No. 1 men’s soccer to face No. 5 Southern Methodist with trip to College Cup on the line

Southern Methodist's powerful attack is yet another difficult challenge for the Cavaliers

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Junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler will have to bring his A-game in order to shut down Southern Methodist's electric offense. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

No. 1 men’s soccer will play No. 5 Southern Methodist Friday night at Klöckner Stadium. The winner of the quarterfinal matchup will earn the right to play in the College Cup a week later in Cary, N.C.

The two programs are facing off for only the fourth time — with the Mustangs (18-1-1, 5-1-1 AAC) winning the previous three meetings — and for the first time since 2008. It will be the only postseason matchup between the two schools.

The Cavaliers (19-1-1, 6-1-1 ACC) are no stranger to strong opponents, as this will be their 11th game against a ranked opponent — all of which they have won. It will be the team’s third ranked opponent so far in the NCAA tournament after rolling through No. 24 Campbell and No. 14 St. John’s — outscoring the two by a combined score of 5-0.

Southern Methodist’s two tournament wins, on the other hand, have been far from easy. The Mustangs squeaked past Coastal Carolina before beating No. 9 UCF in overtime on the strength of a 91st minute goal from senior defender Eddie Munjoma. 

Storylines to watch

Virginia’s defense vs. Southern Methodist’s offense

After already facing off against the nation’s best and third-best offenses in Clemson and Campbell, Virginia will complete the trio by battling Southern Methodist’s second-ranked scoring offense. The Mustangs — scoring 3.05 goals per game — come to Charlottesville as one of only two teams in the country averaging over three goals a game.

The Cavaliers, however, lead the nation in goals against per game and have been able to stymie many powerful offenses. In fact, Clemson and Campbell — combining to average nearly six goals per game — were held to just one total goal against Virginia’s vaunted backline.

On the year, the Cavaliers have only conceded seven goals. That number was nearly matched alone by senior forward Garrett McLaughlin’s five goal-effort in the Mustangs’ win over Cincinnati.

Southern Methodist’s dangerous attack is spearheaded by McLaughlin, whose 16 goals on the season are seventh-best in the nation, along with a 12-goal scorer in Munjoma and sophomore midfielder Knut Ahlander — whose 12 assists lead the nation. 

Conversely, Virginia boasts three all-ACC players on defense who can both possess the ball and severely limit an opponent’s scoring chances. In addition, junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler’s elite ability between the posts has proven to be an invaluable safety net for the Cavaliers. 

When the two sides clash Friday night, the battle between Virginia’s defense and Southern Methodist’s offense will perhaps be the best indicator of the outcome of the game. If the Cavaliers can do what they have done to so many other powerful attacks throughout the year, Virginia will have little trouble advancing to the national semifinals.

Who will step up on offense for Virginia?

While Virginia’s backline and possession-oriented midfielders are undoubtedly the team’s strength, their attack has been remarkably consistent — only getting shut out once all season. 

Even though the offense’s performance has become predictable, how it happens has widely varied. As the latest example, freshman center back Andreas Ueland — entering the game with only one goal on the season — scored twice off corners within the first 15 minutes against St. John’s. 

Whether it be sophomore forward Daryl Dike, junior forward Nathaniel Crofts or one of the many other offensive contributors thus far, the difference maker in any given contest has proven to be wildly unpredictable.

Dike might be considered the most likely candidate to take over a game for the Cavaliers, but come tournament time, this well-balanced offense is a valuable asset for Virginia. For teams that primarily rely on a single play-maker, an injury or an off-game for that player may spell an early ending to an otherwise successful season.

With the often unforeseeable results of tournament play in any sport, depth and balance is crucial to a deep run, and the Cavaliers have been able to take advantage of theirs. The ability for Virginia to find that key contributor against Southern Methodist, whoever it may be, will be vital to a victory.

The game is set to kick off 7 p.m. Friday night at Klöckner Stadium. The game will be televised on ACC Network Extra. 

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