The Virginia men’s soccer team captured the ACC Tournament title Sunday, defeating Clemson 3-1. Three second half goals propelled the Cavaliers (17-1-1, 6-1-1 ACC) to victory — their first ACC championship since 2009. The win earned Virginia the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history.
The Tigers (16-2-1, 6-1-1 ACC) struck first when redshirt freshman forward James Brighton poked in a loose ball off a corner kick in the 19th minute. It was Brighton’s sixth goal and only Virginia’s seventh goal conceded on the year.
However, Clemson’s explosive offense — the nation’s best with 64 total goals scored — went mostly quiet following the goal. In fact, the Tigers only generated one shot on goal up until the final minutes when the game was essentially out of reach.
Early on, it appeared Virginia was going to sit back defensively and rely on counterattacks for scoring opportunities. However, they had to end that strategy early on, as Clemson’s goal forced the Cavaliers to play more offensive-minded.
Despite more forward movement from Virginia, the Tigers’ defense — led by senior defender Malick Mbaye — stifled the Cavaliers until midway through the second half. Outside of a near equalizer in the 20th minute by sophomore forward Daniel Steedman, Virginia struggled to create solid goal-scoring opportunities.
However, the Cavaliers struck in the 65th minute when freshman forward Axel Gunnarsson took a through ball from junior midfielder Irakoze Donasiyano and ripped a shot from a tight angle into the far side-netting. Not only did the goal even up the score, but it injected new life into an otherwise stagnant Cavalier attack.
With the intensity and physicality rising, it took 17 minutes of back-and-forth play for Virginia to finally break the game open in the 82nd minute. On a controversial no-call, freshman defender Andreas Ueland was able to use his body to create just enough space for sophomore forward Cabrel Happi Kamseu to volley in a corner kick from Steedman.
With Clemson still scrambling to recover from the goal, sophomore forward Daryl Dike used his physicality and speed to get past Mbaye and sophomore goalkeeper George Marks. This left Mbaye with no alternative other than to tackle Dike from behind inside the box and prevent the goal.
As a result, Mbaye — the ACC Defensive Player of the Year — was sent off with a straight red card, and the Cavaliers were given a penalty in the 83rd minute. Senior defender Robin Afamefuna capitalized on the penalty by striking the ball right down the middle after Marks already dove to his right.
With a comfortable cushion and less than 10 minutes remaining, Virginia played much more defensively. Despite a flurry of chances and a shot ricocheting off the crossbar for the Tigers, Clemson was not able to score, and the game ended 3-1.
For Virginia, it was the program’s 16th ACC Championship and first in a decade. Notably, the Cavaliers’ last ACC championship title in 2009 was immediately followed by a national championship.
Going into the game, Clemson was ranked No. 1 in the nation, and Virginia was ranked No. 2. Now, Virginia is the No. 1 overall seed, and Clemson is the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The competitive championship game showed that both teams have what it takes to hoist the College Cup trophy.
Virginia’s journey to what would be the eighth national championship in program history begins Sunday at Klöckner Stadium at 1 p.m. against the winner of James Madison and Campbell.