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BACICA: The state of Virginia men’s soccer

A detailed look into the Cavaliers’ decline after the 2019 championship game, and the expectations for the rest of this season

<p>Currently, 20 players on Virginia's 30-man roster are underclassmen.</p>

Currently, 20 players on Virginia's 30-man roster are underclassmen.

Virginia got its third win of the season Tuesday night — a 3-1 victory against VCU. For most years this would be just business as usual, with another non-conference win to add to the books. The thing is, it took Virginia nine games to get that third win, and right now the team sits at 3-6-1 after a frustrating loss to Notre Dame on Oct.1. To add insult to injury, Virginia is winless in the ACC this season and hasn’t won an extra time match since March against Notre Dame.

As a historically elite soccer program, consecutive losing seasons now appears to be a reality for Coach George Geinovatch’s program.

In order to figure out Virginia’s woes, let's rewind the clock. It is now Dec. 15, 2019 — COVID-19 has not fully surfaced yet, “Old Town Road” is one of the most popular songs in the country and Virginia is one game away from winning the national championship. The matchup was against Georgetown — the current No. 1 team in the nation — and it would become an instant classic for men’s national championships in the sport. 

After 90 minutes of regular play and two overtime periods, the match was still knotted up 3-3. A thrilling penalty shootout would play out, with both teams tallying six successful kicks. In Virginia’s seventh attempt, however, the Hoyas’ goalkeeper blocked then-freshman forward Axel Gunnarsson’s attempt to the left side — ending the Cavaliers’ incredible run in devastating fashion.

This was a heartbreaking loss, but there appeared to be hope as Virginia had gone 21-2-1 that season. There was great reason to believe that the Cavaliers could find themselves back into a title race in the near future. 

So what made Virginia plummet to mediocrity?

For starters, Virginia’s roster that played Georgetown is significantly different from its current roster. The championship team saw four players move on and sign Generation Adidas contracts, while two other players went on to sign MLS contracts — one of them being Daryl Dike, who played on the U.S. National Team over the summer. 

That drop in talent left a large void in a team looking to maintain its confidence and conviction  going into the next year. The fact that these vacancies have been filled by young, collegiately inexperienced players is undoubtedly a factor in the team’s struggles. 

Last year, 13 of the 28 players on the roster were freshmen and, subsequently, the Cavaliers missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1980. That 39-year run was the longest in the history of the sport. 

Another element that impacted everyone in sports, but especially the freshman athletes, was COVID-19. With COVID-19 social distancing, it was harder for freshmen athletes to forge relationships and connections with their new teammates. 

“It was tough to get to know the new guys on the team … you can’t really create those relationships you want to,” junior defender Andreas Ueland said.

As a member of the championship contending team in 2019, Ueland is one of the older players who bear the responsibility of establishing the chemistry and trust that makes teams great.

Chemistry is a vital component of any team’s chances at success in sports. As this season reflects a more normal one than last, the Cavaliers now have the chance to build these relationships Ueland alluded to, while also giving the sophomores more time to develop. 

Expectations for Virginia should not be held at the high level they have been in previous years, and that’s okay. It is also not impossible for the Cavaliers to start winning more games later in the season as the team matures and learns to play together.

Virginia is too good of a program to undergo a rebuild, so consider this a reboot with many deep playoff runs and winning seasons on the horizon.

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