After strong ACC and NCAA Tournament runs last year, Virginia men's soccer successfully courted and signed newcomers Alecko Eskandarian, Ryan Kelly, Jake LeBlanc and Matt Oliver for the 2000 season.
Eskandarian, Kelly and LeBlanc will strengthen the midfield and forward positions, while Oliver will solidify the defense.
Eskandarian and Kelly both honed their scoring skills playing high school soccer in New Jersey. Eskandarian, a 5-foot-8 Montvale native, was named a National Soccer Coaches Association of America/Adidas All-American as well as New Jersey State Player of the Year. He scored 66 goals and assisted on 15 others in 25 games.
"Eskandarian is small, but he's very athletic and fast," Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said in a press release. "He's going to add a new dimension to our team. Eskandarian will be a different type of a forward for us, in that he's a very tricky, crafty player with his feet and he's a proven goal scorer."
Last season, Sheldon Barnes, Ryan Gibbs and Kyle Martino all saw time on the Virginia front line. The Cavs varied their offensive alignment to best utilize Gibbs' speed and Martino's play-making ability, switching between a setup with double strikers up front and another alignment featuring one striker up front and a withdrawn forward in the midfield. New offensive strategies likely will be employed in the fall to utilize the spectrum of skills in the new recruits.
Kelly, a 6-foot-1 native of Marlton, N.J., was named Runner-up MVP of the Adidas ESP Camp as a member of the Under-18 and Under-20 National Team Pool member. He was also a New Jersey State Team member in 1994, 1998 and 1999.
"Ryan Kelly is a very athletic, attacking player that can play out wide as a flank player or as a forward," Gelnovatch said in the release. "We expect for him to come in for us at U.Va. and play right away."
Gelnovatch said he expects Oliver also to step in immediately to reinforce the already potent Virginia defense. The 6-foot native of Waldorf, Md., is currently a member of the Under-20 National Team Pool, and his versatility will make him a candidate for playing time at the center back or outside back positions.
"He's a defender, a very strong, athletic player that is a ball-winner," Gelnovatch said.
The amount of playing time given to Eskandarian, Kelly and Oliver next season will revolve around their preseason performance.
"All of these guys have the potential to start, but we don't guarantee anybody anything," Cavalier assistant coach Craig Reynolds said.
Forward Jake LeBlanc, the last player to sign with Virginia, is a large variable in the Cav roster. A relative unknown when compared to Eskandarian and Kelly, LeBlanc was nearly signed by the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer before deciding to come to Virginia.
"We haven't seen him enough to make a real accurate assessment, but we think he will be very good," Reynolds said. "He's somewhat of a hidden treasure. He was originally from ... I think it was Canada or something."
The signings of Kelly, Eskandarian, and Oliver were largely a result of the efforts of Reynolds, who coaches the Under-17 Region I Olympic Development Program team. Region I consists of 13 Northeastern states, and is considered a hotbed of soccer talent.
Reynolds said his first exposure to this promising freshman trio was during their junior year of high school. At that time, all three played for Reynolds on the Under-17 ODP team. His coaching contact with the players began in late June of 1998 and continued until April of 1999, culminating in a trip to Europe to face international competition. His time spent with the players allowed him to judge not only each player's style, but also their personalities and how they would fit in with the Virginia team.
"When you're overseas with someone for 10 to 14 days, you get to know them pretty well," said Reynolds. "All of these guys are good people and have very strong characters."
Unlike past years, these players are not needed to fill gaps left by Cavalier players departing because of graduation or lured by the MLS draft. Virginia lost six key players in MLS' first two years, including Ben Olsen and Chris Albright, two of eight former Cavaliers who now play for D.C. United.
The four newcomers join a team that loses only one senior - midfielder Drew O'Donnell - and benefited last season from a huge freshman presence. Martino and Gibbs combined for 15 goals and 11 assists, while outside back Jonathan Cole and goalkeeper David Comfort played significant minutes on defense.