By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s a competitor, and it wasn’t easy for George Gelnovatch to watch his soccer team lose its first two exhibition games.
It was agonizing for the UVa men’s coach, in fact. But Gelnovatch had a plan, and he stuck to it.
Typically, the Cavaliers play two exhibitions before starting their regular-season schedule. “We wanted three this year to take a look at some different things,” Gelnovatch said.
“We know we have some talent and some depth. It gave us an opportunity these first two games to look at some different things and to play everybody. Literally everybody. That has been our focus, to accomplish those things, look at some different things. There’s one or two guys playing in spots they’ve not played or rarely played before.”
Gelnovatch was speaking the morning after his team’s 3-1 loss to Old Dominion in Norfolk. That followed a 1-0 loss to George Mason at Klöckner Stadium. Reserves, some of whom aren’t likely to play much this season, were on the field late for UVa, in key situations, in both games.
“As I say, we’re trying to do a couple of things, and one is team-build, and when you have a lot of guys busting their backside all preseason and working their tail off all summer, I’m going to use these first two preseason games to reward those guys with minutes,” Gelnovatch said.
The rotation was set “before both of these games started, regardless of the outcome of the Mason game,” he said. “It would have easy for me to say, ‘Hey, we lost this game. Screw this. This is what I’m doing.’ But the plan all along has been to treat these first two preseason games the same and to treat the third one as a dress rehearsal to the season.”
That third exhibition is tonight at 7 o’clock against West Virginia at Klöckner. UVa opens the season next weekend at the Nike Portland Invitational in Oregon. Virginia meets Portland on Friday night, then faces Washington two days later.
The ‘Hoos’ home opener is Sept. 11 against ACC rival Duke.
Virginia went 4-4 in conference play in 2008 and finished 11-9-1 overall after losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Expectations are much higher this season. UVa was picked to finish second in the ACC.
“It’s the same team, a year older,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s the same team with a healthy Tony Tchani and, I hope, a healthy Chris [Agorsor], as he gets cleared.”
When last season began, the Cavaliers’ top scoring threats were freshmen Tchani and Agorsor. Neither made it through the season. Agorsor suffered a serious knee injury — torn anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments — in his seventh game. Tchani played 13 games before he tore his ACL. Even so, he was named ACC freshman of the year and led the ‘Hoos in scoring with 21 points.
“When Tony went down, which was after Chris, Tony had nine goals and Chris had four, and our team had 19 at the time,” Gelnovatch said. “I don’t know what percentage-wise that is, but that’s a big, big chunk. That hurt. I don’t think I’ve ever [lost] two, with such an impact on our scoring, in such a short period of time in one season.
“So it meant a lot. Tony was on track last year to score 14, 15, 16 goals. Chris already had four goals. He was on track to score probably 10 or 12. I would hope and think that if he gets cleared and Tony gets sharp, that a lot of our scoring is going to come through those guys.”
Doctors have cleared both to play, and Tchani has been with the team all preseason. Agorsor, however, is awaiting a ruling from the NCAA on his eligibility. Agorsor is likely to be cleared to play this season, but until that’s official, Gelnovatch isn’t allowing him to practice with the team.
Also waiting on clearance from the NCAA is first-year defender Ole Hengelbrock, who’s from Germany. He’s part of a well-regarded freshman class that includes forwards Will Bates and Ahkeel Rodney. Another newcomer is junior Diego Restrepo, a transfer from South Florida.
“He’s our starting goalkeeper, and that’s an upgrade for us,” Gelnovatch said.
Even if Agorsor and Hengelbrock are cleared, as expected, UVa can’t count on having a full complement of players throughout the season. Sophomore Brian Ownby leaves Sept. 14 to play for the United States in FIFA’s under-20 World Cup in Egypt.
Ownby, a forward, is a “guy that’s super-dangerous,” Gelnovatch said. He’s expected to return to the University during the first half of October.
“I’m certainly going to get the most out of him until he goes, which is three games,” Gelnovatch said. “But I also have to understand he’s going to be gone for the next six games after that, and that we need to have in place what the Plan B is. Ross LaBauex, who has been playing there, is certainly one of those guys, but I think when we have everybody healthy — Jimmy Simpson, Chris Agorsor gets cleared and Will Bates kind of integrated by that time, a little bit more — that we’ll be in good shape.”
Of the players likely to have prominent roles for UVa this season, Gelnovatch said, only three are seniors: LaBauex and midfielders Jonathan Villanueva and Matt Mitchell.
“After that it’s mostly sophomores, with a junior sprinkled in here or there,” Gelnovatch said. “So it is a relatively young team still that is a little older than its years, in that we had six freshmen starting last year before those two guys got hurt. Six talented freshmen.”
Those freshmen are now second-year players. They’re capable of handling more responsibility, and so Gelnovatch is asking more of them.
“Offensively, we’re lining up a little different,” he said. “We’re being very, very aggressive. We feel like we have a talented attacking team, although you look at the last two games, and we’ve scored one goal, you know. But we really made some changes in terms of how we’re asking our guys to play, and it’s very aggressive, very attack-oriented.”