MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In search of its first trip to the College Cup, West Virginia welcomes Loyola Marymount to Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium for a 2 p.m. Saturday match.
The national quarterfinal can be seen on ESPN+ as the Mountaineers (16-2-4) strive to finish unbeaten at home in what marks their 12th match in Morgantown this season.
“The home record has been incredible this year and the routines they’ve become accustomed to through the season leading into home games has worked in the past,” WVU head coach Dan Stratford said. “There’s a level of familiarity and comfortability with us being here.”
West Virginia has protected home field through its first two NCAA Tournament matches — a 1-0 victory against Louisville and a 2-1 triumph last Saturday against Vermont.
The next challenge comes in the form of a highly successful road team throughout 2023. The Lions (10-4-6) have lost only one of their 11 road matches and earned a 1-0 win at No. 13 UCLA to advance to the Sweet 16.
That led to a 1-0 victory against James Madison last Saturday, marking the fifth time this season and second straight contest LMU won by that exact score. In its postseason opener, Loyola Marymount produced a season-best offensive output in its 4-2 win over UC Irvine.
While West Virginia has played two more matches than LMU, the Mountaineers’ 44 goals are 19 more than the Lions have scored.
The teams have been equally stingy defensively, with WVU surrendering 21 goals to the Lions’ 18 goals given up.
West Virginia’s ability to limit opponents offensively can be attributed to a mix of quality play from goalkeeper Jackson Lee and consistently strong performances from defenders Max Broughton, Frederik Jorgensen, Carlos Hernando, Dante Huckaby and Brayden Borutskie.
Broughton, Hernando and Borutskie are each in their first season with the Mountaineers.
“I don’t know that we brought them in fully appreciating just how prepared they are to put their body on the line to block shots and head things,” Stratford said. “The pride that they take in their defensive responsibilities when it comes down to that final shot. All that comes with close proximity to the goal, they’ve been unbelievable this season and some of the best I’ve worked with in the college game. That’s been an attribute. So many qualities we look for in our center back defenders. I don’t know that it was as glaringly obvious as what it’s become from a result of what we’ve seen this season. LMU looks like they have that desire, will and mindset in their defensive unit and center backs as well. They’re not going to make it easy for us.”
Offensively, Marcus Caldeira (12 goals) and Yutaro Tsukada (11) are responsible for more than half of West Virginia’s goals. Tsukada has scored six times in the last six matches, including two of WVU’s three goals in the postseason.
Loyola Marymount has also heavily relied on its most productive offensive players in the NCAA Tournament. Leading scorer Tyger Smalls has three of his seven goals over the last three matches, while Ryan Kingsford, second on the squad to Smalls with six goals, has scored twice in the postseason.
Perhaps most concerning to Stratford is that the Lions are plenty comfortable without possessing the ball. Their defensive prowess has been on display for much of the season, evidenced by LMU allowing one goal or recording a clean sheet in 15 matches.
“The type of team we’ve evolved into this season, our identity has been with the intent of being dynamic, quick in transition moments and want the ball back as quickly as possible to try and territorially play the game in advanced areas,” Stratford said. “Fear and conservatism do us no favors now. We have to feel like we go for it and to some extent, if we go out, we go out our own terms. There would be far more regret playing a style that didn’t suit us or a style that didn’t win us 16 games this season. By no means do we intend to change.“
The team that can impose its style Saturday figures to have a major leg up in the quest to get to Louisville for a national semifinal, where the winner of Stanford-Clemson would await next Friday.
“We have the intention of trying to be the team with the ball and playing the game in the attacking half,” Stratford said. “That’s been a hallmark of any team I’ve coached and will certainly be the way we try to set things up against LMU. I’m sure it’s not anything groundbreaking to anybody at LMU by me saying this.”