Climbing the pyramid: men's soccer to host ODU in season opener
No. 3 Cavaliers look to make small step toward overall success
The Virginia men’s soccer team’s goal for the 2014 season is simple: return to the College Cup.
“Obviously it’s in the back of all of our heads,” senior midfielder Eric Bird said.
But the Cavaliers realize that concentrating on such a lofty objective is not always the best course of action. Coach George Gelnovatch does not want his team to lose sight of the smaller steps necessary for eventual postseason success.
Virginia has therefore placed a pyramid of goals in its locker room. At the bottom are smaller accomplishments — such as maintaining a good grade point average, working hard in practice and winning individual games. Then, at the top of the pyramid is the ultimate goal: winning the national championship.
“If we get all of the little things on the pyramid done, the upper part of the pyramid will come,” sophomore forward Riggs Lennon said.
On Friday night, No. 3 Virginia will attempt to take its first step toward the top of that pyramid when the Cavaliers face No. 25 Old Dominion to open its season.
While the Cavaliers are in the national spotlight after a 2013 season that ended in the College Cup, the 2014 season has presented a new set of challenges. Virginia realizes it still must improve before the season opener against the Monarchs, who last year finished second behind No. 5 New Mexico in their first season competing in Conference USA.
Primary among the Cavaliers’ concerns are injuries. This season, Virginia lost junior forward Marcus Salandy-Defour — who started 19 games last year — to an ACL tear during the summer.
Additionally, likely starters sophomore forward Nicko Corriveau, junior midfielder Todd Wharton and junior forward Darius Madison are currently recovering from hernia surgery, an MCL sprain and an ankle sprain, respectively. Gelnovatch expects all three players to return soon, but the Cavalier attack is lacking while they recover.
“A couple of our horses are hurt,” Gelnovatch said. “We’re missing probably 40 percent of our starting lineup — in particular some attacking.”
The injuries are especially frustrating because Virginia is also adjusting to a new formation. After running a 4-4-2 lineup last season, Gelnovatch has implemented a 3-5-2 scheme that he hopes will allow the midfield — which he considers to be the strength of the team — to control the game.
Gelnovatch felt comfortable making the transition because of some newfound athleticism among the defenders. Senior Kyler Sullivan will return after starting all 24 matches a year ago, but the other two starters did not play a single minute last season.
Redshirt freshmen defenders Wesley Suggs and Sheldon Sullivan — Kyler’s brother — have taken control of the back line openings and given Virginia more speed and recovery ability, reducing the need for a fourth defender.
The Cavaliers are still adjusting to the new formation, but the team believes the change will yield benefits given its personnel.
“It’s definitely suitable for our team,” Lennon said. “We have an athletic back line. We’ve got people who can control the midfield. And we’ve got forwards who can just put it away.”
After playing two exhibition games and an intrasquad scrimmage, team members seem excited to challenge its young defenders in the season opener.
But the Monarchs will not bring the same firepower they had a year ago to the table. Old Dominion graduated forward Tim Hopkinson — a second-team All-American in 2013 and the C-USA player of the year.
The Monarchs will rely on senior forward Ivan Militar — the C-USA assist leader last season — and sophomore forward Jesse Miralrio — a member of the C-USA all-rookie team — to lead the attack.
But it still remains to be seen which goalkeeper this duo will face. Since preseason practices began, senior goalkeeper Calle Brown has been in a fight for his job with freshman Jeff Caldwell.
Brown started the final eight matches of 2013 as the Cavaliers made their deep postseason run. But Caldwell presents a unique dilemma for the coaching staff: he is considered the Class of 2014’s No. 1 goalkeeper and No. 9 overall player by College Soccer News.
Brown started and played the first half of Virginia’s exhibition game against Rutgers Aug. 16, but Caldwell played all 90 minutes in the Aug. 23 exhibition match against No. 9 Georgetown. Still, Gelnovatch cautioned against reading too much into the decision to start Caldwell against the Hoyas.
Regardless of who claims the starting goalkeeper position, the Cavaliers hope to calm their anxiety and begin their ascent to the top of their pyramid — starting Friday against the Monarchs.
“I just like getting into the groove of the season,” Bird said. “I think we’re all just itching to get out there and get started.”
The opening kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday at Klöckner Stadium.