Dan Stratford has been trying his best to get to know his squad from a distance.
The first-year coach of West Virginia men’s soccer got just six weeks and one game with his team before they were scattered to all parts of the globe, but he says the transition has been quite smooth despite the disruption — especially because two of his staff members are his former teammates.
“Obviously my familiarity with Andy [Wright] and Nick [Noble] as very good friends made life easy,” Stratford said, “but you never know once you get into the context of a work setting. That bit’s been fantastic, quite honestly.”
Arguably the more important aspect of his transition is not building the rapport with his familiar staff, but rather his unfamiliar players. Stratford’s return to Morgantown is the first coaching change in the program since 2006, as Marlon LeBlanc was one of the longest-tenured coaches on campus. That’s a drastic change for a program coming off a MAC title from a year ago, but Stratford says it has gone off without a hitch.
“[What stood out to me was] the coachability of the players,” he said. “The willingness of the players to kind of hear a different voice and be open-minded to maybe some slightly different methods than what they’ve experienced.”
It’s been a couple of months since he’s been able to see his team, so he says he hopes those traits will remain in his players when they finally get to the fall season.
However, if there’s anything that knows something about being new and successful in college soccer, it’s Stratford. Growing up in England, he joined the Mountaineers after a stint with Fulham FC’s youth academy. When he wasn’t offered a contract with the club, he made the move to Morgantown in 2004.
“An international student coming over to play athletics was a relative unknown at the time, we were more of a rare commodity back then,” Stratford said. “I was quite naive, and it was all very much new to me.”
Now, it’s quite common to see international students on the soccer pitch, but at the time, there were few internationals whom he could follow to college.
It’s safe to say it’s worked out for Stratford in the Mountain State. After moving on to play professionally both in the U.S. and abroad, Stratford went into coaching — first starting as an assistant at WVU before going to Charleston, and eventually, again back to Morgantown.
“I’ve never had any issues with that,” he said. “I’ve always loved it here.”
Much of that likely has to do with how much he enjoyed his time as a Mountaineer student-athlete. Looking back, Stratford has fond memories of his team’s culture, which he says empowered the players to take charge for themselves. This player-first mentality is something he hopes to replicate with his new squad.
“I want the players to feel like this is their team, this is their experience and kind of how this goes and how this shapes out in terms of their success is really down to them and the effort and the work rate that they are willing to put in,” he said. “As coaches, we are here to guide them and help facilitate that.”
Stratford emphasizes that his players are the centerpiece of the team, not him or his staff. With this mentality, he says, the players can take the team to big heights. At the same time, he is setting them to a high standard, but he wants them to feel that they themselves are putting the bar high.
With everyone separated, though, it’s tough to both instill that culture and set that standard.
“When we do finally get that opportunity…again, for them to feel like the most important part about the program is their well-being over results or anything of that,” Stratford said. “And understanding from my standpoint if you keep the students feeling confident, feeling comfortable in the environment they are, there’s a very, very good potential that they’re going to come out and perform for you because they feel comfortable and confident where they are and who they are.”
You can catch the full interview with Coach Stratford on this week’s episode of the WVU Coaches Show.