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July 29, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Born in Chicago, he lives in nearby Bartlett, Ill., and roots for the “Bulls, Bears and, sadly, Cubs,” Jeff Gal said with a smile.

His sport of choice, though, is soccer, and that’s what brought him to the University of Virginia. Gal, a 6-1, 165-pound redshirt sophomore, transferred to UVa from Creighton after the 2012-13 school year. He’s projected to start at goalkeeper for his new team this season.

Spencer LaCivita, the Cavaliers’ starting goalie in 2011 and ’12, has had multiple hip and groin operations since the end of last season and will redshirt this fall.

His replacement is no rookie. Gal, who redshirted in 2011, when Creighton’s No. 1 goalie was an All-American, went 13-1-1 as a starter last season.

“To have that experience under your belt is huge,” Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said.

Gal was in goal when Creighton, on the road, beat fifth-seeded Akron on penalty kicks in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. He played the full 90 minutes a week later when the Bluejays, again on the road, edged fourth-seeded Connecticut 1-0 to advance to the College Cup for the second straight season.

Against Akron, Gal made a sensational save on a penalty kick 27 seconds into the first overtime.

At the College Cup, Creighton’s season ended with a 1-0 semifinal loss to eventual NCAA champion Indiana in Hoover, Ala. The Hoosiers capitalized on a mistake by a Creighton defender in the first half and beat Gal for the game’s only goal.

“Heartbreaking loss, but playing in it was amazing,” Gal said.

He decided to transfer from Creighton, Gal said, in part because of differences with head coach Elmar Bolowich, whose son, Alex, is one of the team’s goalies. Gal wanted a school where he’d be happier and seriously considered UVa, NC State, UCLA and Michigan.

In the end, Gal chose Virginia over UCLA. The Cavaliers’ storied history in men’s soccer appealed to Gal. So did the opportunity for immediate playing time. (In NCAA soccer, transfers do not have to sit out a year before playing.)

“I think the situation here was ideal for me to come in here,” Gal said, “knowing that LaCivita does have an injury and is going through rehab. I definitely took that into account when I was looking where to go, because if there’s already an established goalkeeper there it would make it harder to fit into a team like that.”

The Wahoos are coming off a season in which they finished 10-7-4 after losing to New Mexico in the NCAA tournament’s second round. Of the team’s major contributors in 2012, only All-ACC forward Will Bates was a senior.

“We can do some damage [this fall],” Gelnovatch said recently.

Even with LaCivita sidelined, UVa has 10 other players who started at least 10 games last season: juniors Eric Bird, Matt Brown and Kyler Sullivan and sophomores Zach Carroll, Brian James, Darius Madison, Jordan Poarch, Marcus Salandy-Defour, Scott Thomsen and Todd Wharton.

Also back is forward Ryan Zinkhan, who struggled with an injury last season but as a freshman in 2011 had four goals and three assists. Moreover, Virginia is adding a heralded first-year class led by Jordan Allen and Nicko Corriveau. Other freshmen expected to compete for immediate playing time include Patrick Foss and Riggs Lennon.

“This is a young team, so it’s got a lot of potential,” said Gal, who played with Thomsen and Salandy-Defour at the U.S. under-18 national team’s training camp in 2011.

The addition of Gal is “absolutely huge, especially with how young our team is,” Gelnovatch said. “And on top of it he’s a proven goalkeeper, a talented goalkeeper. I think in some ways it reminds me a little bit of when we had Diego.”

That would be goalie Diego Restrepo, who began his college career at South Florida. Restrepo left USF after the 2008 season and in `09 helped the `Hoos capture their sixth NCAA title.

“Diego gave us some of those qualities — a guy who had some good-level Division I college experience — but probably not as much experience as Gal,” Gelnovatch said, “because he wasn’t starting at [South Florida], he didn’t have a College Cup, some of those big things.”

With Gal, “I don’t think there’s going to be too much that fazes him,” Gelnovatch said. “If you can go to Akron and win, and UConn and win, and play in a College Cup. I don’t think playing against UNC or playing against Maryland is going to faze him, because he’s been there.”

Among the soccer fans who followed ESPN2’s broadcast of the 2009 NCAA title game — in which Virginia edged Akron on penalty kicks — was Gal.

“I knew the goalkeeper at Akron that year, so I was definitely watching,” he said. “The tradition here, the history of this program is exciting. This is a great soccer school, so I definitely think this will be a great experience for me.”

Gal arrived at the University early this month for the final session of summer school. Redshirt junior Calle Brown, who handled the goalkeeping duties for the Cavaliers in the spring, will provide depth this fall, as will freshman Cole Moffatt.

“Gal is our guy right now, and Calle knows that,” Gelnovatch said. “But I think Calle’s a good, solid No. 2.”

Throw in Moffatt and, perhaps, LaCivita, who may be able to help the team in practice, and “I don’t know that we’ve had this type of depth and quality [at goalie] from top to bottom, ever,” Gelnovatch said.

This will be Gelnovatch’s 18th season as head coach at his alma mater, and he’s been pleased with his players’ sense of purpose this summer, whether they’re taking classes and working out at UVa, training with professional clubs overseas, or playing for such teams as Reading United AC in Pennsylvania or RVA FC in Richmond.

“The way my guys are treating this summer, they are focused,” Gelnovatch said. “The core group of 10, 12, 15 guys are, I think, on a little bit of a mission.”

The `Hoos have only two seniors — Kevin McBride and Cameron Chavira — and neither is likely to start. That should bode well for Virginia’s prospects in 2014, too.

“It’s an interesting group, no question about it,” Gelnovatch said. “Talented. Not only our starting lineup, but I think we’re going to have some depth too — quality depth — which I think is going to help us.”

Preseason practice begins Aug. 14 for the Cavaliers, who play an exhibition game against Radford at Klöckner Stadium on Aug. 20. Admission is free for the 7 p.m. exhibition.

UVa opens the season Aug. 31 against Louisville at Klöckner.

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