HUNTINGTON — Marshall men’s soccer coach Chris Grassie and West Virginia men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford are used to bouncing ideas off each other during the season.
After all, the two coaching friends have done so since their days leading the University of Charleston men’s soccer team.
Their chats really haven’t changed this week, even with Stratford’s WVU team — ranked No. 4 in the nation — traveling to Huntington to face Grassie’s sixth-ranked Marshall side at 7 p.m. Friday.
Grassie even said they’ve talked more this week, joking that both wish they could step outside of their own reality for Friday night’s matchup at Hoops Family Field.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Grassie said. “Two teams in the top 10 and two teams playing really well at the minute. It’s going to be a great spectacle, so if we could just hang out, have a couple beers and just chat and make fun of the officials together up in the stands, I think that would be what we’d like to do.”
Instead, the reality for Grassie and Stratford is to find a way to neutralize one of the country’s top teams.
Friday’s match is unlike anything the state of West Virginia has ever seen in college soccer.
Yes, the teams met in 2019 in the NCAA tournament — a 2-1 Thundering Herd win — but in that season, WVU was at end of the Marlon LeBlanc era and Marshall was still a bit of an unknown in the men’s soccer world.
And yes, the Mountaineers have faced plenty of nationally ranked opponents, but those matchups never had the added spice of an in-state showdown featuring two teams ranked in the top 10.
For Marshall midfielder Pedro Dolabella, it is as excited as he’s been in his soccer career with the Herd.
“It’s definitely a big game — 4 against 6,” Dolabella said. “You have RPI, you have rankings, you have the two best teams in West Virginia and the state rivalry. What else can you ask more for a big night? I’m very excited.”
The fiery Dolabella didn’t stop there, urging fans to come out to witness what should be a record-breaking night at Hoops Family Field.
“If you’re in Huntington [Friday] night and you don’t come to the game, you have no excuses because that’s what’s going to be the big deal in town,” Dolabella said. “I expect everybody to come here, show up and make a difference for us in the stands because it just gives us more energy.”
Cole Woodrum, Marshall’s assistant athletic director of ticketing, said there are still standing-room tickets available for the match, which could break the single-game attendance record for Hoops Family Field.
In speaking of their relationship, Grassie said Stratford was one of the first to reach out to him and offer his congratulations after Marshall’s College Cup title last season.
Grassie added that West Virginia — and the Herd’s 1-0 regular-season loss to the Mountaineers last spring in Morgantown — had as much to do with Marshall’s national championship as anything.
“One hundred percent,” Grassie said.
Marshall dominated the possession and chances in the March 24 match, allowing just two corner kicks and one shot to WVU, but that shot was true as West Virginia earned the 1-0 win.
“That game last year when we lost it was a time to reflect and come together as a team, and be like, ‘What am I not doing as an individual? Where have I gone wrong as a coach? Where have I gone wrong as a player? Why do I love it here? Why do I want to be a part of this team?’” Grassie said. “We had that meeting and to phrase it a bit, we had complete buy-in from everybody. We were all-in after that moment.”
With both coaches knowing each other as they do and the programs having seen each other in the last two seasons, Grassie fully expects the victor to come down to the most poised team on the pitch.
Grassie went through scenarios with his team at length this week — everything from officials’ calls to fan fights or disallowed goals.
“There’s a physical piece — the quality, the technical — but there’s also that emotional control that we’ve talked about, we’ve addressed it,” Grassie said. “We’ve gone through scenarios where, if this happens and the crowd’s like this and you’re doing that, you’ve got to be calm and think through it — keep your head when everybody is losing theirs. It’s definitely something we’ve addressed.”
Grassie said both sides may bring a different wrinkle or two, but he doesn’t expect either to go away from what has made them two of the most successful programs in the country.
Regardless of the result on Friday night, Grassie said the mutual respect the state’s two Division I coaches have for each other will continue well into the future.
“We do have a great relationship,” Grassie said. “Other than this game, I want them to be super-successful and I think he feels the same with us.”
That future includes the programs becoming conference rivals, starting in 2022 when West Virginia joins Conference USA for soccer.