By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the apparel UVa men’s soccer players and coaches wear is a crest symbolizing the storied history of their program. Displayed are six stars — one for each of the six NCAA championships Virginia has won in this sport.
“Every day we have the crest with six stars on our chests,” sophomore defender Todd Wharton said Tuesday, “and this whole season we’ve been wanting to add that seventh star.”
An opportunity to do so comes this weekend for the Wahoos. For the first time since 2009, when they won their sixth NCAA title, the `Hoos have advanced to the College Cup.
The NCAA semifinals are Friday at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia. At 5 p.m., Notre Dame meets New Mexico. At around 7:30 p.m., the second game matches teams that know each other well — UVa and Maryland. The Terrapins, who are leaving the ACC for the Big Ten next year, lead the series 39-29-9.
“Maryland and Virginia in the College Cup, it’s a dream scenario,” the Terps’ coach, Sasho Cirovski, told The Washington Post. “I’ve said it a thousand times: It’s the best rivalry in college soccer.”
This will be the third meeting between UVa (13-5-5) and Maryland (16-3-5) this season. The first was Oct. 11 at Klöckner Stadium, where a wild game ended in a 3-3 tie. All six goals were scored in the first 27 minutes.
Virginia and Maryland clashed again Nov. 17 in Germantown, Md., in the championship game of the ACC tournament. After a dangerous cross into the box by Maryland’s Patrick Mullins, perhaps the nation’s best player, UVa gave up an own goal in the 88th minute. The Terps held on for a 1-0 victory.
In the ACC title game, each team was playing for the third time in six days. Virginia’s first game in the tourney had gone to overtime and its second to penalty kicks, and Maryland’s semifinal win had come in OT.
“I think in the ACC championship both teams were just absolutely exhausted,” Wharton said Tuesday. “I don’t even think that was a real soccer game, to be honest. I thought in the first game, at Klöckner, we outplayed them pretty much the whole game, except for three good plays by Mullins. I think now it’s just going to be a really even game, and it’s just going to be one or two plays that change the outcome.”
That his team will face Maryland for a third time is no surprise to George Gelnovatch, who’s in his 18th season as head coach at his alma mater. In 2009, Virginia played Maryland and Wake Forest three times each.
UVa blanked Maryland 3-0 in the NCAA quarterfinals that year, then edged Wake 2-1 in overtime in the semifinals.
“I think with the quality of teams in our conference, when you get to the quarterfinals and semifinals, the likelihood of playing another ACC team [is high],” Gelnovatch said.
“The positive is, we know [Maryland] very well. It probably knocks off about eight hours of film that I have to watch, to be honest with you. And we know Notre Dame very well. On the flip side, they know us very well, too.”
The key to beating Maryland? That’s no secret. The Cavaliers know they have to limit Mullins’ effectiveness.
“That guy’s been killing us,” Gelnovatch said. “He absolutely killed us the first time, and he killed us the second time.”
Mullins, a senior forward, is a finalist for the Hermann Trophy, the national-player-of-the-year award he won in 2012. He leads Maryland with 40 points, on 16 goals and eight assists. No other Terrapin has more than 13 points.
UVa’s biggest, most physical defender is 6-3, 185-pound sophomore Zach Carroll, who began the season as a starter but then suffered a severe hamstring injury. Carroll moved back into the lineup Dec. 1 against Marquette, in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, after junior Matt Brown was red-carded.
Carroll played the final 83 minutes of that game, then went the full 90 last weekend against Connecticut in an NCAA quarterfinal at Klöckner.
Against Maryland, Carroll will start, Gelnovatch said, and “Mullins won’t be able to just bull him. You could see that on Friday night [against UConn]. Zach gave us a little bit of that element on goal kicks and punts and stuff like that, winning those headers. But he’s just a big body to move, too. I think that’ll help.”
Gelnovatch has stressed to his players that they can’t afford to let the left-footed Mullins “get anybody isolated,” he said.
For most of the ACC championship game, the Cavaliers were able to avoid danger. For 85 minutes, Mullins “didn’t cause any super problems,” Gelnovatch said. “But the minute he got someone isolated, it broke down, so we’ve just got to be careful and not let him get isolated too many times.”
Wharton said: “That’s pretty much the main message we’ve gotten: just double down on him and make sure he can’t beat us.”
Maryland, which lost in the NCAA semifinals last season, was picked to finish first in the ACC this year in a poll of the league’s head coaches. Virginia, which starts only one senior, was picked to finish fifth, and Gelnovatch’s team did not get off to an auspicious start.
Four games in, the `Hoos were 1-3 overall and 0-2 in ACC play. But they steadily improved over the course of the fall and earned the No. 8 seed in the 48-team NCAA tournament. (Maryland was awarded the No. 5 seed.)
Gelnovatch switched goalkeepers late in the regular season, inserting redshirt junior Calle Brown for redshirt sophomore Jeff Gal. Other players, including defenders Scott Thomsen, Patrick Foss and Carroll, have moved in and out of the lineup, and then back in again.
“I think what you’re seeing with Zach is, he’s had to wait his turn to get in the lineup and he’s had two good games, and now he feels like a million dollars,” Gelnovatch said. “It also shows our guys that if you keep working and working and working, you can do well when you get your chance.
“When you have that dynamic on your team, which we have going on right now, it’s a good thing.”
Maryland placed two players on the All-ACC first team — Mullins and junior midfielder Dan Metzger — and UVa none. But the Cavaliers have plenty of firepower. Seven players have at least 10 points each for Virginia: junior midfielder Eric Bird (19), sophomore forward Darius Madison (15), Wharton (13), freshman forward Riggs Lennon (12), freshman midfielder Jordan Allen (11), junior midfielder Ryan Zinkhan (10) and sophomore forward Marcus Salandy-Defour (10).
Bird and Madison were named to the All-ACC second team, Allen to the third team. Allen, who scored a spectacular goal against UConn on what he called a “half-bicycle kick,” also made the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
Since losing to Maryland in the ACC title game, Virginia has outscored its opponents 7-2. Against Marquette, the Cavaliers played a man down for the final 89 minutes.
“We’re a better team now than we were in the ACC tournament,” Gelnovatch said Monday. “We’re more confident. Darius and Marcus, that combination is playing great. Ryan Zinkhan’s playing his best. Jordan Allen came alive the other night. I think that goal [against UConn] has completely rejuvenated him. You could see it in training today. Todd Wharton’s Todd Wharton. He’s been great all year. And then you’ve got Calle and his story.
“It’s just a good vibe and a good confidence, and of course the winning and scoring the goals and the way we’ve done it, playing down a man [against Marquette], all those things have put us in a good mental state and physical state.”
Before the season, Zinkhan said, the Cavaliers talked about their goals and noted that all the players from the 2009 championship team had moved on. The message was clear, Zinkhan said: “Now it was time to leave our legacy.”
UVa has been crowned NCAA champion in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 2009.
The NCAA championship game will start Sunday at 3 p.m. at PPL Park, home of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. ESPNU will televise all three College Cup games.