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Men’s soccer looks to bounce back after challenging 2020-21 season

The Cavaliers struggled with COVID-19 and injury issues last season and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 40 years

<p>After falling short of the NCAA tournament last year, the Cavaliers have come back with a vengeance, winning their first two games of the season.&nbsp;</p>

After falling short of the NCAA tournament last year, the Cavaliers have come back with a vengeance, winning their first two games of the season. 

The 2020-2021 season was a challenging year for the Virginia men’s soccer team. With the losses of stars such as Daryl Dike, Henry Kessler and Joe Bell to the professional ranks, the Cavaliers were always expected to take a step back after nearly winning the national championship in 2019.

However, the Cavaliers were crushed by a rash of injuries and COVID-19 issues, and they faltered to a 7-8-1 record over the fall and spring seasons. As a result, the team missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980, ending the longest active streak of consecutive postseason appearances in men’s soccer.

Virginia finished the fall portion of its season with a 3-4-1 record and a loss to Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. During the offseason, the Cavaliers lost midfielder Bret Halsey, goalkeeper Colin Shutler and forward Nathaniel Crofts to the MLS.

Despite the losses, Virginia opened up the spring portion of its season with a 4-1-0 record to improve to 7-5-1 overall. However, the team dropped its final three games of the season to finish with a losing record and ultimately miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

“We were asking a lot of the group, in particular with all the injuries we had,” Coach George Gelnovatch said. “Asking those guys to do what they had to do was really, really tough, but through it all there were some guys that we really thought developed that will definitely be foundational players for us moving forward.”

The Cavaliers expect to face more roster turnover this season, as they bring in 12 new players to an extremely young team with 21 underclassmen — 11 of which are true freshmen.

Virginia will have a new goalkeeper this year after losing both Shutler and Alex Rando to the professional ranks. Sophomore Holden Brown did not see any game action last year but is expected to start in net after playing a majority of that position during the team’s preseason matches. Sophomores Antonio Rodriguez and Scott Williams may also see some time in goal.

The Cavaliers’ defense will be led by junior defender Andreas Ueland. The Norwegian center back was a third-team All-ACC selection last season and played nearly every minute of the 13 games he appeared in. Ueland missed the team’s last three games after suffering an ankle sprain, but is back healthy and played all 90 minutes in the team’s most recent exhibition match. Furthermore, Ueland had a strong performance in Virginia’s last game against High Point, where he converted two penalty kicks to catapult the Cavaliers to a 2-0 win over the Panthers.

Senior defender Oliver Gerbig will also play a key role in the Cavaliers’ defense. Gerbig started 15 games last season and tallied the second-most minutes on the team. Junior defender William Citron started five games for the Cavaliers last season and could have an expanded role in 2021.

Up front, the Cavaliers will be looking for someone to emerge as a consistent goal threat. Junior forward/midfielder Kevin Ogudugu was the team’s joint top scorer last season with three goals. Sophomore forward Leo Alfonso has impressed in the preseason with four goals in two matches and could be a key offensive threat for the Cavaliers this season. Junior forward/midfielder Nick Berghold and junior forward Philip Horton are also expected to see big minutes for Virginia this season.

Virginia enters the season unranked, but it received the second-most votes of teams not ranked in the Top-25. The Cavaliers will face stiff competition in the ACC this season, as Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson, North Carolina and Pittsburgh are all ranked inside the Top 15.

The Cavaliers had two victories in two exhibition matches, notching 2-1 and 4-1 victories over Longwood and Radford, respectively. Furthermore, Virginia has had a solid start to the season, downing Western Michigan and High Point by a combined score of 4-1, but falling to No. 11 Maryland 2-1 in the “Battle for the DMV”.

It will be a transitional year for the Cavaliers as they continue to rebuild after losing the core of the 2019 team. However, with key players now healthy and a more normal season ahead, the Cavaliers will be expected to make a return to the NCAA Tournament after a rare absence a season ago.

Up next for the Cavaliers is a Friday night bout with Syracuse. Kick-off in Charlottesville is set for 7 p.m.