Virginia men’s soccer returned to action Sunday in Klöckner Stadium for a matchup against Indiana in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. The No. 11 Cavaliers (11-4-4, 5-2-1 ACC) conceded an early goal in a 1-0 defeat to the Hoosiers (15-4-4, 4-2-2 Big Ten), who extended their winning run to eight games and ended Virginia’s 2023 campaign in the process.
Coach George Gelnovatch was full of praise for Indiana following the Cavaliers’ loss Sunday, recognizing the quality of the opponent his team was up against.
“They are dynamic,” Gelnovatch said. “They came out and pressed, pressed, pressed and were full of energy and were rewarded with a goal … To their credit, they were able to hold on in the second half. I don’t know how else to say it. They did a good job to close it up and hold on.”
Gelnovatch made a quartet of changes from the team that defeated FIU 2-1 in the second round Nov. 19, including the insertion of senior forward Leo Afonso up top in place of freshman forward Stephen Annor Gyamfi. Afonso, who has been working back from injury over the last couple of weeks, earned himself a spot in the starting 11 off the back of his two-goal performance against the Panthers.
Despite the injection of fresh legs, it was the visitors who struck first. After Virginia failed to capitalize on a pair of early chances that fell to sophomore midfielder Albin Gashi and senior midfielder Mouhameth Thiam, Indiana took advantage of its first opportunity of the game in the 11th minute.
Senior forward Maouloune Goumballe picked up the ball on the left side of the pitch and sprinted at a flat-footed Cavaliers defensive unit, who watched Goumballe coast into the box and lay a pinpoint pass onto the feet of freshman forward Collins Oduro. The freshman used only one touch to arrow the ball beyond junior goalkeeper Joey Batrouni and give Indiana a crucial one-goal advantage.
Virginia tried to regain their footing in the game’s next passage, but the Hoosiers remained the team in control as the first half pushed on. The visitors held the Cavaliers without another shot until the 35th minute while registering five of its own in the same span. Thankfully for Virginia, only such an attempt tested Batrouni, and the junior had no problem dealing with Goumballe’s 20th-minute strike.
The opening period concluded with the Cavaliers a goal down, as Gelnovatch’s team registered only four shots. Virginia was undoubtedly second best for the first 45 minutes and would need a significant turn in fortune to flip the script.
As the teams returned for the second half, both Afonso and Gyamfi emerged from the tunnel and onto the pitch to lead the line together. Gelnovatch made it clear which half of the field he wanted the game to be played in, and although the decision came with risks in the midfield and backline, it looked to be working in the early portion of the second period.
In the 47th minute, graduate student forward Elias Norris fashioned the Cavaliers their first shot on target in the match. Norris’ strike fell safely into the hands of senior goalkeeper JT Harms, but it was an improvement nonetheless for Virginia.
The Cavaliers continued to pressure Indiana in the ensuing minutes, and it was Gyamfi at the forefront for Virginia. The freshman found himself in a golden position in the box in the 62nd minute, flicking a header goalwards just yards from the net. Gyamfi’s effort beat Harms, but the ball was cleared off the line by a Hoosiers defender mere moments before it crossed over.
Despite being denied an equalizer in agonizing fashion, Gyamfi kept pushing and worked himself into another dangerous area in the 69th minute. Unfortunately, it was the same result for the Cavaliers, who watched Gyamfi’s blast from inside the box get cleared away by an Indiana defender yet again.
With time dwindling in the game and in its season, Virginia entered its most crucial 20 minutes of 2023 still in need of a goal. Despite numerous attacking substitutions and a clear motive to get level, the breakthrough never came for the hosts. The Cavaliers registered only one shot in the final 20 minutes of the match, as the Hoosiers’ stout defensive display earned them a clean sheet and a spot in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament.
It was a lack of quality in the final third – a problem that looked like it had been fixed after early season attacking troubles — that ultimately did Virginia in. Holding an opponent to just one goal is typically a recipe for success, especially when playing at home like the Cavaliers were Sunday. Factoring in the quality of chances Virginia created on multiple occasions, the Cavaliers will be left with heads in hands as to how they aren’t moving on to the quarterfinals.
The defeat also marks the second consecutive season Virginia has been upset by an unseeded opponent in the NCAA Tournament, leading from the 2022 loss on penalties to Marshall in the second round when the Cavaliers were seeded No. 4 in the tournament.
Although Virginia’s overall youth should provide promise to its fans about coming seasons, seven of the 15 players who featured for the Cavaliers Sunday are seniors or graduate students. Additionally, key players like senior goalkeeper Holden Brown and senior defender Aidan O’Connor — a duo that did not play Sunday due to injury — will have decisions to make about their eligibility for 2024.
Nonetheless, Gelnovatch reflected with plenty of pride about what his squad has accomplished in recent seasons, as well as confidence about what’s to come.
“Last season, we were a top four seed and in my 28 years, we’ve done that maybe four or five times,” Gelnovatch said. “So these past two seasons we’ve been a top four seed and a top seven seed, so we have moved in a pretty good way that way. That’s a pretty good foundation moving forward to set us up for next year.”
Virginia tends to find success under Gelnovatch, and while that should be expected to continue, all parties involved know just how big of an opportunity the 2023 team had for hardware.