MORGANTOWN — A couple of weeks ago, West Virginia men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford encountered an issue he’s never had to face before — would he be able to get enough tickets for his players’ friends and family to attend a home game?
On Sept. 27, WVU announced that the men’s soccer game against Marshall was officially a sell-out, three weeks before the match would actually take place.
“I had so many players come up to me in the hours and days after that was broadcast panicking that they weren’t going to get people into the game,” Stratford said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “Thankfully, we’ve been able to accommodate everyone, which has been huge.”
Any game against Marshall is always going to be circled on the calendar, but Wednesday’s matchup (7 p.m./ESPN+) has become one of the most highly anticipated games in program history.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever sold a game out on the men’s side,” said Stratford, who’s spent 11 total seasons at WVU as a player and coach. “To not only sell it out but to do it nearly three weeks in advance is incredible.”
Both teams enter Wednesday’s match undefeated and ranked within the top 10 nationally. Marshall (12-0, 5-0 Sun Belt) is the No. 1 team in the nation and has been for much of the season. WVU (9-0-4, 2-0-3) has risen as high as No. 2 this year and is currently ranked No. 5.
Stratford, who played for the Mountaineers from 2004-07, served as an assistant coach from 2011-13 and has been the head coach since 2020, said he has not shied away from acknowledging how big of a game this contest has become.
“We’ve been honest enough with the players to acknowledge that this is more than the three points in conference,” Stratford said. “We would be naive to deny the occasion and just how unique it is. I would hazard a guess that this would probably never happen again where you’re this late in October, you have two teams that are undefeated ranking in the top five or so in the country and it’s an in-state rivalry.”
The biggest crowd in the history of Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium was 3,000 for a women’s game against USC in 2007. The largest for the men’s team was a match against UC Santa Barbara which drew 2,938 in 2009.
Stratford said he hopes Wednesday’s crowd will push 4,000.
“I think it’s an unbelievably unique set of circumstances that just only add to the occasion,” Stratford said. “It’s really important that students especially get out and we can break an attendance record and push 4,000 people. That will only add fuel to the fire and make it a much bigger event than just having a conference game that’s worth three points if we win.”
This is not the first time WVU and Marshall have met in a top-10 matchup, just the first time the game has been in Morgantown. In 2021, WVU was ranked No. 4 and Marshall No. 6 for a game in Huntington that ended in a 2-2 stalemate.
That game drew a crowd of 3,033. The rematch in 2022, a 1-0 Marshall victory, had a crowd of 2,735.
“There are moments when we are going to need the crowd and then there are moments where our players are going to have to suppress that and show some restraint and key in on being really, really disciplined and focused,” Stratford said. “But if we’re attacking and we get a corner and there are 3,000 people cheering us on, I hope that lifts them as well.”
Marshall, the 2020 national champion, is 2-1-1 against WVU since 2019, although the Mountaineers have history on their side when hosting top-five opponents.
“Against top-five opponents at Dick Dlesk since 2006, we’re 5-1-1,” Stratford said. The lone loss came against Maryland in 2016, before Stratford had returned to WVU. With Stratford as either a player, assistant or head coach, the team is 5-0-1 at home against top-five opponents.
“I’d love to keep that goose egg tomorrow and remain undefeated in high-level games,” he said.
As if this matchup needed any more intrigue, Stratford and Marshall head coach Chris Grassie share a bond so close that Stratford regards him as family.
Grassie hired Stratford as an assistant coach at the University of Charleston in 2014 and is a big reason why Stratford is now the head coach of his alma mater.
“I owe him a lot in terms of how I grew in that time,” Stratford said. “I think I went to Charleston thinking I was ready to be a head coach and learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t. A lot of that is thanks to the lessons I learned along the way from Chris.
“Probably not ideal that we’re in one of the most-bitter rivalries there could possibly be,”
Stratford joked, “but in some regards, I would almost rather it be that way where we get to play each other on the type of occasion we’re going to have (Wednesday).”
Stratford said he and Grassie would get together Tuesday night to catch up before the game.
“It’s a pain that they happen to be as good as they are and they happen to be in our conference and a rival,” Stratford said. “I don’t think it will ever change in terms of how much we enjoy seeing one another and catching up.”