No. 3 West Virginia is set to begin its league schedule on Thursday as it hosts the Akron Zips at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
The Mountaineers (6-0-2) made another mark on their historic 2021 campaign as they moved up one spot in the USC poll to No. 3, the highest ranking in the program’s history. The team’s new heights come on the heels of an eight-game unbeaten run to open the season, tying the best start since the 2006 season.
Then, current gaffer Dan Stratford was a crucial part of the Mountaineer midfield — but 15 years later, he’s one win away from the best start since 1968, when the program wasn’t affiliated with a conference.
All that is nice, but with the start of MAC play on the doorstep, Stratford is keeping his and his team’s focus squarely on the Zips.
“It is a balance, it’s about continuing to remain consistent from a game-to-game perspective in terms of how we approach a game and review a game specific to the performance , but at the same time still taking confidence and encouragement from where we’ve placed ourselves after eight games now as obviously the No. 3 team in the country,” Stratford said. “You want there to be some confidence, but you also don’t want there to be that complacency or that level of content because there’s this attitude that we’ve arrived somehow.”
WVU enters MAC competition with a big chip on its shoulder. It was already there after the Mountaineers were snubbed of the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament in the spring after their season finale was canceled, but their opener against the Zips has a little bit more behind it as they seek revenge for the spring.
In their last encounter, the Mountaineers traveled to Akron and took their only overtime loss of the season — one of just three losses in the campaign. In fact, Stratford feels as if his team was the more dominant one of that night, and he wants to prove that once again on Thursday.
“I hope the players feel like we owe them one in that regard and that we need to avenge the defeat from last season…but at the same time, it is a very, very different team that we will face, and obviously to an extent, a different team that they will face as well,” he said.
Akron (5-2-1) travels to Morgantown behind its best start in six years, led by some new faces. Senior Diogo Pacheco returns as the team’s top scorer, notching three goals and four assists through eight matches. Right behind him, though, is true freshman Dyson Clapier, who has notched a trio of goals as well along with two assists.
A new man is leading the way for West Virginia as well in Yoran Popovic. The first-year man from the Netherlands was named MAC Player of the Week after scoring in each of his last three matches, which means, Stratford hopes, that he is finally getting into a groove after an extended period away form the pitch.
“We hope that we’re starting to see, with Yoran specifically, some of his best form and still his best for yet to come, honestly. I think this last year across the world from a COVID perspective has made it very interesting, we really recruited Yoran off of film and video that was over a year old, and when he showed up on day one this August, he hadn’t played…competitively for a year.”
Kickoff between the third-ranked Mountaineers and the Zips is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+.