in terms of the dynamic of the environment is predicated on what my experience was. This was the best four years of my life, it should be the best four years of theirs, and we’re here to facilitate that….First and foremost, this needs to be a group of players that loves this place, appreciate this place, that have a sense of community here.”
One of the keys for Stratford this fall is maintaining the continuity from the spring. WVU brings back all of its goalscorers from last season, which is quite a unique stat in the sport — regardless of the level. Swiger led the Mountaineers in scoring a year ago with four goals in 10 games, and he returns to the lineup after earning four starts. Right behind him is Tony Pineda, who notched a trio of goals in ten starts.
After the difficult 2020-21 WVU had, Swiger is confident they can carry momentum into the fall.
“A lot of [Stratford’s] tactics and the way that he wants us to form up defensively and move it forward,” Swiger said. “I kind of got myself acclimated to his teaching techniques and I feel way more comfortable this season and comfortable coming in.”
Midfielder Luke McCormick another Englishman, was a key to WVU’s attack as his three assists are the most to return for the 2021 season. Stratford expects McCormick and Pineda to take a big step forward this season, but he points out a newcomer that could also make a big impact in the midfield.
“I think with the likes of Luke and Tony, they both started every game for us last season, they were instrumental in our attacks last year, they’re going to be important again,” Stratford said. “But then you have Ryan Crooks who had to serve a year [due to transfer rules], I think he’ll be, if you like, our dark horse this season. I think he’s had an incredible attitude over the course of the last year having to watch us get on the bus and leave to play these games and not be able to be a part of it. His mentality during that time was incredible, and he continued to see this as an opportunity to improve.”
Crooks, yet another Englishman, actually joined West Virginia after spending time with Reading and Oxford United — but as Stratford said, he went through the whole spring without adding a minute.
Goalkeeper Steven Tekesky enters his fifth season with the Mountaineers, having played 62 matches for the program. He has the chance to enter the record books, as he sits third all-time in minutes played (5,595) and third all-time in saves (195).
Defensively, however, Stratford hopes his goalkeeper is doing little more than picking daisies off the pitch.
“Between Teks and Kev[in Morris] in particular, but quite honestly, just how the likes of Bjarne [Thiesen], Aaron [Denk Gracia], Dyon [Dromers] have all adapted, that defensive unit that we have there, we feel really, really comfortable with, really, really good with what we have there,” Stratford said.
WVU kicks its season off on Aug. 26 at Robert Morris, with a trio of friendlies against Duquesne, St. Francis and Charleston to tune up before they get started.