WVU soccer: Program is secret to success for Mountaineers
Editor's note: Coaches and players constantly search for an edge through the most modern ways. More and more teams focus on technology as a key to success.
What's happening at West Virginia University is a good example of what's happening across the country. This is the fourth part of a 5-part series.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- One of Marlon LeBlanc's best achievements as West Virginia's men's soccer coach is his relative dominance of Connecticut when the Mountaineers were members of the Big East Conference.
The Huskies have won three national titles in their time and were long considered a premier Big East program. Since LeBlanc's arrival at WVU in 2006, UConn won two conference regular season titles and one conference tournament title. The Huskies went 83-24-22 in that time and made the NCAA Tournament all six years.
Yet LeBlanc was 4-1-1 against UConn from 2006-11 and beat the Huskies twice when they were ranked No. 1 and once when ranked No. 7.
Before LeBlanc, WVU was 1-11-2 against the Huskies.
"UConn was one of those teams that connected a lot of passes all game long over and over again and it would frustrate teams," LeBlanc said. "We found a way around that."
When LeBlanc says "we," he refers to his players and his coaches, but also to the himself and his laptop. That last commodity holds a priceless program that's unlocked the secrets to WVU's success. It's called Prozone, a statistics and scouting software popularized first internationally and booming now in the United States.
Prozone shares a lot in common with the Data Volley program used by WVU's volleyball team. It tracks and records every act in a soccer match and then organizes them into a sortable, searchable database that coincides with animated or video evidence.
"It's an unbelievable coaching tool," LeBlanc said. "The game is the greatest teacher and what you need to work on next week comes from what you did the previous game, but for me to look at this, I am far better now at analyzing accurately what happened in a game because I'm just so used to using this and taking what we learn and giving it to the players."
Finding an edge
Rather than explain what it does, witness LeBlanc's best example of what the Mountaineers, or any subscribers, can do with Prozone. LeBlanc studied what Prozone reported about UConn - individual and team tendencies and the results of specific player-to-player passes - and constructed a scouting report.
"UConn made a lot of passes that didn't go anywhere," LeBlanc said. "You could see it on (Prozone). A lot of their action happened in the back. What they typically did was wait for the other team to come out and then exploit them. What we did was say, 'Guys, here's where UConn wants to play. We want to keep them in front of us and let them play all day in that area.' "
The Mountaineers would maintain a distance from the UConn defenders and never intrude beyond 30-or-so yards out from the goal. That kept the Huskies from getting into the midfield and finding and facilitating "individual playmakers who would absolutely destroy you when you got the ball," LeBlanc said.
WVU further isolated one of UConn's four defenders in the back. Of the two defenders in the middle, the one on the left (the left center back) didn't like having the ball and was right-footed. When the ball went to him, WVU reacted by focusing their attention to its right side.
"Typically their left back and left center back would link up and the left back would work that sideline all game long," LeBlanc said. "When the ball got to the left center back, you could see he almost always found the center midfielder and the center midfielder would then play it out to the left back."
By maintaining the distance from the goal, WVU took away the left center back's pass to the center midfielder and forced a pass to the left back.
"He was so bad with the ball and the passes were so sloppy that we squeezed and pressed him and totally eliminated the way they wanted to play," LeBlanc said.
In the six matches against the Huskies, WVU had five clean sheets - or shutouts, in a language other than soccer's.
"We did the same thing to Notre Dame," LeBlanc said. "They had a defensive midfielder who rarely ever handled the ball. Most of the time when he did he went backward or to the side. So what we did to Notre Dame was we took away the other two midfielders - they played three in the middle - and let that one have the ball. As soon as it went to him, we pressed the living hell out of him and he'd turn the ball over just about every time we pressed him."
LeBlanc was 4-2 against Notre Dame, which like UConn was always competitive, and had clean sheets in two of the four wins.
Providing a new use
LeBlanc discovered Prozone as an assistant at Penn State, when the technology was just beginning to spread in the U.S. When LeBlanc came to WVU just before the start of the 2006 season, Prozone was not in his budget and he had to raise funds to have it. By 2010, he'd encouraged most of the Big East to use it and now it's part of the budget.
The Mountaineers link a camera to a laptop and record the match. After the match, the film is uploaded to a server in Leeds, England. After a day or two, a text to LeBlanc's cell phone tells him his match is ready. He downloads it and has the finished product.
While the preparing for an opponent is valuable, Prozone provided a new use last season. WVU is now in the Mid-American Conference and Akron is the only other MAC team that uses Prozone. LeBlanc couldn't pull matches from Prozone to scout teams, so he instead focused on his squad.
He can sit down with one forward or all of his midfielders or defenders on the right side. He can show a player every time he crossed a ball or played one into the penalty area or did anything of significance in the match. They're all categorized and easy to view, a far cry from having to spend hours before fast forwarding and rewinding through a match to get to specific events.
Yet LeBlanc can also take statistics and dig even deeper to highlight or debunk them.
"A midfielder can tell me he had a great game and completed 90 percent of his passes, but the problem is his passes are always going backward or sideways and he's never breaking pressure for us," LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc can show the player those numbers and explain that if he's not careful he'll be to the opponent what Notre Dame or UConn was to the Mountaineers. LeBlanc can do more, too. Every event that makes up that 90 percent is linked to an animation and a video clip. LeBlanc can click and jump right to that moment in the match and show the player that by simply opening his stance, he could have played a ball forward and sent WVU on offense.
"You can tell him and hope he gets it, but you can show him and he can see that a half-turn helps him circulate the ball out the other side," LeBlanc said. "But because he's under pressure, he's got his back to his man and he's coming right back to our defender with the ball. Their guys are coming down and the next thing you know we're playing a long ball out, which isn't what we want to do.
"And that's something I will pick up on a lot quicker now than I used to before we had this footage. But now we're working with guys on little things like lining up so he can work forward."
Video capability to improve
WVU's video capability is about to get much better. For years, the Mountaineers have mostly made use of one camera attached to the top of the press box. There's another camera behind one goal and one used by the WVU website, but they're backups used only every so often.
LeBlanc mostly relies on one press box camera, knowing it's not giving him a full view of the field and instead limits the film to only where the ball is. Rarely is that the most important part of coaching, especially for a team that wants its right and left backs to jump up and join the offense when the opportunity is there.
"Knowing what everyone else is doing is a key part for us - as well as knowing what everyone else is not doing - when the ball is in play," LeBLanc said.
When the goalkeeper makes a save, the camera will stick with the goalkeeper until he plays the ball. It will then follow the ball to where it goes. It misses what the goalkeeper's teammates are doing as part of transition into offense.
WVU also likes to use its left and right backs in offense and have them make a run to join the offense when the opportunity is there. The timing has to be taught and learned properly because a mistake compromises the defense.
LeBlanc trained himself over time to watch those things as opposed to the ball, knowing he only had one camera. Starting this fall, he'll have four cameras on the press box and a full view of the match on film.
"I can't tell you how many times I don't see (our) goal being scored," he said. "What I'm watching is what's happening behind the play. I'm looking to see what our midfielders and defenders are doing. If we have a turnover or a breakdown and don't get a scoring opportunity, I want to make sure everyone else behind the play is in good shape to pick up the ball. With the four cameras, I'll be able to pay a little more attention to our offense and what happened on that end of the play."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.