Virginia men’s soccer and Coach George Gelnovatch had the opportunity to make history Friday night against Duke, as Gelnovatch entered the match just one win shy of 100 career Atlantic Coast Conference victories. Unfortunately for the visiting Cavaliers (3-2, 0-1 ACC), costly mistakes on the defensive side allowed the No. 10 Blue Devils (4-0-1, 1-0 ACC) to coast to a 2-0 victory at Koskinen Stadium in Durham, N.C.
“We made some mistakes tonight and they cost us,” Gelnovatch said. “I think we did a good job of keeping them out of dangerous areas and gave up three shots on goal, but it was those two mistakes that killed us.”
Gelnovatch made just one change from the team that took down Maryland Monday, inserting sophomore defender Parker Sloan for junior defender Paul Wiese on the right side. The start marked Sloan’s first for the Cavaliers, representing a big opportunity for the sophomore to make his presence felt in the Virginia backline.
Defending was going to be a challenge for the Cavaliers regardless of the opponent, but squaring off against an attacking juggernaut in Duke only added to the difficulties. The Blue Devils entered Friday ranked fourth in the country in goals per game and held ACC highs in goals, shots and shots on goal.
Virginia felt those difficulties right from the opening whistle Friday, as Duke applied swarming pressure in the opening stages. The Blue Devils’ efforts presented them with a pair of opportunities within the first seven minutes, but both shots – dispatched by graduate student midfielder Cameron Kerr and graduate student forward Forster Ajago – ended up off target.
The Cavaliers tried to grow into the game, but Duke proved too strong as the first half wore on. Blue Devils junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles forced an alert save from senior goalkeeper Holden Brown in the 12th minute before sophomore defender Kamran Acito rattled Virginia’s crossbar with a header soon after.
Minutes later, Duke was finally rewarded with a goal. Mesalles found himself in space on the left side of midfield and sent in a cross with freshman forward Ulfur Bjornsson the target. It looked like Brown would comfortably collect the ball out of the air, but unexpectedly, the senior was unable to come down with it.
Bjornsson pounced on his chance as the ball bounced down unattended, making enough contact with his right foot to send it into the net and give the Blue Devils a 1-0 advantage. Brown was visibly frustrated after the goal, as Virginia’s goalkeeper had set a high standard with his play during his three seasons as the starter.
The Cavaliers would have to regroup at halftime to try and work themselves back into the contest. It wasn’t all bad for the visitors – Virginia registered just one fewer shot than Duke in the opening 45 minutes, leaving hope that the Cavaliers could still mount a comeback.
But things only got worse when the teams returned for the final period of play. Virginia’s attack lost any sharpness it displayed in the first half, with the Cavaliers unable to string together any kind of promising play going forward. On the defensive side of things, the story was the same.
In the 61st minute, Virginia made yet another uncharacteristic mistake in defense that proved costly. A poor clearance from senior defender Aidan O’Connor gave Bjornsson possession high up the pitch. The freshman played a slicing pass through Virginia’s defense that found the feet of Mesalles, who calmly slotted his shot past Brown to double the Blue Devils’ advantage and all but seal the game.
The final 30 minutes of the match proved to be a similar story for the Cavaliers, who were held in check by Duke’s defense a little too comfortably. When the referee blew the final whistle, Virginia had failed to register a single shot in the second half.
Losing a conference opener to a bitter rival will leave the Cavaliers with a sore taste in their mouth, but the disappointment won’t end there. Being shutout is uncharted territory for Virginia, who entered Friday having scored at least one goal in each of its last 12 matches. The Blue Devils seem to have their number in defense, as the Cavaliers have failed to score in two consecutive contests against Duke.
But the problems in the backline may be even more worrying, as Virginia had allowed just one goal in the three games started by Brown before Friday. As Gelnovatch noted, the Cavaliers did well to keep the Blue Devils out of dangerous areas for much of the game, but that just made it all the more gutting when the visitors’ mistakes proved insurmountable.
“In the end this is a learning experience for us,” Gelnovatch said. “We will regroup and be ready to move forward on Tuesday.”
After the win over Maryland provided many with hope for 2023, this feels like a gloomy step back for Virginia. Moving forward, the Cavaliers will have to find a way to be more level headed at the back when top tier opposition stands across from them. With No. 8 James Madison next on the schedule, there isn’t much time for them to figure things out.
Virginia will travel to Sentara Park in Harrisonburg, Va. to take on the Dukes Tuesday. The game will kick off at 7 p.m. and is set to be streamed on ESPN+.