By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CARY, N.C. — On the biggest stage in college soccer, royalty will clash Sunday afternoon.
The University of Virginia men’s team has made 12 appearances in the College Cup — NCAA soccer’s version of the Final Four — and been crowned national champion six times. The UCLA men have made 14 trips to the College Cup and won four NCAA titles.
One of these storied programs is about to add to its legacy. At noon Sunday, No. 16 seed UVa (13-6-3) meets No. 2 seed UCLA (14-4-5) for the NCAA title at WakeMed Soccer Park. ESPNU will televise the match, the 11th between these schools in this sport.
The Bruins lead the series 7-2-1.
“If I could’ve picked one team to play against, it would’ve been Virginia,” UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo said Saturday, “because of the history we have against them, the absolute respect I have for their program. They’re one of the best programs in the country, and so are we.”
Salcedo is a former UCLA star. His UVa counterpart, George Gelnovatch, has a similar resume. Gelnovatch played for Bruce Arena at UVa and still ranks fifth in program history with 49 career goals.
Gelnovatch, who succeeded Arena as head coach after the 1995 season, has guided the Wahoos to the NCAA tournament in each of his 19 years.
“You have two traditional powerhouse programs that play good football, and I have a lot of respect for Jorge,” Gelnovatch said Saturday.
“Getting to compete for a national championship is a special opportunity, and UCLA is a quality opponent. We think it’s going to be a great match.”
This is the Cavaliers’ third trip to the NCAA title game under Gelnovatch. In 1997, Virginia lost 2-0 to UCLA. In 2009 — in Cary — UVa defeated Akron in a penalty-kick shootout to capture the program’s sixth national championship.
In 2013, Virginia, Notre Dame, Maryland and New Mexico advanced to the College Cup in Chester, Pa. Of that group, only UVa made it to Cary this weekend.
The Cavaliers fell 2-1 to Maryland in last year’s NCAA semifinals, a result that left them “pretty disappointed,” Gelnovatch said. “Now we’ve taken it a step further and put ourselves in position for a national championship.
“You want to get to the College Cup, so that’s a big accomplishment. The next step, the semifinal, is a tough, tough game.”
The `Hoos cleared that hurdle Friday night, scoring in the fifth minute and then relying on their stout defense in a 1-0 victory over UMBC. The goal was junior forward Darius Madison’s first since Oct. 4 and could bode well for him Sunday.
“He’s a guy who relies a lot on his confidence, and scoring a goal, especially early in the game, really helped his confidence out, and I think that can help him moving forward,” midfielder Eric Bird, the Cavaliers’ captain and leading scorer, said of Madison.
“I told him before the game, I was like, `Look, everything’s that happened before in the past, just forget about it. This whole season, whatever, let’s wipe the slate clean and let’s talk about tonight and let’s focus on tonight and doing well. The lights are shining bright, so it’s your time to shine, so let’s see it.’ And he stepped up to the challenge.”
A senior who Friday was named a second-team All-American, Bird suffered a groin injury Nov. 23 against UNC Wilmington in the opening minute of UVa’s first game in the NCAA tournament. Bird didn’t play again until Friday night, when he replaced redshirt freshman Pablo Aguilar in the 79th minute.
Bird got more work Saturday afternoon when the `Hoos practiced at WakeMed Soccer Park complex.
His fitness level, Bird said afterward, “feels pretty good. I’m not entirely sure, since I haven’t gotten a lot of game minutes. But in the 10 minutes I was out there last night, it felt good. My muscle isn’t giving me any trouble in terms of that. Fitness, we’ll just see, I guess. I feel like the final game will be based off pure adrenaline, so I’m counting on that to get me through.”
For UVa’s seniors, a group that includes Bird, goalkeeper Calle Brown, defenders Matt Brown and Kyler Sullivan, and midfielder Ryan Zinkhan, their college careers will end Sunday afternoon. They’ve followed different paths to this point, but they share a common goal: to leave Cary with the program’s seventh NCAA championship.
“Can’t really have a better story than that,” Bird said. “It would seem like the perfect storybook ending.”
Bird, Sullivan and Zinkhan played key roles on the team as freshmen in 2011. Calle Brown, who’s a fifth-year senior, didn’t make his first start for the Cavaliers until the 2013 regular-season finale. But he was instrumental in Virginia’s postseason run last year and has started 20 games this season.
