By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His first season at UVa ended with a trip to the College Cup. His final season as a Cavalier will end the same way.
Much has changed for Neil Barlow, however, since 2006. As a first-year player, he wasn’t on the active roster for Virginia’s game against UCLA in the NCAA semifinals at St. Louis.
“I was in the stands watching,” Barlow recalled this week. “It was terrible not to be able to do anything.”
UVa, whose regulars included his older brother, Jeremy, lost that game 4-0. Three years later, the Wahoos are back in the College Cup — NCAA soccer’s final four — and this time Neil Barlow is in a leading role.
He’s the third-leading scorer, with 16 points, for the Cavaliers (17-3-3), who meet ACC rival Wake Forest (17-3-3) in an NCAA semifinal Friday at 5 p.m. in Cary, N.C. Akron and yet another ACC representative, North Carolina, follow at 7:30.
“It’s always fun to play a new team,” Barlow said, “but if you want to win, you’ve got to beat the best, and Wake Forest is definitely one of the best. They’re a great team. We have beaten them two times this season, but every time you play them it’s going to be a battle.”
Barlow appeared in only three games in 2006, but he won a starting job in ’07 and played alongside his brother, a second-team all-ACC performer that season. Neil was at right back; Jeremy, at center midfield.
“He’s different from his brother,” Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said of the younger Barlow. “I feel like Neil is more a two-way player, meaning Neil can defend. Neil has the same gear attacking, and he can use that same gear defending. Whereas his brother had that extra gear for attacking and really didn’t have that extra gear for defending so much.
“Jeremy probably was a little more talented attacking, but Neil, being more of a two-way guy, can play a few more positions, is a little bit more versatile. But both are great players.”
Neil, like Jeremy, starred at Langley High in Northern Virginia. With Jeremy already at UVa, there was little question where Neil would matriculate.
“He said he loved the program, loved the facilities,” Neil said. “I keep in close contact with him, so I was talking to him all the time about everything, and he was giving me advice. He said, ‘If you want to have a future in soccer, this is the place to come.'”
After a sophomore season in which he had three goals and five assists and started 20 games, the 5-8, 165-pound Barlow saw his playing time and his production drop in 2008. He had five assists again but started only 12 games and failed to score a goal.
Coming into 2009, “I don’t know whether he knew or I knew exactly what his role was going to be,” Gelnovatch said.
“But to his credit, he came back fit, he came back determined, he came back with an open mind. We played him centrally, we played him wide, and he never had any problem playing at any position. He did well both places. And part of it, too, was that he wanted to make the most of his senior year. He wanted to have to have an opportunity potentially to latch on professionally.”
In the Wahoos’ second game, a 2-1 overtime victory over Washington in Portland, Ore., Barlow assisted on his team’s first goal and scored the second.
In UVa’s 3-0 win over Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals last week, Barlow scored the first goal and assisted on the second. Like his brother in 2007, Barlow was named to the all-ACC second team.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s a guy who’s really worked and stayed with it. I know he was a little disappointed last year. He ended up being a starter, but there was a stretch last year when he wasn’t. And that’s tough. That’s not an easy thing. Especially coming into this season not locked into a starting position.
“He wasn’t locked in, but he quickly became a guy we counted on. Literally right from opening weekend out in Portland, he was fantastic, and he never looked back.”
The crowd at WakeMed Soccer Park will include his brother. Jeremy hurt his knee while playing professionally in Finland and is doing his rehab in the United States..
This is no ordinary December for Barlow. He’s about to play on NCAA soccer’s biggest stage — the College Cup — and he’ll graduate from UVa this month with a bachelor’s in anthropology.
What he’ll do with his degree is a decision Barlow hopes to postpone indefinitely.
“I’m trying to play soccer for as long as it’s possible,” he said. “Then I’ll look at other avenues, but playing professional soccer has been dream for a while.”