For the first three matches of the Virginia men’s soccer season, fans and critics alike were skeptical of the team’s ceiling, as two unconvincing wins against mid-major schools and a 3-1 loss to No. 24 Loyola Marymount did not inspire confidence. But a victory against a nationally ranked, border state rival shows everyone how the Cavaliers truly have the ability to compete at the highest level of the sport.
Every squad experiences some sort of growing pains at the start of the season, but great teams rise to the top when they play other great teams. In the Cavaliers’ 2-1 victory over No. 20 Maryland, they did that and then some.
Of course, the main source of worry for any Virginia men’s soccer fan will stem from the Cavaliers’ loss to the Lions Aug. 27. Virginia — then ranked No. 15 in the country – was outplayed on its home field by a Lions team who had won just one of their last seven games entering the contest. To make matters worse, Loyola Marymount still remains winless outside of Klöckner Stadium this season.
Although the Cavaliers could not brush off the loss as bad luck — the Lions held the lead from the second minute until the final whistle and outshot Virginia 12-5 in the second half — the game should go down as an outlier during an otherwise promising season.
The Cavaliers have given no reason for anyone to fret about their defensive abilities going forward, having conceded just one goal in their other three games to date. Noticeably, those three games are the ones that senior goalkeeper Holden Brown and senior defender Will Citron — each named team captains before the season — have started.
Brown and Citron were both benched for the match against Loyola Marymount, perhaps a decision made by Coach George Gelnovatch with the idea of giving key players a rest as more important games loomed. Whatever the reason, the duo’s absence was clearly felt by Virginia’s defense, who conceded three goals in a game for the first time in 19 matches.
When Brown and Citron both start for the Cavaliers, they’ve been lights out — in three games, they picked up three wins and managed two shutouts. Most recently, Virginia took down Maryland behind a heroic 59th-minute penalty save by Brown, a stop that kept the Cavaliers in front and ultimately proved to be the deciding factor in the signature win.
Clearly, Virginia is a better soccer team when it has its senior leaders and defensive backbone in place. But there’s more reason to believe that the Cavaliers’ current body of work bodes well for the future.
That is because an eerily similar story played out for Virginia in 2022. The Cavaliers won two of their first four games last season, conceding seven total goals — all but one of them came in a 6-1 loss to the Terrapins. That defeat quickly became known as an inflection point for Virginia, who went on to allow only 13 goals in its final 15 games. The Cavaliers returned almost all of their defenders — including Brown and Citron — from that team that bounced back so heavily.
Virginia is evidently no stranger to an early-season punch in the mouth. Following both the 2022 loss to Maryland and the recent defeat to Loyola Marymount, Gelnovatch emphasized that his team would learn from its disappointment. The Cavaliers did so in an overwhelming way last season, and with near-identical personnel this year, there is not much in their way of embarking on that same trajectory.
The other key concern that has cast doubt upon Virginia’s season has been its inability to make use of goalscoring opportunities. The Cavaliers have had no problem creating those opportunities, out-shooting their opponents by a gaping 65-38 to this point. However, Virginia has converted on just 7.7 percent of its shots this season, a number that’s down significantly from the 12.6 percent mark they achieved in 2022.
While the lack of finishing ability in attack should cause some distress for Virginia fans, they can expect that to balance out across the next couple of months. The Cavaliers have hit the post or come inches from rippling the net more times than most could imagine this season. The law of averages says that simply cannot continue, and Virginia’s attackers will only get more comfortable playing together as the games pass.
If the win over Maryland was not enough to convince the masses of Virginia’s deserved presence among the country’s finest, the next couple of weeks will do plenty to turn more heads. The Cavaliers will have their strongest 11 players on the field in every game from this point on, and with slightly more good fortune in the final third soon to come, Virginia can absolutely work itself deep into conference and national tournaments come winter time.