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Assessing men’s soccer’s roller coaster season

While the Cavaliers saw highs and lows, the program fell short when it mattered most — again

<p>While the season saw a number of signature victories that Virginia fans have come to expect, the final result was lacking.</p>

While the season saw a number of signature victories that Virginia fans have come to expect, the final result was lacking.

Following a disappointing Sunday at Klöckner Stadium that saw Virginia men’s soccer upset in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the hands of unseeded Indiana, the Cavaliers’ (11-4-4, 5-2-1 ACC) season came to a close. Through a campaign filled with signature victories and puzzling defeats, Virginia will look back on 2023 with both pride and regret. While the program navigated untimely injuries and showed flashes of greatness — especially defensively — against top competition in the nation, fans may feel as if the Cavaliers underachieved based on the program’s sky-high standards and talented roster. Though it is not quite time to sound any alarms — most programs would be thrilled to be in Virginia’s position — back-to-back underwhelming postseason performances place pressure on Coach George Gelnovatch to deliver in 2024.

The Cavaliers began the season ranked No. 15 nationally and were picked to finish third in the ACC Coastal Division, behind only Duke and Pitt. Despite the lofty expectations placed upon Gelnovatch and company, Virginia struggled to get going as the season began.

The Cavaliers failed to convince viewers in any of their opening three games, all of which were played at Klöckner Stadium. Gelnovatch’s team scraped past a pair of mid-major schools with nervy 1-0 victories over Iona and George Mason, while a shocking 3-1 defeat to unranked Loyola Marymount Aug. 27 came in between.

Virginia produced 49 shots and 21 shots on target in that three-game stint, leaving fans wondering how they had only seen three hit the back of the net. Having retained several key players in the attacking and midfield positions from the 2022 team, the Cavaliers could not use a lack of chemistry as an excuse for their goal-scoring woes. 

Out of the top-25 entirely, the ensuing three weeks were to tell everyone a lot about Virginia’s makeup, as the Cavaliers prepared to take on four ranked opponents in an 18-day span. The period began brilliantly for Virginia, who produced its first multi-goal game of the campaign in a 2-1 win over No. 20 Maryland in the Battle for the DMV — highlighted by senior goalkeeper Holden Brown’s electric penalty kick save that preserved the Cavaliers’ thin lead.

With hopes for the Cavaliers that much higher, Virginia’s momentum wasn’t enough to topple No. 10 Duke four days later, as the Blue Devils handled the Cavaliers 2-0 in a match that never felt competitive. Virginia was held without a shot in the second half, bringing back concerns about the team’s attacking exploits and its overall ability to compete with the country’s top teams.

But just as goal-scoring worries reached their pinnacle, the arrival of freshman forward Stephen Annor Gyamfi washed them all away. The freshman leapt into the spotlight for the Cavaliers, scoring nine goals across Virginia’s next nine games. The Cavaliers lost just one match during that span, coming in a 3-1 defeat to the eventual ACC Coastal Division champions No. 15 Notre Dame.

Of Virginia’s five wins across those nine games, Gyamfi scored the winning goal in every match. The forward’s exploits included a pair of two-goal performances in September against NC State and Virginia Tech to lift the Cavaliers to key conference victories, as well as a goal each in yet more vital conference triumphs over No. 8 Louisville and No. 11 Pitt.

Even when Gyamfi’s red-hot streak came to a close in the final two fixtures of the regular season, Virginia rallied for a convincing 3-1 win against High Point — sparked by a brace from senior midfielder Axel Ahlander — and a memorable 1-0 victory over No. 10 North Carolina to close out its regular season slate Oct. 27. In both games, senior defender Aidan O’Connor dazzled on the back line, masterfully neutralizing offensive threats and negotiating one-on-one matchups with poise. O’Connor earned ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts.

Despite losing two of their first three ACC matches to begin the campaign, the Cavaliers’ storming conclusion to the season saw them surge into a top-10 national ranking, second place in the ACC Coastal Division and the No. 3 overall seed in the ACC Tournament. Approaching a quarterfinal date with No. 22 Syracuse at Klöckner Stadium on Nov. 5, Virginia had not lost a game in 44 days. 

Though that streak technically continued for the Cavaliers, it did not continue with pride. Virginia was upset by the Orange on penalty kicks despite leading the match for much of the second half. The defeat marked the second consecutive season the Cavaliers had been eliminated by Syracuse on penalties in the ACC Tournament, a troubling hump Virginia really should have gotten over in 2023.

Nonetheless, the NCAA Tournament came around and there was fresh life for the Cavaliers, who earned the No. 7 overall seed and a bye into the second round of the tournament. Virginia squeaked past Florida International 2-1 behind a heroic brace off the bench from senior forward Leo Afonso, and the Cavaliers had booked a spot in the third round for the first time since 2019. 

However, Virginia and its fans collectively expected more. The seven-seeded Cavaliers — now without a loss in 10 consecutive games — hosted Indiana Sunday at Klöckner Stadium in a match the home side was expected to control. Surprisingly, the Hoosiers scored early and never relinquished the lead to a stuttering Virginia side that looked wholly outmatched. 

The loss felt representative of Virginia’s shortcomings throughout the season. In a favorable matchup, the offense fell silent and a single goal deficit was insurmountable. While there are several highlights for the Cavaliers to smile at from 2023 — including Gyamfi’s double-digit goal haul, the emergence of junior goalkeeper Joey Batrouni after a season-ending injury for Brown and bitter rivalry wins over the Terrapins and the Hokies — Virginia’s overall season was a disappointment.

The Cavaliers scored just 28 goals in their 19 games, a mark that placed ninth out of 12 teams in the ACC. Only seven Virginia players found the back of the net in 2023, a far cry from the 2022 season in which 13 players did so. The Cavaliers’ defensive backbone did enough to keep them in almost every game, but in the end, the team’s failure to produce chances and goals rode them out of the postseason early. 

Following this season’s conclusion, Virginia has picked up just two combined wins in the ACC and NCAA Tournament in the last three seasons. The Cavaliers have failed to advance beyond the semifinal of the ACC Tournament or the third round of the NCAA Tournament in that period. It has now been nine years since the program’s last national title, the second-longest stretch without a College Cup for Virginia since its first came in 1989. With such high standards in place, this season’s results left much to be desired and questions to be asked regarding the trajectory of the program.

That may seem like an overreaction considering Virginia has holistically outperformed the majority of its conference and national competition over the last three seasons. But for a program like the Cavaliers have built — one that boasts 16 ACC Championships and seven national titles — the bar simply has to be higher.

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