The first full season of WVU men’s soccer’s Dan Stratford era is set to begin on Thursday at 4 p.m. when the Mountaineers travel to Robert Morris to face the Colonials at RMU’s North Athletic Complex. The contest will be shown on ESPN+.
After a pleasing summer in which his team played three friendlies to clean sheets, Stratford hopes his Mountaineers will carry their form into their first matches that count. WVU has a difficult start to the season, facing three top-11 teams in their first six games, and of course, the road test with the unranked Colonials to kick it off.
WVU has faced RMU 19 times in history, but this will be the first clash since 2005. WVU has dominated the series, winning the last eight meetings dating back to 1998.
RMU had a trying season last year, earning just one win in eight matches — but Stratford knows that games can go in favor of any team, especially when his squad is on the road.
“We wanted to test ourselves against the very best, but you have to go through that process without diminishing the value of this game with Robert Morris away,” he said. “It’s an away game, it’s always gonna be a tricky game because it’s just the first of the season so there’s additional pressure and nerves and some unfamiliarity for some of the new players….We have to get through those adversities, get through those challenges and have a really, really composed performance tomorrow.”
Now that he’s in year two, Stratford has struck a real comfort level with his returning players, including leading scorers Ike Swiger and Tony Pineda, as well as playmaking midfielder Luke McCormick. One of the major successes of the summer, though, was how quickly his new players acclimated to the squad — always a challenge in the lead-up to a season.
Because of that, the gaffer says he is coaching details that he normally works on six or seven weeks into the season rather than in August.
Stratford is looking for a big year from the West Virginia native Swiger, whom he calls one of the team’s most physically-gifted athletes. As far as Swiger’s success is concerned, the coach says it all comes down to his mentality.
“For him, it’s just continuing to grow in confidence and the maturity that comes with that,” Stratford said. “Understanding that now he’s been in this system for a year and the college system for three years, he should see himself as a leader with the group, so continuing to reinforce those messages, continuing to help him in terms of what his role is tactically, he may see different areas of the pitch to last season, in terms of what his role was last year.”
Swiger mostly played in the center of the field last season, but he saw time on the outside as a winger during the preseason — in fact, Stratford says the talented Fairmont native could play nearly anywhere on the pitch, and he can’t wait to unleash him.
As a former defender, Stratford is truly excited that his team allowed zero goals throughout the preseason. Much of that is a testament to the veteran presence of goalkeeper Steven Tekesky, however he was left with little work in the most recent match against Charleston as the Golden Eagles failed to put a shot on net.
Just as key is the experienced back line trio of Aaron Denk Gracia, Kevin Morris and Bjarne Thiesen, who helped keep the ball away from Tekesky over the summer. As much value as they provided, though, Stratford hopes to see them add another aspect to the squad.
“I’d quite like to see them score,” Stratford said. “I’d quite like to see us be a little more of a threat off set pieces, we have a ton of height throughout the team…but I’d like us to feel like when we have set pieces, that they are a presence and they are a threat on the other end as well.”
Kickoff between the Mountaineers and the Colonials is set for 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+.