LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the aftermath of a 1-0 loss Friday night to Clemson, the feeling from West Virginia men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford was that his team played well enough to advance to Monday’s National Championship, but ultimately never broke through.
A goal from the Tigers’ Shawn Smart, a sophomore defender who Stratford was familiar with from trying to recruit him to Morgantown, made all the difference in what was mostly an evenly-matched affair.
“We played an outstanding team that are absolutely worthy of being in the Final Four,” Stratford said. “I’m just so proud of the fact that I think we were the better team and gave such a good account of ourselves.”
The result for West Virginia, making its first College Cup appearance, will sting for some time.
Sergio Ors Navarro and Marcus Caldeira had the Mountaineers’ two best scoring chances, but couldn’t deliver as West Virginia (17-3-4) was shutout for the third time in 24 matches.
There was also a controversial no call with about 12 minutes remaining when WVU’s Jake Ross fell inside the 18-yard box as a result of what Stratford clearly felt was a foul on the Tigers that would’ve led to a penalty kick and prime opportunity for an equalizer.
Because there was no call, the play could not be checked by VAR (video assistant referee).
“We had chances all the way up until the end of the game. Obviously it’s frustrating, but this is a Final Four,” WVU senior midfielder Ryan Baer said. “We’re not going to let our heads fall down when we miss a chance. We’re just going to try to the next one. Unfortunately it didn’t come today, but on a different day, we could stick three or four past them.”
So as Clemson, unbeaten over its last 13 matches, moves on to Monday in search of its fourth National Championship against Notre Dame, the Mountaineers now begin reflecting on their best season in program history. The 17 wins are a single season program record and West Virginia had never before appeared in a College Cup.
In defeat, WVU made a strong impression on Clemson head coach Mike Noonan, who helped guide the Tigers to a recent National Championship in 2021.
“We’re very pleased to be advancing. Give a lot of credit to an excellent West Virginia team. They had an outstanding season and they’re a superb team,” Noonan said. “I feel fortunate to be moving forward, but we have a superb team, too. We’ve endured the tournament. Coming from the ACC Tournament straight into this tournament is probably one of the hardest things to do in the country.”
Leading up to Friday’s matchup, Stratford mentioned that West Virginia’s program was an aspiring Clemson when noting how the Tigers were appearing in their 10th College Cup.
While plenty appreciative of what his team accomplished and its performance in defeat Friday, Stratford acknowledged he hoped the 2023 season was simply the start of something special for a program he wants to see become a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament and compete at a College Cup level.
“We’d love to have 10 Final Fours and three National Championships. The intent is to be in the Top 10 and whereabouts every single year and give yourself an opportunity to win a National Championship,” Stratford said. “I hope the quality of what we showed throughout this season and even today, I don’t imagine I’m going to watch this game back and not feel we didn’t deserve at the very least to go to overtime if not win the game.
“I want to get to work right now and right the wrongs of today. I hope that fire burns in a place that we can return. We continue to reinforce what’s been a quality culture this season and the new additions can help us to where we don’t have a season like 2022 where we don’t make the tournament and we’re back here again next season.”
There’s no telling when the Mountaineers second appearance in a national semifinal comes, but with Stratford guiding the program, there’s plenty of cause for optimism.
A native of London, England who enjoyed a decorated playing career at WVU from 2004-07, Stratford is 103-20-20 in seven seasons as a head coach. The first three of those came at the University of Charleston, where the Golden Eagles compiled an astounding record of 61-4-5 and won two National Championships under Stratford’s watch.
The winning ways have continued at WVU, where Stratford has led the Mountaineers to a national quarterfinal and semifinal in two of the last three seasons.
“He does everything and puts the belief in us as players. He makes our rules very clear as players,” said Baer, whose career at WVU began in Stratford’s first season as head coach. “From a management perspective, he’s great. I feel so blessed that I’ve had four years with him. I can’t tell him what he’s done for me these four years. He’ unbelievable. That’s all I have to say.”
As is the case every season, the Mountaineers will say goodbye to at least several key players, including midfielder Luke McCormick, who was unable to play against Clemson after suffering an ankle injury in an Elite Eight win over Loyola Marymount.
In the era of the NCAA Transfer Portal, there’s sure to be other losses and additions to the roster, but the foundation is setup for future success.
“We have some of the best fans in the nation and we had hundreds of fans all the way in Louisville,” junior midfielder Otto Ollikainen said. “It’s massive. It helps about the soccer culture that’s building in our school and we want to continue this legacy and make it bigger and bigger every year.”