Virginia battles Duke at Klöckner Stadium

No. 14 Cavaliers conclude exhausting stretch of seven matches in 21 days


The Virginia midfield looks strong this year, and junior Todd Wharton is a big reason why. It doesn't hurt that senior All-American Eric Bird and freshman Jake Rozhansky play alongside him. The trio has combined for three goals and five assists for the No. 14 Cavaliers, who battle Duke at home Saturday at 7 p.m.

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

Preparing for its seventh game in 21 days, the Virginia men’s soccer team is eager to escape a tiring stretch in its schedule. But before a six-day break, the team must first face off against ACC rival Duke at Klöckner Stadium this Saturday.

“We’ve been traveling a lot,” junior midfielder Todd Wharton said. “Like [coach] George [Gelnovatch] said last night, it feels like we’ve been on a bus for two weeks now. We’ve had a lot of road trips where we’ve gotten back at like 4 or 5 a.m. It’ll be good to be back at home and have some time to relax, get our bodies recovered and get ready for a big game.”

Early Wednesday morning, several hours after a road game versus George Mason, Virginia (7-3-1, 2-1-1 ACC) returned to Grounds at a time of night either reserved for sleep or late midterm cramming. One by one, the Cavaliers emptied out of the bus, each player and coach content to be back home and ready to rest.

Earlier that evening, the Patriots — displaying an intense desire to win from the first whistle — severely tested the Cavaliers. Facing a more talented opponent, many other soccer teams might have played cautiously, sending a rare outside back or defensive midfielder to counterattack. But George Mason was not going to be satisfied with a nil-nil result, and the squad pressured all over the field and made aggressive runs early on. Luckily, Virginia knew this was in store.

“Because we’re Virginia and our tradition and what we did last year, getting to the final four, we have a target on our back for every team,” Wharton said. “They want to get where we are, so if they come out and beat us they could get to the final four. George Mason was a good team and they came out and played a good game. We were ready for it.”

An experienced Virginia team used the Patriots’ aggressiveness against them. For the first 45 minutes, the Cavaliers — though forced into playing a style different from their own — did all they could to tire out their opponents. This strategy gave Virginia a critical edge in the second half.

“I think in the first half they wore themselves down a little bit playing high-pressure against us,” Wharton said. “In the second half, they couldn’t be pressuring us the whole game like that. They sat back a little bit, which allowed us to get more possession of the ball and play the game we like to play.”

At around the 56th minute, the Cavaliers, now in control, moved the ball up the pitch to produce a corner kick. Junior defender Scott Thomsen’s cross found the feet of Wharton, who struck the ball toward the post. The shot deflected off senior midfielder Eric Bird for the goal and 1-0 lead. Even after junior forward Darius Madison received a yellow and then a red card in the 76th minute, the staunch Virginia defense found a way to hold on for a 1-0 win.

Now, the Cavaliers are back in Charlottesville and prepared for an ACC match against the Blue Devils (5-4-1, 2-2-0 ACC). Virginia has survived its brutal stretch with few scratches, ranked 14th in part due to its complementary trio of soccer-smart center midfielders — Wharton, Bird, and freshman Jake Rozhansky.

“The three central guys are all really unique,” Gelnovatch said. “Rozhansky is probably the best ball handler, dribbler and passer. Eric Bird is no doubt our hardest player in there — best guy in the air, hardest one to tackles. ...The intangible leadership piece — he’s the guy. Todd Wharton, playing as a deep midfielder, is very tactical. He understands how to take care of the other team’s attacking. He’s a good passer. He intercepts a lot of balls because he gets in good passing lanes. But all three of them are good on the ball.”

These midfielders do a standout job of earning corner kicks — 71 on the season — and placing the ball at the feet of Virginia attackers in dangerous positions. Further developing offensive production will be crucial for the Cavaliers as they position themselves to make runs in conference play and the NCAA tournament. The squad's 13 goals on 149 shots and 1.18 goals scored per game place are 118th in the country — a stark contrast to the .61 goals against per game, putting Virginia at 23rd nationwide.

This Saturday, the Cavaliers will look to right this imbalance with a few well-placed shots into the back of the Blue Devils' net.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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