LOUISVILLE, Ky. — West Virginia men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford said leading up to Friday’s national semifinal against Clemson that if the Mountaineers were to be eliminated, they aspired to do so by playing the attacking style that led to much of their success this season and a spot in the College Cup.
So as WVU’s historic season came to an end Friday night inside Lynn Family Stadium with a 1-0 loss to the Tigers, it only added to Stratford’s frustration that the Mountaineers, despite registering only two shots on goal, dictated play for much of the second half, but could never break through as they were shutout for a third time this season.
“From a possession perspective in terms of the dominance territorially, my feeling is we were the better team and deserved much more,” Stratford said. “The one thing we’ll be able to do is hold our heads very high and be really proud of the effort and the quality of performance the first time this group has been at this stage. That probably is what makes it even harder and more bittersweet, because we deserved much more out of the game.”
The No. 9 Tigers (14-3-5) advanced to Monday’s National Championship where Notre Dame awaits after its 1-0 victory over Oregon State in the second semifinal. Clemson, unbeaten over its last 13 matches and yet to allow a goal in four NCAA Tournament triumphs, is after its second National Championship in three seasons.
Clemson defender Shawn Smart scored the lone goal on a perfectly-struck shot to the upper corner of the near post after he took a pass from teammate Mohamed Seye and delivered a strike to beat WVU goalkeeper Jackson Lee.
“The goalkeeper had no chance,” Clemson head coach Mike Noonan said. “He caught it clean.
Smart’s goal gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead 8:44 before halftime and that score stood through the remainder of a half in which Clemson had two of the three shots on goal.
“Whatever I can do for the team, it’s a positive,” said Smart, who registered his second goal this season and first since October 3. “I don’t look to score too much. I was glad I was able to contribute.”
The nation’s leader in goals scored, Clemson made its only one of the match stand by continuing to excel defensively, although West Virginia had more possession and the better of the chances in the second half.
That included a prime opportunity for Mountaineer forward Marcus Caldeira, who sailed a shot just high and beyond Tigers’ keeper Joseph Andema nearly 13 minutes into the second half.
“We had some great chances and I feel we should’ve won the game,” WVU midfielder Ryan Baer said.
Caldeira, who finished tied for WVU’s team leader in goals with 12, failed to find the back of the net in a 10th consecutive match.
No. 5 West Virginia (17-3-4) continued to control the bulk of possession as it searched for a tying goal, and the Mountaineers thought they would have their best chance yet to do that in the 78th minute when forward Jake Ross was contacted inside the 18-yard box and went down to the playing surface in search of a Clemson foul, but to no avail.
Stratford felt the play was deserving of a foul, which would’ve led to a subsequent penalty kick.
With video assistant referee available, the play could’ve been reviewed had a foul been called on the field, but with no call made, it was not reviewable.
“The luxury of having a video board allows us to see replays as well and unfortunately I think the ref missed a key moment where Jake Ross was pulled down and they got feet first,” Stratford said. “You never want for that to be the difference, because it does leave a bitter taste. It’s upsetting and disappointing because I’m so proud of the performance.
“Yet, in my opinion, there’s a clear call that wasn’t made. The biggest kicker is that’s a call that if he makes, he can review. So if he gets it wrong and it’s not a penalty, he can review it and change his mind. But when he doesn’t give it, he can’t review it, and that hurts even more, because I’ve seen the replay and you won’t be able to convince me any other way.”
Noonan offered his thoughts on what amounted to a disappointing sequence for the Mountaineers.
“I didn’t have a good angle on it. There were plenty of those throughout the game and there’s plenty of those games in every game,” he said. “The referee did a good job with the game. We had one as well that I thought could’ve been called for us.”
Clemson committed 14 of 21 fouls in the match, but the Mountaineers had both yellow cards, including one to forward Yutaro Tsukada with 1:13 remaining.
Tsukada, who finished with a team-high 33 points (12 goals, 9 assists) for the season, was largely limited by Smart, whose presence was felt on both ends of the field.
“What we’ve done really well throughout the course of the tournament is defend all the way from the front to the back,” Noonan said. “It was a complete team effort and that’s the way it’s been throughout the tournament.”
Lee made four saves and Andema stopped two shots.
The Mountaineers were without fifth-year midfielder Luke McCormick, who was unable to play after suffering an ankle injury within the first minute of the second half in an Elite Eight victory over Loyola Marymount last Saturday.
McCormick’s college career, which consisted of five seasons in a WVU uniform and began one year prior to Stratford being named head coach, has concluded.
“We’ve been quite fortunate that we haven’t had too many substantial injuries this season,” Stratford said. “You have to accept that at times there’s probably going to be a bit of bad luck and you’re going to have an injury. It probably couldn’t have happened to a player who was more pivotal in a game like today. He’s so dangerous in transition moments and the energy he plays with and his explosive qualities to pick up second balls and then his quality when we can get him on to the ball.
“We know what Luke’s qualities are in space and that was space that was available today against Clemson that we didn’t necessarily expect. We’ll never know. I hope he can hang his head incredibly high and be really proud of where he’s brought the program.”