Stratford sets out to show young players that college soccer is a viable path to the pros — and he’s the proof

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Dan Stratford is hoping to build a winning program at West Virginia, and part of his plan is to bring overseas players in to do it.

Before Stratford made the move after beginning his career at the academy of Fulham FC, which at the time was competing in England’s top-flight Premier League. When Fulham opted not to offer him a professional contract, he went out on a limb and came to West Virginia University in 2004, hoping to further develop himself into a professional while getting a good education. After finishing at West Virginia, Stratford began a professional career that lasted until 2011, when he began coaching.

Now, it’s his job to bring players to West Virginia — and he hopes other international players will use the college game as a path to the pros, like himself.

“Specific to our program, you have three people on staff that all played at WVU, all went on to be very successful not just here but then played professionally as well,” Stratford said. “So there’s nearly 25 years of professional playing experience combined between myself, [assistant coaches] Andy [Wright] and Nick [Noble]. So if you like, we’re living, breathing proof that this is a viable pathway not just through the student-athlete experience, but here at WVU specifically.”

A product of both the youth academy and intercollegiate systems, Stratford saw firsthand how young players can benefit in the college game. For one, youth academies are specifically designed to develop individual players into professionals, which can lead to somewhat of a cutthroat environment. On the other hand, college soccer teams have one unified goal: winning games.

“When I was 18, I would perhaps grade myself or reflect on a performance very much individually,” he explained. “So the example I’d always give, if I’d happen to score two goals and we lost 3-2, I’d still be really, really happy with how I played. I think when you then walk into the collegiate environment, that brotherhood and that collective team spirit and that bond that the boys have, if you lose 3-2 and you score two goals, you’re devastated that you didn’t score the third and even the fourth to tie or win the game.”

Stratford says it was a transition for him to move from that “dog-eat-dog mentality,” where fellow academy players compete to earn contracts, to that united team mentality in college — but it was a positive one.

“Then the pressure becomes that you don’t want to let other people down….You don’t want to let your teammates down, and you’re still able to do that in a highly competitive, very professional environment,” he said. “So that benefited me immensely.”

Now, the game has changed quite a bit since Stratford first landed in the US 16 years ago. The international gateway is much more open these days (eight Mountaineers on last year’s squad came from elsewhere in the world), and younger players have a much better understanding of the pros and cons of the college game.

“I think the difference today is that these international students either have someone that they’ve already seen go through that experience and speak very positively of it, or…whether it be social media or just the way the world is connected now, these student-athletes are far more interested in this opportunity. I think there’s been an increase in the number of international students that have come over over that period of that time…and now the prospective student-athlete abroad realizes what a fantastic opportunity this is.”

Stratford does note that this concept will not necessarily benefit everyone in the broad stroke. It is difficult to lure players overseas when they’re offered a lucrative contract by a professional club.

But it’s not impossible.

“We have had some students in this recruiting class who have been offered professional contracts and have elected to come to WVU regardless of that,” Stratford said. “I think it’s very contextual to the individual. This particular young man values academics…and on top of that still sees it as a viable pathway to the professional game following collegiate athletics as well.”

You can catch the full chat with WVU men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford on this week’s episode of the WVU Coaches Show.

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