By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2010, the University of Virginia men’s soccer team opened the season ranked No. 2 in the NSCAA poll. That ranking, though, was probably based more on what had happened the previous season, when the Cavaliers captured the program’s sixth NCAA title, than on their realistic prospects for 2010.
Gone from the 2009 championship team were such mainstays as Tony Tchani, Ross LaBauex, Jonathan Villanueva, Neil Barlow and Shawn Barry.
“So we took some really big hits,” Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch recalled this week.
Five years later, the Wahoos are heading into another season ranked No. 2 nationally by the NSCAA. This time, however, their lofty ranking appears justified.
Back from the team that in December won UVa’s seventh NCAA title are such players as Scott Thomsen, Todd Wharton, Darius Madison, Pablo Aguilar, Nicko Corriveau, Sam Hayward, Riggs Lennon, Jake Rozhansky, Patrick Foss, Wesley Suggs and Sheldon Sullivan.
Moreover, Marcus Salandy-Defour, a standout on the Virginia team that reached the NCAA semifinals in 2013, is back after missing last season with a knee injury, and the new starting goalkeeper, Jeff Caldwell, played for the United States this summer at FIFA’s Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
As a freshman last season, Caldwell backed up Calle Brown at Virginia.
“We have more pieces returning than we had in 2010,” Gelnovatch said. “We have most of the important pieces returning, coupled with an excellent first-year class. In 2010, we took some bigger hits [in terms of personnel] and didn’t quite have the first-year class we have this year.”
The 2010 team finished 11-6-3 after losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Gelnovatch’s current team looks capable of contending for another NCAA crown.
“We have a really good core coming back,” said Wharton, a third-team All-ACC selection in 2014. “We’re just going to keeping working on team chemistry and getting all the new first-year guys to buy into what we’re trying to do. Once everyone is on the same page, I think we have enough talent to be able to do whatever we want.”
The team’s freshmen are in town for summer school, and they’ve been working out under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach Bill Miller and playing pickup games organized by Wharton, who has started 63 games as a Cavalier. Among the first-years expected to play leading roles this season are midfielder Derrick Etienne and forward Edward Opoku.
Etienne, whose father starred in soccer at VCU, distinguished himself this year as an attacking midfielder for the New York Red Bulls’ entry in the United Soccer League.
Opoku, a native of Ghana, is a 5-6 forward who totaled 80 goals and 30 assists during his four years at the Millbrook School in New York.
“Our fans are going to love this guy,” Gelnovatch said of Opoku. “He’s skillful, and he’s so freaking fast.”
Practice starts Aug. 13 for the `Hoos. Two nights later, they’ll play the first of their three exhibitions, this one against Navy at Klöckner Stadium. Virginia opens the season — Gelnovatch’s 20th as head coach at his alma mater — against 17th-ranked Charlotte, Aug. 29 at Klöckner.
Gelnovatch, who was an assistant coach on the first five UVa teams to win NCAA titles, knows how difficult it to repeat as champion.
“If I’m an opposing coach, I’m using that one game against Virginia, whether it’s Tuesday night or Friday night, to say, `Here, you got a chance to beat the national champs,’ ” Gelnovatch said. “And that goes a long way, if you’re thinking of a way to motivate your team.
“I know for a fact, teams like UNC Charlotte, who we open up with, and Tulsa the following weekend, some of these other teams, purposely put us on the schedule with that in mind, knowing that they have a pretty good team and they’re going to use that as motivation to knock off the national champs.”
Wharton said: “We even saw it in the spring [exhibitions]. Every team we played, it seemed like they had extra motivation. We’re just going to have to expect every team coming out and playing their best game against us. They have nothing to lose. We’re the defending champs. Everyone wants to beat us, and we’re just going to have a big target on our back.”
Complacency can be a problem for teams coming off championship seasons, but that shouldn’t be an issue with these Cavaliers, Gelnovatch said. They were far from dominant for most of last season, and they know it.
In 2009, when the `Hoos finished 19-3-3, they won the ACC title and earned the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tourney.
