The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Hoos in the Pros: Men’s soccer edition

A look at some former Cavaliers making waves in professional soccer

<p>New England Revolution center back Henry Kessler made 52 appearances for the Cavaliers from 2017 to 2019.</p>

New England Revolution center back Henry Kessler made 52 appearances for the Cavaliers from 2017 to 2019.

Virginia men’s soccer is a storied powerhouse in college soccer, boasting a staggering seven NCAA Tournament titles. Much of the credit for this success must be attributed to the Cavaliers’ exemplary coaching staff led by the indomitable Coach George Gelnovatch, but it's the players Virginia fans have cheered for over the years that truly make the difference. Let's take a look at some familiar names currently lighting it up across the professional world.

Going Global

Europe has represented the pinnacle of soccer for decades, and that is where Daryl Dike — the former Cavalier forward who led Virginia all the way to the NCAA Championship game with a 10-goal, eight-assist season in 2019 — is currently making his mark.

Drafted fifth overall by Orlando City Soccer Club in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, Dike scored 19 goals in just 41 appearances for the Lions. The striker’s performances earned him a loan move to EFL Championship club Barnsley in 2021, where Dike would begin his European journey.

Dike scored nine goals in 19 games for the Tykes, catching the attention of the United States men’s national soccer team, where he achieved an impressive brace in the country’s 6-1 dismantling of Martinique in the 2021 Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football — better known as CONCACAF — Gold Cup. 

Less than six months later, Dike was transferred to West Bromwich Albion FC, a stalwart of English soccer and also a member of the EFL Championship. Sadly, a host of lower body injuries have limited his first two years with the Baggies. 

The former Cavaliers talisman recently returned to full health after he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in 2023, and although he found the net in his first game back Jan. 7, Dike picked up another long-term Achilles tendon injury only four matches later. The injury will hold him out for the rest of the season and likely through a majority of next season as well. Still just 23 years of age, Dike still has plenty of time to make his overseas career successful.

Elsewhere in Europe, Joe Bell — a 24-year-old defensive midfielder and former Virginia teammate of Dike’s — has made a name for himself in Scandinavian soccer. Bell is a true legend of Virginia soccer, having started 55 consecutive games for the Cavaliers from 2017 to 2019 and co-captained the storied 2019 Virginia team that won the ACC men’s soccer tournament for the first time since 2009. 

Shortly after Bell’s Cavaliers career came to a close in 2019, he signed with first-division Norwegian side Viking FK. Bell made 69 appearances anchoring the Vikings’ midfield, notably helping them place third in the Eliteserien in 2021. After a short spell at Danish Superliga champions Brøndby IF, he returned to Viking FK where he has made 11 more appearances since last season. Bell has also burst onto the international stage, having made 18 appearances and scored a goal for the New Zealand men’s national football team.

Making it in America

Virginia also has several former players who are now making a name for themselves across the U.S. 

Former Cavaliers midfielder Eric Bird — a native of Virginia Beach and class of 2014 alumnus — made 73 appearances over his four years with the program, captaining the team to a National Championship in 2014. After departing Virginia a champion, Bird bounced around the United States’ domestic divisions with stints at Rio Grande Valley FC, Houston Dynamo FC and FC Tulsa most recently.

Bret Halsey — a more recent Cavaliers midfielder born in Sterling, Va. — is another in a long list of homegrown successes. Halsey joined Virginia soccer in 2018, playing three seasons and earning ACC All-Tournament honors in both his sophomore and junior seasons. He was then selected seventh overall by Real Salt Lake in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, subsequently playing 22 times for the Real Monarchs before signing for FC Cincinnati in July 2023, where he remains today. 

Another native of Virginia, forward Brian Ownby made a staggering 72 appearances — to the tune of 21 goals and 10 assists — in four seasons for the Cavaliers from 2008 to 2011. Ownby is one of the most decorated players in program history, having picked up multiple All-ACC honors and a National Championship during his time at Virginia. 

The forward was selected seventh overall by Houston Dynamo FC in the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft, bouncing around several U.S. teams before eventually finding his home in the United Soccer League with Louisville City FC in 2017. Since his arrival, Ownby has made 203 appearances and scored 35 goals.

Midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr. — a Richmond native — has also excelled in United States soccer since leaving Virginia in 2015 after his freshman season. Etienne was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team in his lone season with the Cavaliers and quickly signed a professional contract with the New York Red Bulls.

Etienne then had stints at other Major League Soccer clubs, including FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew, before joining Atlanta United FC in 2022. The midfielder has made 222 appearances in professional soccer, in addition to 44 appearances for his country — Haiti — scoring 38 goals between the two. 

Lastly, a former Cavaliers player from outside the state of Virginia — center-back Henry Kessler — is also putting together a successful career in the United States soccer system. After joining the Cavaliers in 2017, Kessler played 52 times for Virginia across three seasons and earned Third and Second Team All-ACC honors for his efforts in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Drafted sixth overall by the New England Revolution in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, he has gone on to make 88 appearances for the MLS team, establishing himself as a leading defender in the division. Kessler has also earned himself a fringe role on the United States national team, winning his senior debut as a substitute in the team’s 2021 victory over Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. 

Future Stars

Three of Virginia’s most important players from last season will be trying their hand in professional soccer in 2024. Defender Aidan O’Connor, as well as forwards Stephen Annor Gyamfi and Leo Afonso, were each selected in the MLS SuperDraft in December. 

O’Connor went 12th overall to the New York Red Bulls, while Gyamfi was selected 26th by the Houston Dynamo — currently coached by former Virginia All-American Ben Olsen, who played for the Cavaliers from 1995 to 1997 — and Afonso was drafted 32nd to Inter Miami. The high draft capital for all three players suggests they will each make an impact for their respective clubs in the near future. 

Overall, there are plenty of Cavaliers for Virginia fans to cheer on outside the walls of Klöckner Stadium. Whether it’s Dike in England, Halsey in Cincinnati or Kessler in New England, the program has a broad — and growing — tree of alumni making Gelnovatch and the rest of the current Cavaliers proud. 


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