How WVU's Kadeisha Buchanan Commands Attention On The Pitch

West Virginia defender Kadeisha Buchanan will be one of the world's best young players no matter how this season ends. But if it ends in the College Cup, more people will know it. WVU Athletic Communications

It is no slight to the skill required to suggest that Kadeisha Buchanan's great strength on a soccer field is a knack for getting in the way.

A teammate both at the University of West Virginia and with the Canadian national teams that competed in the Women's World Cup and Pan-American Games this past summer, Ashley Lawrence is the beneficiary of Buchanan's work as a defender during games. That means she is also on the receiving end of it often enough in training to sympathize.

"As an attacking player, the one thing you want is time and space to dribble," Lawrence said. "She doesn't allow you to get that. So even as the ball is getting passed into me, there's not time to even think about what I need to do. That's what she does. She puts that fear into players before they even get the ball. And when they do, she has that physical presence that really rushes their play."

The fact that space is so frustratingly difficult to find for those who share a field with Buchanan perhaps explains why people continue to insist she stands alone.

Barely two weeks into Buchanan's freshman season at West Virginia, at the time still almost two months shy of her 18th birthday, legendary North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance marveled after a game that she "might be the best center back in college."

Fast-forward to the moments after she played her first Women's World Cup game this past summer, and Canadian national team coach John Herdman offered an even bolder claim.

"That's a kid 19 years of age who just stepped in and played like the best center back in the world," Herdman said after Canada's 1-0 win against China in front of more than 50,000 fans in Edmonton. "Look, I'm going to give her that label. That was as good a performance [as] I've seen under that sort of pressure from a center back."

To be sure, the rest of the world would not offer unanimous consent to the assessment of a coach who doesn't shy away from bold promotion. Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, partners in the middle of the United States defense, would each receive ample support, as would France's Wendie Renard and Japan's Saki Kumagai. But it says something about the limb on which Herdman perched himself that it held the weight of his words throughout the World Cup. Not only was Buchanan named the tournament's best young player, but she was also named one of four defenders on the all-tournament team determined by the FIFA Technical Study Group.

Now one of the 11 players judged best in the world's biggest tournament begins her junior season at West Virginia.

College soccer will struggle this season to replace Morgan Brian, the two-time Hermann Trophy winner at the University of Virginia whose preternatural skill and acumen in the midfield propelled her into the starting lineup for the United States when it beat Japan to win the World Cup this summer. Players who possess an ability to not so much physically overwhelm but rather break down and pull apart defenses come along at rare intervals in college soccer.

There isn't anyone who can create goals quite the way Brian did. There may be someone no less skilled at preventing them.

"Her soccer IQ and her understanding of her position and of the game, and just how she can improvise but also read the game before it's happening, is like no other player," West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said of the best of a long line of Canadian players who have come through Morgantown over the years. "And then you put on top of that her technical ability and her athleticism, it's really hard to beat Kadeisha."

Like so many others who fit the description, Buchanan started out in the sport as a forward, her obvious athletic gifts put to the most obvious use in scoring goals. And also following a familiar script, she gradually drifted backward on the field, to defensive midfielder to outside back to center back with Canadian youth national teams. She told coaches she didn't care where they put her, as long as it was on the field. It surely helped, too, that as the second youngest of 12 children, she learned soccer by playing with bigger, stronger and faster older siblings.

Is it nature or nurture that makes a world-class defender? Maybe a little of both.

She has scored four goals in two seasons for the Mountaineers and scored one of her two international goals against U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, but where the emotional release for attacking players arrives when the ball finds the back of the net, it arrives for her in spoiling those moments.

"You own that box," Buchanan said. "So any crosses, any shots around that box, you're blocking -- you're getting a head on it, you're getting a toe on it. Defending that whole area is my adrenaline rush.

"Your mentality is that you own that box, and they're not going to score."

In other words, you go wherever the attacking player goes. Better yet, you get there before they even know it's where they want to go.

Buchanan's ability to be everywhere has been stretched beyond the field in the past year. Rather than a rest, physical or mental, after playing every minute of Canada's five games in the World Cup, Buchanan was back on the field for her country two weeks later in the Pan-Am Games in Toronto (or in the case of the soccer games, nearby Hamilton, Ontario). She and Lawrence, who also started every game of the first tournament, were two of only four players on the World Cup roster who then transitioned to the mostly younger roster that contested the Pan-Am Games. And on top of that, in part to make up for time taken away from studies this past spring during World Cup preparations, the two Mountaineers shuttled back and forth between Hamilton and Morgantown by air and car during the Pan-Am tournament to attend summer school classes at the same time.

As a result, while noting they are physically fine, Izzo-Brown has limited both in preseason training and may do the same throughout the season.

It is only Buchanan's shadow, thereby neutralizing still one more skilled attacking player, that keeps the spotlight off Lawrence. The latter is one of just three players in college soccer this season who scored a goal in the World Cup, along with Tennessee's Hannah Wilkinson (New Zealand) and Penn State's Raquel Rodriguez (Costa Rica). That early strike against the Netherlands, when she pounced on a deflection in the box and drove a shot low and hard into the corner of the goal, was Canada's only score from the run of play in the group stage and ultimately helped salvage a first-place finish. It also, according to Lawrence, helped her grow more comfortable with the knowledge that, even at the sport's highest level, she could do more than set up others from the midfield; she could look for her own shot. That bodes well for a college team that needs finishers.

"I think Ashley's impact and the way she played throughout the whole World Cup just showed that she has that flair, she has that possession, she has that leadership," Izzo-Brown said. "She played free and was so effective. Besides scoring that goal, I think the confidence she played with this year is something I want her to play with. The direction and speed of play she played with is something I want her to continue here."

That is part of the puzzle for Buchanan, too. Individuals can excel, but it takes success to make a star. Brian never won a championship at Virginia but she led that program to back-to-back College Cup appearances. A defender and a back line can ensure a team doesn't lose a game, but it takes goals to ensure it earns more than a scoreless draw.

As impressive as she was to earn words of praise from Dorrance, the Mountaineers lost that day to the Tar Heels. As much as she made Herdman's words reasonable in the World Cup, Canada exited in the quarterfinals. The Pan-Am experience ended in back-to-back defeats in a semifinal against Colombia and a third-place game against Mexico. Even the NCAA tournament has been a letdown: West Virginia conceded just one goal in her three games but failed to score in any of them.

Buchanan will be one of the world's best young players no matter how this season ends. But if it ends in the College Cup, more people will know it.

"I feel like at this point in my life, I just need something to really show that I've won something," Buchanan said, searching for the right words with which to express the thought. "The Big 12 is good, but I need a big trophy. That's what I'm looking forward to this year."

Maybe it is everyone else who needs to get out of her way.