BLANK: Soccer's sustained success
Virginia‘s success in sports as of late has been well noted. The Cavaliers won the Capital One Cup for best men’s sports teams for the 2014-2015 season, and have averaged sixth in the Directors Cup over the past three years, a nationwide ranking of all a university’s sports teams. The accomplishments of teams like baseball and basketball have been covered substantially, but the contributions of the men’s soccer team have flown under the radar.
Men’s soccer is not new to being a national powerhouse, but that doesn’t make the results any less impressive. Since 1990, Virginia has made it to the ACC Championship 17 times, with both more appearances and championships than any other team. The team has multiple NCAA Championship titles, and is fourth in the nation with 37 NCAA Tournament appearances, featuring a streak of 20 consecutive seasons in the playoffs.
Coach George Gelnovatch has been instrumental in this success, leading the Cavaliers for the past 20 seasons. He came to Virginia after a successful playing career both for the Cavaliers and as a professional. Since arriving, he has set a record for consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, sent 45 of his players on to professional soccer and even helped coach the U.S. National Team. After coaching a young team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015, Gelnovatch likely expected this season’s team to compete for a championship.
However, by Virginia’s standards, the season hadn’t been anything exceptional. Coming into last week, the Cavaliers were ranked No. 21 in the nation, and were unranked the week before that. Part of this was the unexpected departure of young talent — Virginia lost 2015 ACC all-freshman team forward Derrick Etienne to the MLS, and second-team all ACC midfielder Jake Rozhansky to Maryland.
In the last few games though, the Cavaliers have shown signs of putting together something special, starting with victory at No. 4 North Carolina. Virginia put together a come from behind victory, behind goals from sophomore forward Wesley Wade and junior midfielder Pablo Aguilar. The Cavaliers also received a standout performance from goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, a third team all-ACC player in 2015. Caldwell held the Tar Heels to a single goal, making a career high seven saves.
While the North Carolina victory put Virginia back in the rankings, last week’s win over No. 2 Notre Dame was even more unexpected. The Fighting Irish team had received votes as the best team in the country, and was favored over the hometown Cavaliers.
The game was a tense match, beginning with a goal for the Cavaliers on their first shot of the game. The goal was scored thanks to a nice play from sophomore Eddie Opoku, the team’s leading scorer. Opoku has been a standout for the Cavaliers, and was selected as both third team all ACC and for the all-freshman team in 2015.The sophomore forward led the team offensively throughout the game, with another solid chance in the second half, and will likely have to do so all season if the team is to have success.
The win was not an offensive showcase for the Cavaliers, since the team had only four shots. Instead, the game proved a chance to prove the team’s defensive mettle, and allowed Caldwell to shine once again. Caldwell had seven saves, and faced 11 second-half shots, include point-blank attempts in the box, but he held his ground. Caldwell shut out the Irish, and the defense only allowed one shot in the final 10 minutes of the match.
The wins mark the first time Virginia has toppled back-to-back ACC foes in the top five since 2003. In fact, all six of Virginia’s conference opponents this season have been ranked in the top 20, which may explain the team’s relatively disappointing start to the season. Facing such high caliber competition bodes well for Virginia’s chances in postseason play, as the Cavaliers are certainly battle tested.
Given Gelnovatch’s history, success in postseason play would surprise nobody. Since Athletic Director Craig Littlepage was hired, many of Virginia’s programs have undergone drastic change to meet the University’s “endless pursuit of better.” The baseball and basketball programs are completely different animals than they were, and have found nearly annual success. Other programs like lacrosse have struggled to live up to prior standards of late. Men’s soccer, however, has provided a steady stream of success and a worry-free program for those guiding Virginia athletics.
While programs like coach Bronco Mendenhall’s football team are still finding their footing, it would behoove them to look to men’s soccer. Gelnovatch has been both historically dominant and consistent, and as the last few games show, doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.