MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Coming off a 12-3-6 season in which it reached the quarterfinal stage of the NCAA Tournament, West Virginia’s men’s soccer team is ranked No. 6 in the United Soccer Coaches Rankings preseason poll.
“It is a nice feeling to get the recognition and hopefully build on what we started last season,” WVU head coach Dan Stratford said Tuesday as a guest on MetroNews Statewide Sportsline.
However, ahead of his sixth season as a head coach and third serving in that role at West Virginia, Stratford hadn’t given thought to what the Mountaineers’ ranking would be before playing a match in 2022.
“My SID Joe Mitchin text me saying preseason No. 6, and I thought he was referring to my sixth preseason as a head coach,” Stratford said. “I hadn’t given it a single thought. I somewhat assumed that it would stay close to where we were last season and somewhere around 8. It’s nice to get a little bit more recognition and climb that.”
A year ago, the Mountaineers began the season unranked but by the time it was two weeks old, West Virginia had beaten then-No. 3 Pitt as well as then-No. 17 Penn State.
Stratford is hopeful this year’s group will enter the season with a similar mentality to last season’s squad, regardless of the ranking.
“We’re ever-closer to No. 1, which is where the mindset has to be,” he said. “We haven’t reached our destination yet and we still have to continue to look forward and want more. Six is great, but five is better and so on and so forth.”
The Mountaineers return the bulk of last season’s roster, though goalkeeper Steven Tekesky is no longer around after starting all 21 games between the posts in 2021. Standout defender Kevin Morris, who was second to Tekesky in minutes played last season, has also moved on. Yoran Popovic is also no longer around after the forward was second on the 2021 squad with five goals and 10 points.
“We’ll be a little younger. We’ll have just as much talent if not arguably a little bit more,” Stratford said. “What’s exciting for me is a lot of returning players and a lot of core players that were pivotal to the success of last season and some others that we feel like have a big part to play or even more of a part to play going into next season.”
While Stratford himself is unable to work with the team throughout the summer, he estimates two-thirds of the roster was playing somewhere over the last few months.
For some, that means an opportunity in the USL League Two, a semi-professional developmental soccer league by United Soccer Leagues in the United States, Bermuda, and Canada.
“A developmental league for young players with professional potential,” Stratford described the league as, which has yet to conclude.
In fact, redshirt junior defender Bjarne Thiesen, a member of the Long Island Rough Riders, will play Saturday in the league’s national final, two days before the Mountaineers begin their preseason work.
“We’re still hoping he still has the desire and energy to kick on and have a good start to this season, but for the most part, some really positive experiences for our players over the course of the summer,” Stratford said. “To play is so vital and the best way to get fit. We should have some players in pretty good shape when we get our hands on them again. Really excited just to get started at this point.”
The Mountaineers have three exhibitions lined up from August 12-20 against Duquesne, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest before their first regular season match August 25 against Robert Morris at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium.
This marks West Virginia’s first season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference and the Mountaineers begin competition in the SBC September 16 when they play host to Coastal Carolina.
“If we can keep a strong culture and the identity of this team stays around where we were last year,” Stratford said, “then I’m really excited about what we can achieve this year.”