Virginia men’s soccer completes their regular season this Friday against North Carolina on the road for a shot at the first seed in the ACC tournament. After a last-place finish in the ACC Coastal Division in the 2021 season, with an overall record of 6-9-3, the Cavaliers (9-4-2, 5-1-1 ACC) have transformed into a National Championship contender. So what has worked for Virginia this season, and what can be improved as it gears up for postseason play in November?
Coming into this season, one of the main headlines was the Cavaliers' incoming recruiting class who have exceeded expectations so far. Freshman defender Reese Miller, who has started the majority of games at right wingback and proved to be an essential part of the Virginia attack, has had one goal this season. Up front, freshman forwards Triton Beauvois and Andy Sullins have provided excellent depth for the Cavaliers' attack and have shown optimism for what the future holds. Beauvois has two goals and an assist this season and Sullins has one goal this season. Sullins' lone goal served as the opener in a crucial 2-0 win over American, while Beauvois' second goal of the season was the game-winner against No. 18 Clemson to give the Cavaliers a major road win.
Beyond the newcomers, the Virginia attack has come alive this season as it currently ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring offense — producing 1.87 goals per game — and third in the ACC in shots per game. The Cavaliers' attack is led by junior forward Leo Afonso, who leads the team in points with 15 — six goals and three assists. Afonso is backed by junior forward Philip Horton with five goals and three assists and sophomore forward Kome Ubogu with six goals. Earlier in the season, Horton won National Player of the Week for his two goals and an assist against a ranked Pittsburgh team on the road. Horton’s form has not faltered as he picked up a key assist to Afonso to produce a 1-0 win over Wake Forest in their penultimate game of the season. These three will need to produce if the Cavaliers want to make any run this postseason.
With Virginia humming on offense, the defense has also stepped up in a major way this year with junior goalkeeper Holden Brown leading the way. Last season, Brown was a stand out for the Cavaliers, leading the ACC with 86 saves and 4.78 saves per game. This season, Brown has continued his excellent form, producing seven shutouts, which is second in the ACC and seventh in the NCAA. It is safe to say that Brown has made the net his own and is already at the top of his game going into the postseason, having produced three key saves in a 1-0 win over Wake Forest, a team that is second in the NCAA in goals this season. In the 2019 National Championship against Georgetown, the Cavaliers conceded all seven penalty kicks in the penalty shootout which saw their National Championship hopes slip away. Now with Brown in net, Virginia stands a much better chance.
Among field players, headlining the backline is senior defender Andrea Ueland. Ueland has served as the backbone of this Virginia team throughout the season. A few weeks ago, Ueland was awarded ACC Defensive player of the Week for his performances against Syracuse and American with both games ending in shutouts. Ueland has been elegant with his slide tackles, stealing golden chances from teams, as well as anchoring the backline with his years of experience.
Perhaps what has defined Virginia in 2022 is its success against elite opposition. The Cavaliers are 4-2-1 against top-25 opponents this season, which has been monumental to their success. Additionally, Virginia is 3-0 on the road against Top 25 opponents, demonstrating their mental toughness and ability to deliver when the lights are at their brightest. The Cavaliers have shown they can beat anyone and that they are capable of going on a playoff run — it is just a matter of not enduring any slumps.
The lone problem for Virginia this season has been consistency. There have been stretches where the Cavaliers have delivered big, but then have failed to pick up results when they have been expected. An example of this is the 1-1 draw recently against Hofstra, Virginia was hot off a 2-1 road win against No. 18 Clemson, but then could only find a draw against an unranked Hofstra team. The postseason is long and one bad night will spell the end of championship aspirations if they cannot deliver on a consistent basis.
The Cavaliers have one more shot to cement themselves as contenders Friday on the road against North Carolina before beginning ACC tournament play Wednesday. Depending on the results of the ACC tournament, if Virginia makes the NCAA tournament, that will begin Nov 17.