Defense leads the way for Cavaliers

Gelnovatch, team relied on formation flexibility en route to seventh national title


For three months, the Virginia men’s soccer team toiled with a 3-5-2 formation. Coach George Gelnovatch saw the alignment as an opportunity to compensate for his recently depleted offensive attack.

Entering 2014, several key cogs from the previous season’s College Cup run were either hampered — sophomore forward Nicko Corriveau and junior forward Darius Madison missed early season games due to hernia surgery and an ankle sprain, respectively — or gone — would-be sophomore midfielder Jordan Allen turned pro while junior forward Marcus Salandy-Defour tore his ACL over the summer.  

Gelnovatch put his trust in his three athletic defenders while the midfielders and forwards worked on controlling possession in an effort to score with a compensated lineup.

But the Virginia attack, even after Madison and Corriveau returned to the lineup, still struggled to capitalize on its numerous scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, opponents were beginning to exploit the undermanned Cavalier defense.

The scale finally reached its tipping point after a 3-0 defeat at the hands of ACC nemesis Notre Dame in the conference tournament. If Virginia was to get its destined shot at revenge in the College Cup, change was needed, and the long-tenured coach — in his brilliance — provided the perfect solution.

“We were a team that was trying to go forward and attack and we weren’t getting enough out of how much we were committing forward,” Gelnovatch said. “If we were going to make a run, we were going to have to pull those reins back a little bit and stop teams from scoring and we’ll figure out a way to get a goal.”

So instead of continuing to push forward, the Cavaliers accepted their identity as a defensive-first team. Depending on the matchup in the NCAA tournament, either the second forward of fifth midfielder was swapped for a fourth defender.

And needless to say, the adjustment worked, as sixteenth-seeded Virginia defeated second-seeded UCLA 4-2 in penalty kicks after 110 minutes of scoreless soccer on Sunday to add a seventh national championship star to the program’s legacy.

During the title match, the Cavaliers made it abundantly clear that their game plan was not necessarily focused on scoring their own goal, but on weathering the Bruin attack. Virginia was outshot 15-9, including a 10-3 UCLA edge in the second half. Even while on the offensive end, Virginia kept multiple defenders back, drawing criticism from media and coaches alike for its conservative, ‘play-not-to-lose’ approach.

“I think most people today would say that we are the better team,” UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said after the game.

But that mattered little to Gelnovatch, whose strategy — as it was throughout the tournament — was merely to put his team in the best chance to win by playing sound defense. And when the penalty kick shootout arrived, his squad had a decisive advantage.

The Virginia shooters were locked in after taking down Georgetown a week earlier in penalty kicks — film UCLA senior goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. surprisingly claimed not to have watched — while Virginia senior goalkeeper Calle Brown could use his 6-5 frame to make the goal appear that much smaller for the Bruin defenders.

“It’s definitely nerve wrecking because he just takes up the entire net,” Madison said.

Brown’s size proved huge as the Bruins missed both their second and third shots on deflections off the top-left crossbar, forced to utilize every square inch of net to beat the Cavalier netminder.

Those misses gave Virginia a commanding edge, and after converted attempts by junior midfielder Todd Wharton, sophomore forward Sam Hayward and sophomore midfielder Patrick Foss, sophomore forward Riggs Lennon hammered home the final nail in the coffin, setting off an on-field frenzy of elated Cavaliers who had worked so hard and waited so long for this very moment.

“There is no better feeling than being on the field with your team after winning a national championship,” Gelnovatch said. “Seeing the smiles, the hugs, the accomplishments – I just can’t describe it.”

The 2014 Virginia squad, though obviously talented, did not win alone on physical ability. In fact, the abandonment of the 3-5-2 — a formation run by only the most athletic of units — was Gelnovatch’s transition to taking home the hardware on a different approach.

This team took on an unrivaled sense of urgency and unity as it prepared for NCAA play. Several players accepted new positions — such as junior midfielder Scott Thomsen, who slid down to play left back — while others, such as Madison and his fellow forwards, embraced their limited scoring opportunities. This flexibility allowed Gelnovatch to truly implement the most effective tactics against each opponent.

“The willingness to buy into that for the sake of the team and for the sake of winning will trump talent every time,” Gelnovatch said. “I think we’re a pretty good example of that.”

And even though the season’s on-field solidarity is over and the players’ lives will again return to normalcy in Charlottesville, they will still forever unite over their memory of ultimate success.

“You’re going about your day and you just think, ‘We’re national champions’,” Madison said.

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