For the 21st-ranked Virginia men’s soccer team, the mood of the season 12 games in is eerily similar to last year’s. Boasting a 7-3-2 record, Virginia is third in the ACC’s Coastal Division, but as the fifth-best ACC team in the NCAA Top 25, the Cavaliers sit precariously on the divide between a top flight and mediocre team.
Following Tuesday’s loss to American, their second in as many games, and third in five, the team is looking for answers, and no one is feeling the pressure more than senior midfielder and captain Todd Wharton.
“I think the beginning of our schedule wasn’t quite as tough as we thought it was,” Wharton said. “Some of the teams we were playing weren’t quite as good as the teams we’re getting into now, so I think playing these teams is going to kick us in the butt a little bit and get us ready for these final ACC games, the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament.”
On Oct. 15, 2014, the Cavaliers — who had started the season ranked third nationally — were ranked 14th and held teams to just .58 goals per game, led by the goalkeeping of eventual College Cup defensive MVP Calle Brown. While boasting an 8-2-1 record, largely due to the defense, the Cavaliers ranked 126th in the NCAA in scoring offense, tallying just over one goal a game, at 1.17.
While that team relied on stout defensive play, Virginia hasn’t had the same profound success in keeping teams out of goal this year. The Cavaliers’ 1.13 GAA ranks 81st nationally, but more concerning is the fact that they’ve conceded at least two goals in three of their last five games.
“Last year we all bought into the same idea in the postseason, and that's what made us so successful,” Wharton said. “Hopefully there will be a point this year where we can take the next step together as a team.”
Although they’ve maintained a strong record by scoring four more goals than they had at this point last season — 18 to 14 — the Cavaliers are definitely not where they would desire to be going into the final three games of the regular season, with the ACC and NCAA tournaments looming not far in the distance.
“We know we have to win the last games now,” junior forward Marcus Salandy-Defour said. “We need to relax a little bit and understand that the next two are really important. We need to, like coach [George Gelnovatch] said, take care of the little things in practice, before the game.”
This is not to say the Cavaliers have disappointed by any means or that they don’t still have the potential to repeat as champions. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain such a lofty ranking in a conference as tough as the ACC, and the fact that last season’s College Cup champions had just two more points than this year’s team is not reason to quit on this year’s title hopes. In fact, it’s intriguing how similar in standings and record the two teams are.
“One thing I've learned from my time here is that there are going to be ups and downs no matter how good or bad the team is,” Wharton said. “It seems the team that peaks at the right time ends up on top. I think we are at a stage where we need to come together and focus on getting things straight for a late-season push that can catapult us into postseason play.”
As the schedule now shows just the final three games of the season, all in the ACC, Virginia is going to have to bear down and overcome its inexperience to pick up wins and momentum heading into the postseason since the Cavaliers have only eight upperclassmen in comparison to 16 last year.
“I think the last three ACC games will really help with gaining experience and confidence going into the postseason,” Wharton said. “Myself and the older guys can also do a better job of helping the young guys be prepared for what to expect and what's needed out of them.”
Led by Wharton and his teammates from the College Cup championship team, the final three games of the regular season are going to be a significant indication as to the postseason prospects of a team that has undergone a rollercoaster season. However, as evidenced by 2014, a season filled with surprises, excitement, obstacles and successes may be the exact recipe for success for Cavaliers men’s soccer teams.