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No. 9 men’s soccer eliminated from ACC Tournament by No. 22 Syracuse

The Cavaliers scored first, but couldn’t keep the Orange quiet long enough

<p>The Cavaliers failed to convert a pair of shots from the penalty spot in their defeat Sunday</p>

The Cavaliers failed to convert a pair of shots from the penalty spot in their defeat Sunday

Sunday afternoon brought revenge to the minds of Virginia men’s soccer, who hosted the ACC Quarterfinals against Syracuse — the team that eliminated the No. 9 Cavaliers (10-4-5, 5-1-2 ACC) in the ACC Semifinals in 2022 — at Klöckner Stadium in Charlottesville. Though Virginia never trailed in the match, the No. 22 Orange (8-3-7, 2-1-5 ACC) used a late goal to send the game into overtime before besting the Cavaliers 4-3 on penalty kicks.

Coach George Gelnovatch was expectedly frustrated after being sent home from the ACC Tournament by Syracuse for the second season running.

“We were up a goal today, and we have been pretty good at closing out games down the stretch,” Gelnovatch said. “In terms of them tying it, that got away from us … I think the crowd saw an entertaining game and we just came up on the short end of it.”

Although Syracuse outshot Virginia 24-9 on the day, including 14 shots on goal to just 2 for the Cavaliers, a standout 13-save performance from junior goalkeeper Joey Batrouni assured Virginia remained in the game throughout. The mark is by far a career high for Batrouni and comes just one shy of the Cavaliers’ single-game saves record. 

The junior was first tested in the fifth minute, and he had no problem scooping up an effort from senior midfielder Jeorgio Kocevski. Virginia proceeded to control the game’s next 20 minutes, as impressive attacking linkup provided sophomore defender Reese Miller and junior defender Paul Wiese with shooting opportunities.

Miller was played into the box by an incisive through pass from junior defender Austin Rome in the eighth minute, but the sophomore’s shot was well blocked by the Orange. Later in the 25th minute, a creative give-and-go between Wiese and senior midfielder Mouhameth Thiam provided Wiese a clear-cut chance in front of goal, but the defender flashed his effort over the crossbar.

Syracuse quickly turned the momentum around for the remainder of the half, as the Orange took the final six shots of the period. Luckily for Virginia, Batrouni was alert on each occasion, making a pair of saves just 14 seconds apart in the 30th minute and forcing several Syracuse players into difficult shooting angles.

The first half ended all square between the ACC foes, with both teams having plenty of reason to believe they could find a goal in the final 45 minutes. To the delight of all Cavaliers fans inside Klöckner Stadium, Virginia proved to have more of that belief when the teams emerged for the second half. 

In the 51st minute, a long ball into the box from senior defender Aidan O’Connor was expertly brought down by senior forward Leo Afonso. Appearing in his first match since Oct. 22, Afonso exchanged passes with senior defender Will Citron before calmly slotting a shot over the top of the Orange’s sophomore goalkeeper Jahiem Wickham and into the back of the net.

The goal was Afonso’s first in over two months, and he celebrated like it. The senior was accompanied by several teammates as he sprinted to the right corner flag to revel in the Cavaliers’ 1-0 advantage. 

Virginia immediately switched to a more defensive-minded strategy after opening the scoring, as Gelnovatch poured all his resources into protecting the Cavaliers’ fragile lead. The approach worked in principle for the next half hour of action, but Syracuse looked threatening throughout.

The Orange piled the pressure onto Virginia, producing eight shots, five shots on goal and three corners in the 30 minutes following Afonso’s goal. Batrouni made all five saves he was required to, but a potent Syracuse attacking display in the 84th minute proved too much for the goalkeeper to handle. 

Inside of the Cavaliers’ defensive box, junior midfielder Mateo Leveque chested down a looping pass from senior midfielder Lorenzo Boselli. Leveque needed only one more touch to set himself up with space to shoot, and the midfielder promptly rolled his effort past Batrouni to equalize the score for the Orange.

The game entered overtime knotted up at 1-1, and it remained as such when the buzzer sounded on the second and final 10-minute overtime period. Penalty kicks would decide who advanced to the semifinals.

The penalty shootout began perfectly for Virginia, who converted its first two spot kicks with a huge Batrouni save coming in between. The Cavaliers led 2-1 heading into the third set of penalties. 

Although Virginia started strong, a skied penalty by O’Connor and a blast off the post from Thiam put Syracuse in the driver's seat. With the score knotted at three, graduate forward Daniel Diaz Bonilla stepped up with a chance to send the Orange into the next round.

Bonilla proved too composed for Virginia, lifting his right-footed spot kick over a diving Batrouni to break the deadlock once and for all. Syracuse players and coaches alike stormed onto the pitch to celebrate as the Cavaliers walked the other way.

Gelnovatch reflected on a gutting defeat for Virginia, emphasizing that all the elements were there for the Cavaliers to come away with a victory Sunday.

“All you can ask from your goalkeeper in a penalty shootout is to make one save and we have to execute our penalties,” Gelnovatch said. “We didn’t today and that’s disappointing.”

Penalty kicks appear to be Virginia’s kryptonite. The Cavaliers’ last three postseason matches have ended in defeats by way of penalty shootouts, as Virginia fell in identical fashion to Syracuse in last season’s ACC Tournament before being eliminated from the NCAA Tournament on penalty kicks by Marshall less than two weeks later.

With the 2023 NCAA Tournament looming later this month, the Cavaliers should expect to be right back in the position they were Sunday. Virginia’s performance from the penalty spot may prove to be all the difference between a first-round exit and a deep run into December. 

Although the afternoon ended negatively, there is one positive for the Cavaliers — they will have 11 days of rest before the NCAA Tournament begins Nov. 16. With fresh legs and a potential home game to open up the tournament, Virginia still has a chance to make 2023 a successful season.


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