Looking for its first victory in almost two weeks, Virginia men’s soccer hosted NC State at Klöckner Stadium in an ACC clash Saturday night. With history on the line — Coach George Gelnovatch entered Saturday just one win shy of becoming the first coach in ACC history to win 100 conference games with one school — the Cavaliers (4-2-1, 1-1 ACC) delivered, handling the Wolfpack (4-3, 1-1 ACC) 3-1 to pick up their first ACC win of 2023.
When asked about the career-defining achievement, Gelnovatch emphasized the contributions from his team and the fans in creating a night to remember.
“It means a lot, but it means even more the way we did it today with the fans that we had and the quality goals,” Gelnovatch said. “100 wins in the ACC is hard. But tonight, the way the players did it and the way the fans support us makes it extra special.”
After senior forward and team captain Leo Afonso suffered an injury in the latter stages of Virginia's 1-1 draw Tuesday against James Madison, Gelnovatch was forced to move senior midfielder Mouhameth Thiam into the striker position Saturday. The role was an unorthodox one for Thiam, but he had shown plenty of attacking ability to justify the decision, as the senior entered Saturday with a goal and two assists in six games.
Despite the impactful loss of Afonso, the Cavaliers did not look devoid of skill in the attacking third early on. Shots from graduate midfielder Garrett Socas and sophomore midfielder Umberto Pela were each blocked by NC State defenders, but it was an effort from senior midfielder Daniel Mangarov in the 13th minute that represented Virginia’s best chance yet.
Managrov picked up the pieces of a loss in possession just outside the Wolfpack’s box and quickly let loose on a shot more than 20 yards from goal. The ball was twirling towards the top corner of NC State’s net with significant power, but freshman goalkeeper Ben Voase showed outstanding athleticism to tip the ball over the crossbar and keep the game square.
While Voase kept the Cavaliers quiet on that occasion, they soon found the answer. In the 28th minute, Mangarov played a slicing pass through the Wolfpack defense that found the feet of freshman forward Stephen Annor Gyamfi, who stood just a few yards from the net. Gyamfi remained composed and rolled his shot past Voase, giving Virginia a 1-0 lead and himself a team-high four goals on the year.
The chances kept coming for the Cavaliers, and sophomore midfielder Albin Gashi fired the Cavaliers into a two-goal advantage just eight minutes later. Virginia’s short corner made its way out to Gashi at the top of the box, who fizzed a left-footed strike into the bottom left corner to give the Cavaliers just their second multi-goal game this season.
Matching its largest halftime lead of the season, Virginia looked destined to coast to a historic win for Gelnovatch. The Cavaliers outshot the Wolfpack by a staggering 11-4 in the period, including a margin of 5-1 on target.
As the second half got underway, Virginia was less inclined to push numbers forward in attack. The Cavaliers continued to hold most of the possession in the game but were now more focused on keeping NC State off the scoreboard rather than trying to add more for themselves.
To that point, only two shots came in the opening 20 minutes of the second period, both from Virginia, whose possession-based strategy allowed them to hold the Wolfpack out of dangerous areas for several minutes at a time.
But almost in an instant, the game took a 180-degree turn as goals started to pour in again. Junior defender Paul Wiese and Gyamfi connected via a beautiful cross and header in the 69th minute, giving the freshman his second goal of the game and the game-clinching third for the Cavaliers.
“We created a lot of chances today,” Gelnovatch said. “For me, we wanted to get that third goal and then with the third goal, it felt like the roof was starting to cave in.”
However, NC State found a surprise goal by way of junior forward Luke Hille only 35 seconds later. The Wolfpack moved forward straight from kickoff after Gyamfi’s goal, cutting through Virginia for virtually the first time all night. A couple of deflections pushed the ball into Hille’s path 10 yards from the net, and the junior dispatched a right-footed effort past senior goalkeeper Holden Brown to trim the deficit back to two.
“Unfortunately, we gave a quick one back to them,” Gelnovatch said. “But I still think even when they scored, we had control of the game. We scored three goals in an ACC game and that’s not easy to do.”
In a relieving development for the Cavaliers, the second half’s final 20 minutes reverted back to how its first 20 were played. Virginia held NC State to only one shot during that time frame, seeing out the remainder of the game confidently. The win was a necessary one for the Cavaliers, who could not afford to drop to 0-2 in conference play with their next two ACC games coming against No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 5 Louisville.
In addition to the positive result, Virginia showed a level of sharpness in attack that it had not all season. The Cavaliers provided promise to many in that regard, scoring three goals for the first time all season and coming away unlucky not to have scored more. Considering such a performance came without Afonso, Virginia’s offensive ceiling — now spearheaded by a blossoming Gyamfi — is even higher than what it showed Saturday night.
The Cavaliers will look to prove that Friday when they travel to South Bend, Ind. to take on the Fighting Irish in yet another conference clash. The game will kick off at 7 p.m. and can be streamed on ACC Network.