Gelnovatch said he and his staff often marvel at the strides Brown has made, not only in “his skills as a goalkeeper, but also his development as a young man. He was always a very, very good guy, but he just has really developed in dealing with getting knocked down a few pegs and getting back up … Keep competing and keep going and keep staying positive. If you do that enough and you’re in a good organization, which I like to think that we have, good things will happen for you. And I’m so happy for him, and obviously our program has benefited from a guy like him that’s matured and developed.”
Brown said he considered forgoing his final year of eligibility at UVa, but “being a part of that run last year, it was just amazing. It was so fun to be a part of, and that’s honestly what pushed me to come back and do it for one more season and have that opportunity to play for a whole entire season with Coach Gelnovatch and the team.”
Virginia played the first semifinal Friday night. Gelnovatch and assistant coaches Matt Chulis and Terry Boss stayed at the stadium to scout the second semifinal. UVa’s players returned to the team hotel, where on ESPNU they saw UCLA edge Providence 3-2 in double overtime.
In their four NCAA tournament games, the Bruins have scored 11 goals.
“They’re just a dynamic team on offense,” Brown said, but UVa’s defense embraces the challenge the Bruins will pose.
“We’ll be ready for them,” Brown said. “I think we’ve seen teams like them this year, so we’ll be ready for it.”
With six goals in this NCAA tourney, three of which came against UNC Wilmington, the Cavaliers haven’t been as productive as UCLA. But UVa will be facing a UCLA defense that’s been vulnerable to counterattacks and has allowed eight goals in the NCAA tourney.
Asked if his team would be more aggressive offensively in the championship game, Gelnovatch declined to discuss strategy.
“You’ll see,” he said, smiling. “We’ll save those tactics for tomorrow.”
ELITE GROUP: The UVa women’s team advanced to the NCAA championship game before falling 1-0 to Florida State last Sunday in Boca Raton, Fla. This marks only the third time a school has reached both the men’s and women’s College Cup finals in the same season.
Both UVa teams play their home matches at Klöckner Stadium, and Gelnovatch and women’s coach Steve Swanson are close, as are their families.
He and Swanson don’t always see each other much during the season, Gelnovatch said, even though their offices are on the same McCue Center hallway, but “those times that we do cross paths, in particular out of season, we’re close enough on a personal level [that] we definitely share ideas.”
Each program, Gelnovatch believes, benefits from the other’s success.
“When recruits come in — for example, some of our top recruits — they know and comment on our women’s program, and it’s a positive, no question about it,” Gelnovatch said. “And the same probably happens when [the women’s coaches] bring in their top recruits, that they know this is a soccer school and that soccer is taken very seriously with the support that we get: the facilities and the support the athletes get, that it’s not just the women, not just the men, but just soccer.”
Bird said the “programs feed off one another. We see that they’re doing really well and they’re contributing to the community, and we want to do the best that we can to give back to the community and feed off their energy and be successful ourselves.”
Of the women’s loss in Boca Raton, Bird said, “I thought that they were unlucky in their defeat to Florida State, but it just motivates us even more to not fall victim to a last-minute goal and give it all we have.”
WATCHING AND WAITING: Virginia’s standouts in its run to the College Cup last year included midfielder/forward Marcus Salandy-Defour, who started 19 games, made the All-ACC tournament team and finished the season with three goals and four assists.
Salandy-Defour, who was named to the ACC’s all-freshman team in 2012, has been a spectator this fall. He tore his right anterior cruciate ligament while training with the D.C. United Reserves in July and had season-ending surgery early the next month.
This College Cup experience has been bittersweet for him, Salandy-Defour acknowledged Saturday.
“It’s hard watching your team play,” he said, “but they’re doing so well, you can’t help but be excited for them.”
Salandy-Defour will have two seasons of eligibility left, starting in 2015. That’s welcome news for the Cavaliers, who have struggled to score this season.
“He’s a super-dynamic guy,” Gelnovatch said.
Salandy-Defour, who recently was cleared to begin jogging again, said he’s expanded his knowledge of the game during his time on the sideline.
“It’s just interesting to see the different runs and all the different tactics that go into it,” he said. “Because when you’re playing sometimes, it’s just natural, but you can actually take time to break it down and look at it when you’re not playing.”