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Amid uncertainty, Virginia men’s soccer set for ACC play

The Cavaliers hope to finish a shortened fall season with an ACC championship

<p>With the loss of forward Daryl Dike to the MLS, senior forward Nathaniel Crofts will have to step up to fill the huge hole Dike leaves in the Virginia offense.&nbsp;</p>

With the loss of forward Daryl Dike to the MLS, senior forward Nathaniel Crofts will have to step up to fill the huge hole Dike leaves in the Virginia offense. 

After months of uncertainty, Virginia men’s soccer can finally set their sights on a fall season. The ACC announced the layout for the abbreviated season Friday — each school will play six conference games in addition to two exhibition matches prior to a modified eight-team conference tournament.

While discussions of a possible spring NCAA tournament need more time to develop, the Cavaliers will at the very least have a chance to defend their 2019 ACC Championship — something that players will not be taking for granted.

“We’re not just happy to play games, but the games that we’re playing now actually mean something,” sophomore defender Andreas Ueland said. “We’re playing to win another ring. It gives us motivation to work even harder in my opinion.”

In contrast with the typical two games per week of a college season, ACC teams will be playing only one game a week for six consecutive weeks — an idea that several of the players and coaches agree will be beneficial to preparation and performance.

“I love the layout,” senior goalkeeper Colin Shutler said. “That’s what college soccer has been pushing for for the last decade. We’ll have a week to prepare for games, which is kind of like what they do at the pro level.”

In conference play, Virginia will compete in the North division, playing Virginia Tech, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse. For the first time since 2014 and only the second time in program history, the Cavaliers will battle the Hokies twice during the regular season. 

The top four teams from both the North and South division will advance to the ACC tournament, which will be played entirely at various locations in North Carolina, where four ACC schools reside. The final is scheduled for Nov. 22 in Cary, N.C. — the location of both Virginia’s 2019 ACC Championship win against Clemson as well as its 2019 NCAA Championship loss against Georgetown.

Despite losing a plethora of talent —  including ACC Midfielder of the Year Joe Bell and leading goal scorer Daryl Dike — and not being able to play together as a team until July, the Cavaliers feel strongly that their younger roster is prepared for a solid showing in ACC play.

“The guys are in great spirits,” Coach George Gelnovatch said. “We’re further along in every respect than I probably thought we would be, whether it’s the soccer piece of the things or the fitness piece of things.”

Virginia will be led this year by First-Team All-American Shutler. Shutler’s 0.53 goals against average last year led the nation, as he posted 15 shutouts — one shy of tying the school record held by Virginia legend Diego Restrepo.

In front of Shutler, Third-Team All-ACC Ueland will spearhead efforts on the backline. After losing All-American defender Henry Kessler and captain defender Robin Afamefuna to professional teams, Virginia will have significant holes to fill on defense. Furthermore, redshirt freshman defender Reed Kessler — Henry Kessler’s younger brother — could also see the field for the first time this season, looking to build off of his brother’s place in the Virginia history books. 

Junior midfielder Bret Halsey is likely to see playing time in the back after playing significant minutes there last year, and it’s possible that graduate transfer defender Louis Evans could also play a key role. Halsey started in 22 matches for Virginia last season, garnering ACC All-Tournament team honors, and will have to replace the passing prowess of Bell in the midfield. 

Going towards goal, the Cavaliers will be led by senior forwards Irakoze Donasiyano and Nathaniel Crofts. Last year the pair combined for 10 goals — seven of which were recorded as gamewinners —  and nine assists.

Aside from Crofts and Donasiyano, senior forward Spencer Patton and sophomore forward Axel Gunnarsson are likely to start games after both appearing in every game last year and combining for six goals. With the loss of Dike, it will be a true team effort for Virginia to replace his 10 goals from the 2019 campaign. 

Despite adding a strong incoming class of eight freshmen and five transfers, it appears that especially the younger additions will see limited action this year.

“A few may take a little time to develop, but overall we’re really pleased with the guys that we’ve spent a lot of time on to bring in to replace [last year’s departures],” Gelnovatch said.

The Cavaliers will open exhibition play Friday at 7 p.m. against Clemson at Klockner Stadium. Attendance will be limited to the families of the student-athletes and coaching staff.

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