Virginia men’s soccer has high expectations, but must replace key losses

Cavaliers won season opener

sp-HenryKessler-AWalsh

Sophmore Henry Kessler has big shoes to fill at center back, but his offseason training has helped him grow into the role. 

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

The No. 15 Virginia men’s soccer team has been picked to finish second in the ACC Coastal Division, but must replace some key departures from last season’s team.

The Cavaliers got off to an encouraging start after beating No. 19 New Hampshire 1-0 in their season opener, as sophomore midfielder Joe Bell scored a dramatic goal with 21 seconds remaining.

This past March and April, Virginia also had the chance to compete against North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgetown, and Duke in the inaugural US Soccer Spring Men’s College Program, finishing fifth ahead of only Duke. 

However, this tournament allowed Virginia Coach George Gelnovatch, who is entering his 23rd season at the helm of the Cavaliers, an opportunity to give experience to several younger players who will see increased roles this year.

"From the developmental standpoint, check that box," Gelnovatch said. "It's been really, really good."

At goalkeeper, Virginia have had to replace Jeff Caldwell, now with New York City FC in Major League Soccer, who started all 21 matches last season. Sophomore Colin Shutler has taken Caldwell’s No. 1 jersey and will continue as starting goalkeeper. Shutler started and played every minute of the match against New Hampshire and the five spring games. Junior Marcel Dasilva will most likely be the second string keeper behind Shutler.

Seniors Sergi Nus and Prosper Figbe will anchor the Virginia defense again this year. Nus, despite being a center back, was third on the 2017 team in goals, scoring six. However, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee practicing by himself at home in Spain on Dec. 31, requiring surgery. Nus missed all of the Cavaliers’ spring matches and the New Hampshire match.

"He's here four to six hours a day," Gelnovatch said. "I see him every day in the weight room."

"The more work you can put in, the better, but I'm also learning how to rest and take care of my body,” Nus said.

Sophomore Henry Kessler looks to fill the void at left center back in the Virginia back three after the graduation of Sheldon Sullivan. Kessler played Nus’ role in the center of defense during the spring, playing every minute of the five matches.

"He moves as well as anybody on our team," Gelnovatch said. "He's tough as nails, and he's smart as hell on the field and off the field. He doesn't make the same mistake twice."

Junior Robin Afamefuna, who scored the lone Virginia goal in the Cavaliers’ 1-1 preseason draw with Georgetown on Aug. 18, will also be a mainstay at left wing back. The versatile former youth player for Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany started 11 of the final 12 games last season.

In the midfield, Bell, who started all 21 games as a freshman last year and made the ACC All-Freshman team, will play an even more important role this season as one of the Cavaliers’ captains along with Afamefuna. 

Bell spent much of his preseason captaining New Zealand at the Oceania U-19 Championship, scoring a hat trick in the first half of a match against Tonga. New Zealand won the tournament and qualified for next year’s U-20 World Cup, as Bell won the Golden Ball for being the tournament’s best player. 

Midfielder Jean-Christophe Koffi, the only Cavalier to make the All-ACC first team last year, announced his departure from the program on August 7. Pablo Aguilar, the team’s second-leading scorer with seven goals this past season, is also gone, leaving major holes in the midfield. Aguilar and Sullivan continue to play together with the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, the Houston Dynamo’s United Soccer League affiliate.

Sophomore Justin Ingram and redshirt sophomore Aaron James are likely candidates for more playing time there this year in the absence of Koffi and Aguilar. Though Ingram only made three substitute appearances last season, he started against New Hampshire and in all five games this spring. 

However, the most important hole in the squad according to Gelnovatch is in the attack, where the Cavaliers must replace last year’s leading scorer Edward Opoku, now in MLS with the Columbus Crew. 

"We have to get that addressed,” Gelnovatch said. “It's the one piece, I felt like, that this team needed.”

Freshman Cabrel Happi Kamseu started at striker against New Hampshire. Senior Kennedy Nwabia will also receive substantial playing time up top. Nwabia, in his second year at Virginia after transferring from Dayton, appeared in only four games last year.

"[We need a striker who] makes good runs in the box, can head the ball when we need to cross the ball, who can score in different ways: with his head, with a ball coming in, with his feet,” Gelnovatch said. “We have been on the search for that goal-scoring kind of No. 9.”

Sophomore winger Nathaniel Crofts, who also started all 21 games last year, will return on the right side. Sophomore Irakoze Donasiyano and senior Simeon Okoro will also make an impact up front. Both were key substitutes last season but both started against New Hampshire, with Donasiyano at right wingback and Okoro at left wing.

The Cavaliers next play on Thursday at home against Elon. Virginia will also get the chance to play Maryland on Sept. 3 at brand-new Audi Field in Washington, D.C. before opening ACC play on Sept. 7 at home against Virginia Tech.

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