After finishing off the regular season strong, No. 4 Virginia men’s soccer is set to make a run at the program’s 16th ACC tournament title and first since 2009. The second-seeded Cavaliers (14-1-1, 6-1-1 ACC) secured a first round bye and will have home-field advantage through semifinal action.
Virginia dominated for much of the regular season — outscoring their opponents 27 to 5. Even in two hiccups against Boston College and Pittsburgh, the Cavaliers have proven adept at controlling the ball and slowly breaking down defenses. With a challenging road ahead of them, let’s take a look at Virginia’s path to the ACC title.
Quarterfinal — Virginia vs. Syracuse
The road starts with a home quarterfinal matchup against Syracuse Sunday. The Orange (7-5-5, 2-4-2 ACC) squeaked past North Carolina in the first round by winning 5-3 in penalty kicks.
The two ACC squads didn’t meet during the regular season this year, and their history only goes back to 2013, with Virginia leading the series 2-1-1.
Syracuse has struggled against quality opponents this year, winning only one of seven games against ranked teams. Furthermore, the Orange’s defense has had tremendous difficulty slowing down opposing offenses — they’ve allowed 27 goals on the season.
Even though an ACC matchup will never be easy — as shown by the then-No. 1 Cavaliers’ loss at home against Pittsburgh — Virginia has the clear talent advantage in this meeting. They shouldn’t have trouble picking apart a susceptible Syracuse defense and advancing to the semifinals.
Semifinal — Virginia vs. Wake Forest
Assuming third-seeded Wake Forest takes care of business at home against Virginia Tech, the Demon Deacons (13-3-1, 6-2 ACC) will head to Charlottesville to play the Cavaliers in a top 10 showdown Wednesday.
No. 7 Wake Forest would represent one of Virginia’s stiffest tests of the year and its highest ranked matchup since beating then-No. 2 Duke in early September. The Demon Deacons boast an explosive offense and a solid defense with 36 goals scored on the year, while conceding just 11.
Similar to the Cavaliers, Wake Forest has a well-balanced attack. Senior midfielder Bruno Lapa leads the way with seven goals and three assists, and the Demon Deacons have six players with at least three goals each.
However, Virginia holds the edge on the defensive side of the ball. The combination of junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler and a near-impenetrable back line will make life difficult for even the best offenses.
The upper hand on the defensive side and home-field advantage will give the Cavaliers a slight leg up — which could be enough to propel Virginia to the ACC title game.
Championship — Virginia vs. Clemson
If the favorites win out, fans will have the privilege to watch arguably the two best teams in the country collide in a high stakes ACC championship game. Given how the rest of the season has played out for many of Virginia’s ranked opponents, No. 2 Clemson would likely be Virginia’s toughest game of the year — at least on paper.
The Tigers (14-1-1, 6-1-1 ACC) have the highest scoring offense in the nation with 60 goals on the season. In fact, their top two goal scorers, junior midfielder Robbie Robinson and junior forward Kimarni Smith, have combined for more goals — 28 — than the Cavaliers as a team.
The battle between Clemson’s offense and Virginia’s defense will certainly be exciting. Whoever can gain the advantage here will have a great chance at winning the game.
The Cavaliers may even elect to play more defensive than usual in an effort to ultimately send the game to penalty kicks. With Shutler in goal, Virginia would certainly like its chances in an all-or-nothing penalty shootout. Regardless, expect this game to come down to the final minutes.
The Cavaliers’ last ACC tournament win was immediately followed by a national championship. Notably, several parallels can be drawn to that 2009 team. Former standout goalkeeper Diego Restrepo — who is Virginia’s single-season shutout leader and tied for first all-time in the NCAA for consecutive shutouts — led a dominant defense. The Cavaliers also boasted a similarly balanced attack.
The ACC tournament is certainly not this team’s ultimate goal, but it would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction in its quest for a national championship.
Virginia will kick off its ACC tournament run Sunday at Klockner Stadium against Syracuse. The game will start at 1 p.m. and will be televised on ACC Network.