MORGANTOWN — Since he was hired before the 2006 season, Marlon LeBlanc has convinced 15 international players to play soccer at West Virginia. The urge now is to suggest the World Cup that begins this week is a big occasion for a program that’s relied on foreign-born players as much as the Mountaineers have.
The truth, though, is that WVU and all the other college teams in the country can rely on the United States, its developmental system and the proliferation of games on television now more than ever before. The Mountaineers and their peers don’t really need the World Cup to stimulate international recruiting or to show foreign players how serious this country is about the world’s most popular game.
“We’re beyond that point now,” LeBlanc said. “We put 80,000, 90,000 people in a stadium now for a World Cup qualifier. I don’t think we need to convince anybody anymore, and if they’re not already convinced, they’re living with their head in the sand with antennae on the top of their TV trying to find a signal to watch a match.”
The U.S. wasn’t in the World Cup between 1950 and 1990 and was criticized for not having an outdoor league when it was awarded the 1994 World Cup. The 1994 team advanced out of the group stage to the round of 16 before losing to Brazil, but then finished last among the 32 teams in 1998. It reached the quarterfinals in 2002, slipped to 25th in 2006 and had an unforgettable win against Algeria in the final group play match in 2010 to reach the round of 16.
The U.S. won the CONCACAF title in 2013 with a 6-0-0 record. It was first in its qualifying group with a 7-1-2 record and is No. 13 in the FIFA world rankings — two spots ahead of the Netherlands, the 2013 World Cup finalist. The World Cup roster doesn’t even include Landon Donovan, the country’s all-time leading goal scorer who had the game-winner against Algeria four years ago.
“Media day in New York City, in Times Square, was absolutely packed with U.S. soccer fans,” LeBlanc said. “You wouldn’t have seen that in 1994, but we’ve got that die-hard American soccer culture now. They’ll travel to Brazil and Mexico and Guatemala and all the weird CONCACAF regions to support the national team.
“If you look at the MLS, you see the same die-hard fans marching to the matches and creating an unbelievable atmosphere. We already have that culture built into the American soccer market now. There are still some in this generation that don’t believe it, but they probably won’t ever believe it. If we can have a good World Cup, that only helps bridge that gap, though.”
LeBlanc confesses that he couldn’t have had the same conviction in 2002 and 2006. The MLS was founded in 1993, four years after the U.S. was awarded the 1994 World Cup, and it wasn’t near what it is now. The league has 19 teams and will add four more in the coming seasons. Fourteen of the current franchises have their own stadiums and two of the exceptions will have their own homes soon.
There were times LeBlanc needed to look to around the globe for help from Europe, Africa or New Zealand. It was often a marriage of convenience with players looking for a place to perform in college, but the benefit for the Mountaineers was obvious.
“The international kid is just a bit more mature as far as soccer goes,” LeBlanc said. “They’re typically a little older when they graduate high school. You’re getting an 18- or 19-year old instead of a 17- or 18-year-old, and it’s in their blood growing up with it. It’s all they know, whereas here there’s not a lot of specialization until later on.
“The international kid brings a little bit of that diversity to the team. If you only need one or two players, sometimes that can be a difference and put you over the top.”
LeBlanc didn’t sign any international players in the incoming 10-player recruiting class. Seven players in that group come from U.S. Soccer Development Association teams. The USSDA, founded in 2007, has 79 clubs for each under-17/18, under-15/16 and under-13/14 division. The season runs from September until a postseason determines a champion in July.
LeBlanc’s other three signees play for club teams in their area. Ten players on the current roster played for USSDA clubs. LeBlanc has five international players from Brazil, Jamaica, England and New Zealand, signifying a shift in focus.
“You don’t think of them as international players anymore,” LeBlanc said. “It’s like they’re players from another state because it’s like it’s our game now.”
The global popularity of soccer isn’t going to change with what happens over the World Cup’s 32 days. The international players will still be available and accessible, especially if they don’t have a professional opportunity at home and are interested in a college education and a look at the professional possibilities in the U.S.
The hallmark of this World Cup for college soccer is that future fates don’t really depend on how the Americans fare in what’s deemed to be the hardest of the eight groups. The U.S. plays No. 2 Germany, No. 4 Portugal and Ghana, which has knocked the Americans out of the past two World Cups. College soccer will continue to grow, not because of what happens next, but because of what’s been happening for quite some time.
“I don’t know if we need our international team to have a great World Cup in order for us to draw people to the fact we have so much invested in the student-athlete financially, academically, athletically, just across the board,” LeBlanc said. “We have (international) kids who have never seen anything like it before, apart from some really big clubs in Europe that cover every expense.
“When you’re able to present them an alternative like that, it certainly resonates with them. They all want to go pro. Every kid dreams of that, especially when they’re in an academy, but it’s humbling when you’re let go from that organization you thought for your entire life you were going to sign with. All of a sudden, you’ve got to worry about where to go next and when they see what some of the bigger institutions are able to offer, that changes the dynamic.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.