In 2014, Virginia lost in the ACC quarterfinals and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 16 overall seed.
“I think the way we had to do it [last season] will help us be less susceptible to a letdown,” Gelnovatch said.
The NCAA tournament “was good,” he said, “but we kind of struggled in the regular season and the ACC tournament. So we really want to focus this year on putting a full season together, to compete for the regular-season ACC championship and get back to the ACC tournament final and actually win one of those. It’s my last year, and we haven’t won the ACC tournament yet, so I think that would be really cool to do.”
That the No. 16 seed was the last team standing made last year’s NCAA tournament memorable, as did UVa’s ability to prevail despite a distinct lack of offensive firepower.
The `Hoos (14-6-3) finished the season with only 27 goals, their fewest during Gelnovatch’s tenure as head coach. The loss of Salandy-Defour, who had three goals and four assists in 2013, hurt at the offensive end, as did injuries to such players as Wharton, Madison, Lennon, Corriveau and Eric Bird.
“Last year, I felt like somebody was hurt at every point of the season, one of our attacking guys,” Wharton said. “I feel like if we can keep everybody healthy and then add some of these new guys coming in who can bring a lot going forward, I think we’ll be fine.”
Bird, who led Virginia with five goals last year, now plays for the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer. Even without the All-America midfielder, though, the Cavaliers should have more attacking options this season.
This team “has the potential to be a lot better in terms of the goals, but the key word is `potential,’ ” Gelnovatch said. “Sam Hayward had a great spring. Can it translate? Riggs Lennon had a great spring. Can it translate? We think Edward Opoku can score goals like crazy, but he’s young. Derrick Etienne was scoring goals basically at a professional level in the USL. Does it translate?”
It’s too early to know for sure. Still, Gelnovatch said, “you add all these things in there, and we do think it’ll add up to more goals and being more dangerous.”
However potent the Cavaliers’ offense may become, stingy defense will remain a cornerstone of the program.
“We’re going to score, and we’re trying to build the team that way,” Gelnovatch said, “keeping in mind that we’re not going to lose the piece of us that has won us two national championships, which is making sure we do a great job defending, and doing that first.
“We’re just adding some pieces that give us some more teeth, that give us some more dynamic qualities, that give us some more depth. And that’s what the recruiting plan has been, and it’s evident. You can see it.”
Rozhansky, who made the ACC’s all-freshman team last season, trained with the United States’ Under-23 national team this summer. He finished his first college season with modest statistics — one goal and three assists — but those numbers belied his value to the team. He’s put on some much-needed weight and figures to be more productive as a sophomore.
“I think he can really have a breakout year,” Gelnovatch said.
Gelnovatch’s biggest concern heading into the season is at the defensive end. Among the starters lost from the 2014 team were Kyler Sullivan, a four-year starter at right back, and Matt Brown, who started at right center back in the postseason. Also gone is Calle Brown, UVa’s goalkeeper in each of the past two College Cups.
Even so, a strong foundation returns on defense.
“Jeff Caldwell we feel really good about,” Gelnovatch said, and Thomsen returns at left back and Sheldon Sullivan, Kyler’s brother, at left center back. The younger Sullivan played every minute of every game last year.
The new right center back is likely to be a sophomore: Suggs, who made 14 starts last season, or Manny Scere, who played in two games. Redshirt freshman Julian Cummings is probably the leading candidate to replace Kyler Sullivan at right back.
“Julian actually started the spring out really well there, and then kind of hit a little bit of a wall,” Gelnovatch said. “But by all accounts he’s shown up fitter than he’s ever been and sharper than he’s ever been. So we’re going to continue to look at him there, and also we could use [Salandy-Defour] in that spot.”
Who, exactly, will make up his starting lineup, Gelnovatch can’t say this early in August. At the attacking positions in particular there are a myriad of possibilities, among them Salandy-Defour, Hayward, Madison, Etienne, Aguilar, Lennon, Opoku and Corriveau.
“I have some great options,” Gelnovatch said.