Caldwell Steps Forward for Reigning NCAA Champions
March 6, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The 2014 season ended Dec. 14 for the University of Virginia men’s soccer team. In Cary, N.C., UVa ousted UCLA on penalty kicks to capture its seventh NCAA title.
Little more than a month later, the Cavaliers began training for 2015. For players such as center back Sheldon Sullivan, who was on the field for every minute of every Virginia game last season, the break, however brief, was much-needed.
For Jeff Caldwell? He would not have minded had training begun Dec. 15.
The College Cup marked the end of Calle Brown’s run, and the start of Caldwell’s, as Virginia’s No. 1 goalkeeper. Head coach George Gelnovatch expects no drop-off at that critical position as UVa tries to become the first team since Indiana in 2004 to repeat as NCAA champion.
“We’ve got a guy in Jeff Caldwell I feel extremely comfortable with,” Gelnovatch said.
The Wahoos leave Friday for a spring-break tour of England, where they will play three games, against U21 teams from professional clubs Crystal Palace, Blackburn Rovers and Burnley, as well as attend two Premier League matches.
After the `Hoos return to Charlottesville, they’ll play four more matches this spring, exhibitions against Maryland, VCU, American and Elon.
Caldwell, a rising sophomore from the small town of Todd, N.C., near Boone, is expected to start most, if not all, of those seven games.
“It’s a unique opportunity for me, having not played as many games in the fall,” he said, “to just get my rhythm back, get some games under my belt, get a feel for the guys in front of me.”
Come summer, Caldwell plans to play again for the Seattle Sounders’ U23 team, which competes in the Premier Development League. The more experience Caldwell gains before August, UVa assistant coach Terry Boss said, the better.
“For a goalkeeper, a young goalkeeper specifically, games are the end-all, be-all,” Boss said. “You can train as much as you want, and obviously that’s important, but you gotta be able to put all that training into game decisions and be able to make the right decision at the right time.”
The 6-3, 185-pound Caldwell, who has represented the United States at the U17 and U18 levels, enrolled at UVa in January 2014. He practiced with the team last spring and then in August won the starting job over Brown, a fifth-year senior who had been instrumental in the Cavaliers’ run to the College Cup in 2013.
Caldwell played all 91 minutes and 46 seconds of Virginia’s 2014 opener, an overtime win over Old Dominion at Klöckner Stadium, and did not allow a goal. A week later, however, he was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, training with the United States’ U20 team at a camp that lasted about 10 days.
“Whenever the national team calls, especially in a World Cup year for the 20s, I was never going to say no,” Caldwell recalled recently.
Virginia’s coaching staff supported Caldwell’s decision. “I told him before he left, `Just so you know, I’m not trying to discourage you from going, because if I were you, I’d probably go, too,’ ” Gelnovatch said.
But the coaches also cautioned Caldwell. There was no guarantee Caldwell would reclaim his starting job when he returned, Gelnovatch told him. Sure enough, Brown sparkled in Virginia’s second game, a double-overtime loss at Tulsa, and played well again two days later in a 2-1 win over UAB.
Caldwell rejoined the team in early September, but the coaches decided to stick with Brown, and he ended up starting 21 of the Cavaliers’ 23 games last season.
“I think, as any competitor would be, Jeff was extremely disappointed when he came back,” said Boss, a former Major League Soccer goalkeeper.
“We were honest with him, and he knew that was kind of the chance he’d take, by leaving. But as he kind of wrapped his mind around the fact that Calle [would be the starter], I think it was initially hard for him, as it should be. If it wasn’t hard for him, I wouldn’t be thrilled that he’s on the roster, right?
“But once he kind of understood where Calle was at, and Calle was playing well, he handled it like a true pro. You could see him turn internally and focus on making his game better.”
Caldwell said: “Calle had an amazing game against Tulsa, and then he did fantastic from that point on, and we saw what happened. I can’t say, `Wow, that should have gone differently.’ “
Caldwell started UVa’s Sept. 24 game against Davidson, which rallied for a 2-1 victory at Klöckner. The vast majority of his work last season, though, came in practice, which he approached as seriously as he would have games.
“I don’t think I really changed anything,” Caldwell said. “One of the things I like to pride myself on is I take training the same every day … When you have a great goalkeeper like Calle, it just makes everything competitive in training, too, which is fantastic. I felt like I got a lot better because training was so competitive.”
His coaches took note.
Caldwell “kept getting better to the end — literally, right to the College Cup,” Gelnovatch said. “Sometimes with a young guy, you’re not playing, it’s human nature, you just kind of start to [taper off].
“But he trained hard, even at the College Cup, the Saturday [before the championship game], for crying out loud. He’s ambitious. That’s the best way to put it. He’s ridiculously ambitious, and when you’re like that you want to get better.”
Boss said: “I can’t say enough about his competitiveness, his willingness to grind. And it’s those intangibles, just as much as his ability and everything else he has going for him in the goal, that leave me no doubt that he’s going to be a very successful goalkeeper here.”
Had Caldwell not left for the U20 camp in Argentina, he might well have kept the starting job at UVa all season. Even so, Boss said, “I do think that the growth that came out of having to sit for a year, learning to be a good teammate — which he was, he supported Calle really well — I think that that’s going to pay dividends in the long run.”
Caldwell, who turned 19 last month, is continuing a family tradition. His sister, Sarah, was a goalkeeper for Furman and their father, Paul, played the position for Davidson.
That Caldwell had rare promise as a keeper became apparently early. After attending Watauga High School for the ninth and 10th grades, he spent his junior year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as part of U.S. Soccer’s residency program for the U17 team.
His dream is to play professionally, and in the summer of 2013 he had trials with English clubs Fulham, Arsenal, West Ham and Brentford.
“It’s been an interesting process,” Caldwell said. “There’s been opportunities [to turn pro], maybe not great ones, and a lot of weighing pros and cons, college versus pro. And right now I’m really happy I chose Virginia. I think the big picture is it gives me a lot more opportunities to succeed with the education, and the program’s obviously top-tier, and I’m training every day.”
FIFA’s U20 men’s World Cup starts in late May, and Caldwell hopes to be selected for the U.S. team that will compete in New Zealand. No matter what happens with the national team, though, he’s eager to help Virginia try to win its eighth NCAA title.
Among the veterans back from last year’s team are Sheldon Sullivan, Scott Thomsen, Todd Wharton, Pablo Aguilar, Darius Madison, Sam Hayward, Riggs Lennon, Nicko Corriveau, Patrick Foss, Jake Rozhansky and Wesley Suggs. Moreover, 2013 starter Marcus Salandy-Defour returns after missing last season with an injury.
“Especially with this program, I think you kind of go into every year thinking that we should be competing for a national title,” Caldwell said. “And with the experience from last year, and with everyone who’s returning, I don’t think why there would be any mentality other than we’re going back to win another national championship. Anything less than those expectations and that mentality is setting the bar too low.”
NOTE: Video features and highlights of the Cavaliers’ visit to England will be posted online at VirginiaSportsTV.com throughout the trip.