Stratford hoping for ‘incredible environment’ as Mountaineers strive to continue winning ways at home Saturday

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s 2 p.m. match Saturday against Loyola Marymount was announced a sellout Monday within 5 hours of tickets becoming available for the national quarterfinal.

Mountaineer head coach Dan Stratford is hoping for a frenzied atmosphere at Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium, one that can help push West Virginia through to the College Cup and its first Final Four appearance.

The Mountaineers (16-2-4) are unbeaten at home to this point with eight victories and three draws, and they’ve protected home field in wins over Louisville and Vermont to start NCAA Tournament play.

“Marshall, Louisville, Vermont, we’ve sold out those three games out and we’re 3-0,” Stratford said. “The trend is a real positive one. There has to be correlation there. There were moments we weren’t at our best in the last two games and a clear period where we definitely could’ve been better against Vermont. The crowd provides support and encouragement in those moments and then late on when protecting a lead, the encouragement and support from the crowd was incredibly uplifting. Not just for the bench and staff, it had to feel that way for the players as well. It makes a huge difference and I’m hoping for another incredible environment and atmosphere on Saturday.”

It marks the Mountaineers’ second Elite Eight appearance in Stratford’s four season as head coach. 

West Virginia was on this stage previously in 2021 and suffered a loss at Georgetown in a match decided on penalty kicks. That year, WVU was on the road for two NCAA Tournament matches, something this year’s team doesn’t have to concern itself with as Saturday marks the last possible home game before the College Cup shifts to a neutral site in Louisville.

“When I spoke to the group on Monday, following the result and a day off on Sunday, the challenge I presented to the players is that two weeks from today, someone is playing for a national championship,” Stratford said. “Do we have the mental fortitude, focus and mental endurance to be great for two weeks? Can we have the mindset there’s 14 days left in the season and we’d play three games and train nine times? What would it take for to be great for two measly weeks? How hard would that be for us and what does it look like? We went back to a lot of things we’ve done to preach consistency and the way we approach training and scouts.”

The first order of business comes Saturday against the Lions, a team that finished fifth in the eight-member West Coast Conference and has hit its stride at the perfect time. 

Thus far in postseason play, LMU (10-4-6) has eliminated UC Irvine and James Madison at home, with a victory at No. 13 UCLA in between. The Lions have won in different fashion, opening with a 4-2 victory over the Anteaters before advancing with a 1-0 result in consecutive contests.

For the season, Loyola Marymount has been more defensive-minded, scoring 25 goals and allowing 18.

Whereas the Mountaineers thrive on being the more attacking team and have attempted 70 more shots than their opponents, the Lions value quality over quantity and have attempted 241 total shots — 10 fewer than their opponents.

“They’re clinical. They haven’t needed to create too much necessarily to take a lead and they’ve been incredibly resolute in terms of their defensive output,” Stratford said.

Perhaps most importantly, Stratford sees a quality in LMU that’s necessary for success at this stage of the season.

“They’ve played an incredible schedule and eight teams inside the top 40 from RPI, and they’re 7-0-1 in those games,” he said. “They seem to show up on the big occasion and do incredibly well against other good teams. In that stretch, they’ve scored twelve and only conceded three. “They’ve shown 1-nil is enough at times and they’re very capable of defending the penalty area and very comfortable if they’re not the team in possession, which is a little more rare at this stage of the tournament. Normally you’re playing against teams that like to be teams with the ball, but they’ve had less possession than their opponent on average throughout the season. Slightly different challenge in that regard. We’re a team comfortable with the ball and it appears they’re a team comfortable without it. It makes for an interesting chess match for sure.”

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