Senior midfielder Mouhameth Thiam was not sure how his decision to transfer across the country from Oregon State to Virginia would go. But as soon as he met the men’s soccer team, he knew he had found a home in Charlottesville.
“It has been great so far,” Thiam said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “The coaching staff did a great job welcoming me and making sure I was part of the community.”
Coach George Gelnovatch — returning for his 28th season as the head coach of the Virginia men’s soccer program — was happy to love the senior from Dakar. In fact, when Thiam signed as part of a 13-man recruiting class in June, Gelnovatch mentioned how a couple of players could push them over the edge.
“We were a top-four overall seed last year and we bring back a strong contingent of that squad,” Gelnovatch said. “We certainly had a few positions that we needed to replace and reinforce.”
Given that Thiam is one of only two players from the class to play in all 10 games this season, the Oregon State transfer is likely one of those pieces that can serve as the tipping point for the Cavaliers.
Thiam arrived at Virginia after three seasons with the Beavers (5-3-1, 2-0-1, Pac-12), where in 48 games across 3 seasons he amassed an impressive 15 goals and 13 assists. He also most notably led Oregon State to a Pac-12 title and Elite Eight appearance as the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2021.
After transferring, Thiam has instantly become a crowd-favorite and the main attraction in the Cavaliers set up by way of his electric pace, dynamism, mesmerizing footwork and slashing vertical dribbles. These distinct skills of Thiam’s allow the Cavaliers to play a short, quick passing style — known as tiki-taka — to exploit the compact defenses of college soccer.
As far as Thiam’s usage on the pitch, Gelnovatch continues his dedication to a sweeping passing style, favoring possession and precision. This has led to a series of strong starts to the Cavaliers’ matches, dominating the ball and pinning the opposition back in their own third.
But this year, Virginia has found the majority of its offensive success from devastating counterattacks and longer balls over the defenders, initiated by its high press system forcing mistakes when out of possession. In fact, despite hogging the ball for large stretches of the match, Virginia proves most lethal off the ball.
These types of games — where possession is not translating into goals — is where the talents of Thiam will be decisive. Gelnovatch commented on Thiam’s ability to change the game after the Cavaliers’ hard-fought 1-0 victory against East Tennessee State.
“[Thiam] can wiggle with the ball and break lines by himself,” Gelnovatch said. “We don’t need two or three passes to break their lines. He’s a guy by himself that can do it.”
Through his first few games with the Cavaliers, Thiam has appreciated how Gelnovatch has placed him on the field. Because of the role he plays in Virginia’s offense, the midfielder often has free reign to become creative with his play.
“He put a lot of trust in me and gave me the freedom to operate in free spaces between the lines,” Thiam said.
One example came in the opening match, where in the second half of Virginia’s 1-0 victory over Iona Thiam’s darting run saw a quick pass send him through on goal. He then played an unselfish ball which was narrowly missed by senior midfielder Daniel Mangarov. Mangarov would later send a blistering effort off the inside of the post, winning the Cavaliers their opening match. Gelnovatch then realized he had something special in Thiam.
“[Thiam’s] got a little bit of X-factor to him,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s a real, real good player for us.”
Hailing from Dakar, Senegal, it is clear that Thiam has brought with him a unique and joyful passion for the game. He attributed his up-tempo style of play to the competition in the soccer academies in Senegal, where players would push the envelope when it came to what was legal on the pitch.
“I tend to bring the aggressiveness when playing because at home people tend to be honest,” Thiam said. “Like rules and boundaries and respect to the game. And I’m looking to be careful with that.”
This aggressiveness gives him a competitive advantage over any opposing defender but has also got him into a bit of trouble as of late. In the first half of the Cavaliers’ victory over East Tennessee, Thiam received a yellow card for a brave aerial challenge and then toed the line, narrowly avoiding being shown a red card after a series of physical plays. Gelnovatch acknowledged his risky play in the post-game press conference.
“Today he got himself in a little trouble with the cards and that’s why I took him out,” Gelnovatch said, referring to his extended break on the bench. “He was this close to getting a second yellow card because he was so emotional.”
Mo attributes this aggressiveness to his innate “will to win” imparted on him by coaches and teammates in his early career.
“Growing up I went to one of the best academies in Africa and we had great coaches up there,” Thiam said. “So, I am trying to be a winner everywhere I go.”
While Thiam starts on the flanks under Gelnovatch’s system, his role as an inverted winger allows him to drift both centrally and deep. From here, his goal is to cause general havoc towards defenses, using his lightning feet and precise passes to find holes in the opposition that can be exploited.
In Virginia’s fixture with Maryland, Coach Gelnovatch’s high press strategy paid off for the relentless Thiam. After robbing Maryland’s center back of the ball, Thiam surged towards goal, beating the trailing defender and placing an expert finish in the side netting, giving the Terrapins goalkeeper no chance. This goal would prove the winner in a tightly contested game in which senior goalkeeper Holden Brown athletically parried Maryland freshman forward Luke van Heukelum’s missed penalty — a moment that would prove decisive in Virginia’s victory.
Thiam has shown potential throughout the year to make a large impact on both Virginia’s chances of winning and his potential professional opportunities, which are his ultimate goal.
“I know I have to work hard and improve myself as a player because I want to make it to the next level,” Thiam said. “ And I think the coaching staff is doing a great job trying to help me have that, so I can't wait for the next step.”
It’s no secret that a 6-3-1 record is not what Virginia fans were hoping for in a season hyped with potential. But this Cavalier team was always going to take time to gel, especially when infusing talent like Thiam onto the squad. Looking forward to the rest of the season, there is a lot to be excited about for Virginia fans — Thiam will be at the heart of any and all successes without doubt.