The 80th season in Virginia men’s soccer history kicked off Thursday night in Charlottesville, as the No. 15 Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) battled to a 1-0 victory over Iona (0-1, 0-0 MAAC) in Klöckner Stadium. The Gaels fought hard throughout and looked like they may steal a draw late into the proceedings, but Virginia’s quality in attack — spearheaded by a heroic 70th-minute goal from senior midfielder Daniel Mangarov — ultimately proved to be too much.
In a game where the Cavaliers registered 24 shots — including 13 shots on target — it’s puzzling that they came away with only one goal to show for it. Coach George Gelnovatch sees room for improvement within his team despite the victory.
“We didn’t score the really good chances,” Gelnovatch said. “That would be my challenge to the team; we’re going to need to put those chances away.”
Virginia began the game in Gelnovatch’s perfected 3-5-2 formation, a setup that utilizes attack-minded outside defenders to provide width in the midfield, while also allowing for a strong defensive backbone created by a trio of center-backs. Gelnovatch gave three Cavaliers their debuts in blue and orange, as freshman forward Stephen Annor Gyamfi, graduate student forward Elias Norris and senior midfielder Mouhameth Thiam took the field in Klöckner Stadium for the first time in their careers.
As the match began, it was the Gaels who found their feet first. Virginia’s trouble to keep possession of the ball in the opening 10 minutes gave Iona several chances to pounce on opportunities high up the pitch. The visitors’ efforts culminated in an outside-the-box effort from freshman midfielder Jad Benjelloun that rolled a few feet left of the Cavaliers’ goalpost.
With its home fans looking for something to cheer for, Virginia began to deliver as the opening 15 minutes passed. Following a short corner in the 14th minute, Norris worked himself to the top of the box and found space to shoot, sending his kick off the hands of Iona goalkeeper Nacho Alfaro Monge.
Moments later, Virginia was back on the front foot yet again. Sophomore defender Reese Miller provided senior midfielder Axel Ahlander with an exceptional cross, but Ahlander’s header clanged off the outside of the right goalpost and bounced out of play. With pressure continuing to build on the Gaels, the Cavaliers were not letting up in their efforts for the game’s opening goal.
Although Virginia was controlling most of the possession in the match, that goal proved elusive throughout the remainder of the first period. Chances came and went for the likes of Miller, Ahlander, senior forward Leo Afonso and junior forward Michael Tsicoulias, but a combination of deflections, saves and off-target strikes kept the Cavaliers off the scoreboard.
When the referee called for halftime, Virginia had registered an eye-popping 12 shots to just one from Iona. Monge’s six saves were vital in keeping the Gaels square heading into the break, as the Cavaliers were still searching for answers on how to get it past Iona’s star between the sticks.
That answer was not any easier to find for Virginia in the second half’s first few passages. Creative play from Mangarov allowed sophomore forward Triton Beauvois and Tsicoulias a couple of nice looks at goal in the 46th minute. Still, again, Monge was there with his seventh and eighth stops of the game.
Mangarov was back in the box yet again in the 49th minute, and this time he had a golden opportunity for himself. After a cross from Thiam was deflected by Monge, the ball sat up perfectly for Mangarov in the center of the box just 10 yards from goal. With Monge away from the net, the senior failed to keep his effort on target, sending the ball a few feet over the crossbar and cueing plenty of audible devastation from Cavaliers fans in Klöckner.
The ensuing 20 minutes got less and less promising for the Cavaliers. Aside from a pair of deflected strikes from Thiam and a few dangerous crosses sent in by Virginia’s wingers, the hosts were struggling to pile any more pressure on Iona’s defense.
That was until the 70th minute when Mangarov changed everything with one swing of his foot. Following a cross from Miller that landed at the feet of Thiam inside the box, the senior transfer laid it off to Afonso in space. Thinking quickly, the Cavaliers’ captain executed a nifty backheel pass to Mangarov, who promptly rocketed a shot off the inside of the right goalpost and then into the back of the net to give the hosts a well-deserved advantage.
“It was an exciting moment,” Mangarov said. “I want to help the team as much as I can, and that goal meant everything to me.”
Virginia players surrounded Mangarov as Klöckner Stadium erupted, letting out a collective sigh of relief in the process. Mangarov’s shot was the Cavaliers’ 20th of the game and their first that made it past the outstretched fingertips of Monge.
“I can’t wait to watch that goal again,” Gelnovatch said. “Wonderful, wonderful goal.”
Now in desperate need of a goal themselves, the Gaels were forced to emerge from their defensive shell for the final 20 minutes of the fixture. The added numbers in attack did provide Iona with a few chances, but the Gaels could not produce anything more dangerous than a free kick blasted right at senior goalkeeper Holden Brown in the 85th minute.
The Cavaliers confidently saw out the remainder of the match to earn a season-opening victory. Still, they will need to execute more efficiently – especially in the attacking third, where shots will soon have to turn into goals in upcoming games.
“We still have a little bit of work to do,” Mangarov said. “It’s important that we keep our heads up.”
Mangarov and the Cavaliers will look to continue their flawless start to the season Sunday when Loyola Marymount visits Klöckner Stadium. The game is set for kickoff at 7 p.m. and will be streamed on ACC Network.