By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE – The University of Virginia men’s soccer team played two exhibition games this month and never trailed in either one.

That’s a positive sign for the Cavaliers, of course, but it also concerns head coach George Gelnovatch, whose 27-man roster includes 18 players in their first or second years of eligibility.

Virginia edged St. John’s 1-0 on Aug. 14 and whipped Liberty 3-0 four nights later.

“With that young of a group, it’s good and bad,” Gelnovatch said after practice Tuesday. “They’re confident right now, and it shows. We’ve played well. But we haven’t been behind. We haven’t had any adversity, which will come.”

The Wahoos have only two seniors: midfielder Ari Dimas and All-ACC forward Will Bates, whose 2011 season ended in late October when he tore his ACL.

Of the seven juniors, only defender Sean Murnane is expected to start Friday night when UVa opens the season against Georgetown at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md.

Among the Cavaliers expected to play key roles this season are sophomores Spencer LaCivita, Matt Brown, Chris Somerville, Eric Bird, Kyler Sullivan and Ryan Zinkhan, and freshmen Zach Carroll, Scott Thomsen, Darius Madison, Marcus Salandy-Defour and Brian James.

“So it’s up to the older generation,” Dimas said, “to kind of provide the wisdom and the experience to help the new guys along so that we can make something special happen this year.”

The 2009 season could not have been much more special for the ‘Hoos, who secured the program’s sixth NCAA title by edging Akron in the championship game at Cary, N.C.

In 2010, however, Virginia finished 11-6-3 after losing in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The 2011 season also ended on a disappointing note for UVa, which was ravaged by injuries and finished 12-8-1 after stumbling in its NCAA tournament opener.

“It’s definitely in the back of our minds, and we don’t forget about it,” said Zinkhan, UVa’s fourth-leading scorer in 2011. “We’re definitely itching to get back in the playoffs. We’re hungry for that title.”

Dimas said: “A program like ours has the tradition and the excellence that accords a certain caliber of play, and I think given the talent that we have, we can make something happen this year. Certainly a first-round loss, anything that isn’t pursuing trophies or at least getting close, would be considered a failure for us this year.”

In the preseason poll of ACC coaches, Virginia was picked to finish fifth in the conference. Gelnovatch can understand why. This might be the least-experienced team he’s had in his 17 seasons as head coach at his alma mater.

“The big difference for me,” Gelnovatch said, “is we have some super-talented young guys, as good talent-wise as we’ve had since I’ve been here. Which makes it fun and exciting as a coach. They’re all impressionable. They’re working very hard. They want to prove themselves. They have a great mentality, and that has showed in the first two games, definitely. But we are very, very inexperienced.”

That said, the Cavaliers are faster and more dynamic than in 2010 or ’11. “The piece that’s missing is just a little marinating,” Gelnovatch said. “Just experience.”

Top Drawer Soccer ranked UVa’s freshman class No. 2 nationally, but that was before Shane O’Neill chose an MLS contract over college. Even without O’Neill, though, this could be a special group.

In the exhibition games, James scored two goals, and Carroll and Madison had one apiece. Another first-year player, Thomsen, had an assist against Liberty.

“You can’t really tell that they’re first-years,” Zinkhan said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, they’re being leaders on the field and off the field. They’re very talented, and they’re definitely going to help us progress.”

Sullivan, a starting defender, is recovering from an illness and is likely to miss UVa’s first three games. The ‘Hoos also may be without Bates against the Hoyas. He tweaked his knee recently and is “day to day,” according to Gelnovatch.

Bates led the Cavaliers in scoring last season, totaling 32 points on 14 goals and four assists. Gelnovatch expects Bates to get plenty of support this year, from such players as Zinkhan, Madison, Somerville and Salandy-Defour.

“I’ve got a lot of attacking options,” Gelnovatch said.

Dimas was Virginia’s holding midfielder last season. He’s been moved out wide, and Bird has taken over at holding midfielder. Bird started eight of the nine games he played before tearing his ACL last season, so his talent is no secret. Still, Gelnovatch has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly Bird has taken to his new position.

“He’s done really, really well in there,” Gelnovatch said, “and I still think he’s probably only operating at about 80, 85 percent. It happened with [former UVa star] Tony Tchani, too. When he had his ACL, he didn’t hit form until October [2009].”

After playing Georgetown, UVa will have a week to prepare for its home opener. California visits Klöckner Stadium on Aug. 31, and then Virginia hosts UCLA, a College Cup participant last year, on Sept. 2.

“I like that better,” Gelnovatch said of the schedule. “Instead of playing two games on the first weekend, when you’re not quite fit yet, it’ll give us an extra week after that first game to continue to get sharp and fit.”

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