The No. 2 Virginia men’s soccer team (16-1-1, 6-1-1 ACC) will play No. 1 Clemson (16-1-1, 6-1-1 ACC) in the ACC Tournament championship game at noon Sunday in Cary, N.C. The Cavaliers are hoping to capture their first ACC title since 2009.
Virginia secured two close home wins against Syracuse and No. 7 Wake Forest to reach the title game, while the Tigers dominated Notre Dame in the quarterfinals before narrowly beating Pittsburgh in the semifinals.
Clemson — picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Division — has wildly exceeded expectations. This year, the Tigers took home their first ACC regular season crown in over 20 years, and they seek just their fourth conference championship title in program history.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have their best record through 18 games since 2001 — a year they closed the season with two consecutive losses in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Since the team’s only loss of the year to Pittsburgh, Virginia has reeled off five consecutive wins while only conceding two goals in the process.
Storylines to watch
Virginia’s defense vs. Clemson’s offense
This is a matchup of a great defense going up against a great offense. Virginia’s defense is the best in the nation in goals against per game, and Clemson has scored the most goals in the country at 64.
In fact, the Tigers have two players — junior forwards Robbie Robinson and Kimarni Smith — with a combined 28 goals on the season, which is only two less than the Cavaliers as a whole team.
While Clemson is scoring an explosive 3.56 goals per game, Virginia is giving up only .33 goals per match. One of these statistics will have to give, and whichever side can win this battle will put themselves in a great spot to win the game.
How will Virginia make up for the absence of junior midfielder Joe Bell?
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cavaliers sit back on the defensive end more than usual, especially as they will likely be without the services of junior midfielder Joe Bell — the ACC Midfielder of the Year. Bell was called up to the New Zealand national team, and after making his first international cap Thursday, he is expected to be with the team when they play in Lithuania Sunday.
While it is certainly a high individual honor for Bell, it does cause some problems for Virginia. Even though Bell plays in the middle of the field, he also has an integral role in what has been the nation’s strongest defense.
Not only does Bell serve as a first line of defense, but his top notch technical ability helps the Virginia control possession and take some pressure off the defense. His absence could give Clemson an area to exploit, and the Cavaliers may elect to compensate by playing more defensive.
However, a more defensive approach has a larger impact than simply filling in a hole. With junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler’s elite ability between the posts, Virginia may be content to play for penalty kicks and try to win the game there.
Efficiency on offense for Virginia
Clemson’s powerful offense will not only put pressure on Virginia’s backline, but it will also force the Cavaliers to take advantage of any solid scoring opportunities. Any cushion Virginia’s attackers can afford for its defense will go a long way in deciding the result of this game.
The Cavaliers have shown they are comfortable playing with a lead — only allowing a team to equalize twice this season. However, Virginia’s goals are typically the result of slow buildup play, and against quality opponents, their chances become limited. This style will be especially difficult without Bell at the base of the attack.
Against Clemson, each chance will become even more crucial. Knowing the Tigers have the ability to put one in the back of the net at any moment will require the Cavaliers to capitalize on their opportunities.
Normally, Virginia could compensate for an inability to finish with stellar defense on the other side. While the Cavaliers will undoubtedly give the Clemson attack more issues than usual, it’s difficult to expect they can be held at bay for a full 90 minutes.
While a lot is at stake in this conference championship game, it does not mark the end of postseason play for either of these teams. These elite squads have already likely secured a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, and this game could very well be a preview of a College Cup matchup in December.
The game is set to kick off noon today at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, N.C. The match will be televised on ESPNU.