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Men’s soccer falls to Clemson late in ACC Tournament semifinal, 2-1

After tying the game up in the second half, Virginia’s postseason run came to an end in heartbreaking fashion

<p>Sophomore forward Axel Gunnarsson was almost the hero for the Cavaliers before a late penalty kick lifted the Tigers to victory.</p>

Sophomore forward Axel Gunnarsson was almost the hero for the Cavaliers before a late penalty kick lifted the Tigers to victory.

Virginia failed to advance to the ACC Tournament championship match Wednesday night following a game-winning penalty kick goal by Clemson junior midfielder Luis Fernandez-Salvador in the 87th minute. The Cavaliers finished their season with a 3-4-1 record overall while No. 2 seed Clemson (7-2-1, 7-2-1 ACC) advanced to the championship game against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh. 

Following an upset win over Wake Forest in the quarterfinals, Virginia entered the game Wednesday looking to sustain its momentum after drawing a low seed in this year’s tournament. One of the biggest issues the Cavaliers faced all season was falling behind early in matches, and while the team hoped to be the aggressor in Wednesday’s match, Virginia found itself on the wrong side of the scoreboard early on.

Clemson took the offensive momentum quickly following the first whistle. After driving the ball and sustaining possessions deep in Virginia’s own territory, the Tigers scored in the 23rd minute to go up 1-0 on the Cavaliers. Junior forward Grayson Barber attracted a handful of Virginia defenders with a dribble drive towards the top of the defender’s box before dishing the ball over to senior forward Kimarni Smith. As Virginia’s senior goalkeeper Collin Shutter came up to stifle the scoring opportunity, Smith chipped the ball to the far side of the net for the game’s opening goal. 

While holding the offensive momentum, Clemson effectively kept Virginia from generating any of its own — the Cavaliers were only able to get off two shots in the first period, yet the defensive effort held Clemson from expanding on its lead for the rest of the first half..

The second half proved to be a much more balanced contest as both teams’ defenses stymied each other’s scoring efforts. Both squads found seldom opportunities at clear shots on goal as the match seemed to be heading to a decisive 1-0 Clemson victory.

However, the Cavaliers found their saving grace in the form of sophomore striker Axel Gunnarson. In the 85th minute, Gunnarson drove the ball to the far edge of the defender’s box, nearly to the edge of the playing field, while shrouded by a handful of Tiger defenders. The Sweden native fired a volley that soared over Clemson junior goalkeeper George Marks before finding the back of the net to give Virginia new life in the waning moments of the match that was now tied at 1-1 apiece.

As Virginia was gearing up for another match to enter overtime — a common theme for the Cavaliers as they have gone to overtime four times this season — Clemson was not quite ready to concede the victory. After resetting at center field, Clemson drove the ball into Virginia’s defense and drew a foul in the defender’s box, resulting in a penalty kick in the 87th minute.

Virginia sophomore midfielder Jeremy Verley was called for the foul on Smith and Clemson elected to have Fernandez-Salvador take the potential game-winning penalty kick. Fernandez-Salvador’s stutter step approaching the ball was just enough to momentarily freeze Shutter before Clemson’s star midfielder hit a low-flying strike to the far right side of the net that eluded Shutter’s outstretched arms.

After taking a 2-1 lead, Clemson hung on in the last three minutes to secure a ticket to the ACC tournament championship match against Pittsburgh, while Virginia’s 2020 season ended in heartbreaking fashion.

Coach George Gelnovatch held his head high after the disappointing end to the fall season.

“There are a lot of positives to take from this fall segment,” Gelnovatch said. “I think we made a lot of progress that will help us prepare for the spring championship segment.”

Despite falling in the ACC tournament semifinals, the Cavaliers still have a shot at the 2020 NCAA tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., which has been postponed to May 13-17, 2021.