Oct. 5, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In retrospect, George Gelnovatch says, he placed too much responsibility on the thin shoulders of his most acclaimed freshman in 2010. Several of the standouts from the UVa team that won the NCAA men’s soccer title in ’09 had moved on, and Gelnovatch needed Cobi Span to contribute immediately last fall.

Span, whose given name is Brian, started 18 games and finished the year as Virginia’s third-leading scorer, with 13 points. He made the ACC’s all-freshman team, so his first season was not a failure by any means.

Still, his transition to college soccer “was a bit tough,” Span acknowledged Wednesday. “I had to learn a whole lot in a short period of time.”

At its best, Span’s game is a rare blend of technical proficiency and superior athleticism. He wasn’t ready in 2010, though, to consistently play at a high level, and his season was as uneven as that of his team, which was ousted in the NCAA tournament’s first round.

“If he would have been a guy that stepped into our team as a wide player in 2009, the national championship year, he would have been fine,” said Gelnovatch, Virginia’s longtime coach. “He would have been a role player. He would have had a couple of goals, been on a good team and had a good, solid year.”

More was expected of the 6-3, 180-pound Span this season, and he’s starting to deliver. He scored the game-winning goal Sept. 9 in UVa’s ACC opener, a 1-0 victory at Duke. With 10 points, on three goals and four assists, Span is the Wahoos’ second-leading scorer, behind junior forward Will Bates (nine goals and three assists), and he’s coming off the finest performance of his college career.

At Clemson last Friday, Span assisted first-year forward Ryan Zinkhan on Virginia’s first goal. Span then scored himself to help the Cavaliers secure a 2-0 victory.

“On the first goal, the ball gets knocked back to him, and instead of dribbling, which instinctively he would have done before, he slipped it to Zinkhan,” Gelnovatch said.

“And then on the second goal, he ran through three guys. He beat one guy and saw a pretty good opportunity. There was no obvious [pass]. So he picked the right time and made the right decision and then executed the dribble and the finish.

“He’s had a couple of games like that, where I can start to see it coming. So I don’t think this came out of the blue for him. I hope this is the time. It would be timely, obviously, for us.”

On a team that’s been ravaged by injuries, contributions from Span will be vital if Virginia is to advance to the NCAA tournament for the 31st consecutive season. The No. 23 ‘Hoos (2-1 ACC, 6-4 overall) are expected to be without three starting midfielders Friday when they host second-ranked Maryland (3-0, 10-0-1) at Klöckner Stadium in a 7 p.m. game that Comcast SportsNet will televise regionally.

“It’s just been crazy,” Gelnovatch said.

Eric Bird tore his ACL and MCL against North Carolina on Sept. 23 and will miss the rest of the season. Chris Somerville, who like Bird is a freshman, is recovering from mononucleosis, and junior Ari Dimas suffered a high-ankle sprain against Clemson. And so Gelnovatch has revamped his lineup, moving Span from out wide to attacking midfielder, a change that’s fine with No. 23.

“The wing is sometimes not the easiest position to play,” Span said. “Depending on how the game is going, sometimes you’re not involved that much.

“When you’re in the middle, you’re involved 100 percent of the time. You’re always touching the ball.”

Span played “in the middle in the spring,” Gelnovatch said, “so it’s not completely foreign to him. But even in the spring, he did pretty well, but I didn’t quite see enough of what I talked about with him after last season: penetration with a purpose, or penetrate and pass, penetrate and shoot, making the right decision after you beat that first guy.”

A native of the Bronx, where his parents, David and Patricia, grew up, Span moved with his family to Somers, N.Y., when he was young. He has one sibling: older brother Skip, who plays tennis at Illinois State. Their father teaches tennis, and Cobi played that sport as a boy, but his passion has always been soccer.

His first soccer coach started calling him Cobi, after one of the greatest players in U.S. history, Cobi Jones, and the nickname stuck. As his reputation grew, Span attracted the attention of Gelnovatch, who formed a strong connection with the family.

“He and his dad paid attention to a lot of details in the recruiting process and asked a lot of questions,” Gelnovatch recalled. “His dad was a tennis pro, a teaching pro, so he’s very technically oriented. He’s not a soccer guy, but he understands the dynamic of paying attention to technique, and in the recruiting process I paid a lot of attention to a lot of specific things with Cobi. I talked about what he was very good at it, what he needs to work at, and I think that sharing of information with Cobi and his dad let them believe that this is the right place for him to develop.”

As a boy, Span said, “every single day I worked on technique drills and skill drills. My dad really emphasized repetition.”

Span spent part of this summer in Pennsylvania playing for Reading United AC, which competes in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League. His teammates included two other Cavaliers — Bates and Brian Ownby.

“When they’re clicking, there’s nothing that can stop them,” Reading United coach Brendan Burke said in July when asked about the three UVa players.

Span said: “It was definitely a good experience. We built up a better friendship off the field and a better chemistry on the field.”

Ownby, an All-ACC selection as a junior in 2010, has been slowed by a hamstring injury this season, but he’s expected to start in the midfield against Maryland. Ownby’s improved health is one reason Span likes the Cavaliers’ chances Friday night.

“I think it’s definitely going to be an even game,” Span said.

ON THE MEND: Akheel Rodney’s 2011 debut may come against the Terps, and the 6-1, 165-pound forward would be a welcome addition for the depleted ‘Hoos.

Rodney can “help us in little 10-minute segments here and there,” Gelnovatch said.

A junior from Elmont, N.Y., Rodney appeared in all 20 games for Virginia last season and contributed two goals and two assists. He had back surgery five weeks ago and only recently returned to practice.

“He’s been training now for almost two weeks,” Gelnovatch said. “For 10 minutes, 15 minutes, he’s a big, strong body that you can put in. He can do things, and down the stretch, that’ll help us, just to have a little depth.”

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