By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his first college game, Malcolm Dixon started at a position that until about 10 days ago he’d never played on the soccer field.
“He’s an attacking guy,” UVa head coach George Gelnovatch said of Dixon, a 5-10, 155-pound freshman from Montclair, N.J.
A preseason injury to redshirt junior Marcus Salandy-Defour, however, forced the Cavaliers’ coaching staff to be creative, and so Dixon moved to defense and took over at right back.
That he was playing out of position was never apparent in Virginia’s season-opener. The only freshman to start for defending NCAA champion UVa, Dixon played the full 90 minutes Saturday night in a 1-0 victory over No. 17 Charlotte at Klöckner Stadium.
“Absolutely fantastic,” sophomore goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell said of Dixon’s performance. “You can’t say enough about the kid.”
A festive crowd of 4,620, including more than 2,700 students, flocked to Klöckner to ring in the new season, and the fans made their presence known.
“I can’t say enough about the fan support and atmosphere, in particular the student turnout,” Gelnovatch said. “The atmosphere was electric and provided the extra lift we needed to close out the game.”
It was a special setting for players making their college debuts. Still, Dixon said, he felt no opening-night jitters, even at an unfamiliar position.
“I was always an attacking guy,” said Dixon, who scored the only goal Aug. 15 in UVa’s preseason win over Navy, “but even being an attacking guy, you gotta learn how to defend as well. So filling in at right back felt natural.”
The second-ranked Wahoos entered the opener still stinging from their third and final exhibition. In a rematch between teams that met in last year’s NCAA quarterfinals, Georgetown ripped Virginia 3-0 in Washington, D.C.
UVa learned lessons from that defeat, however painful, and returned to form Saturday night.
“I know you try to take every game like a real game, but when you know it’s the regular season and you know the games count, you’re going to step it up a bit,” senior midfielder Todd Wharton.
The game’s lone goal came in the 38th minute, when junior midfielder Nicko Corriveau deftly headed a free kick from Wharton past Charlotte goalkeeper Austin Pack.
On such a kick, Wharton said, “you try to pick someone out or just really put it in a good spot. That’s one of those where you try to just play it in, and if no one touches it you hope it just trickles in because the goalie’s caught off guard. But Nicko got a great header on it, and luckily it found the back of the net.”
Gelnovatch said: “Great goal. The ball that Todd put in was really good, but the run [by Corriveau] was good. The whole goal was set up nicely.”
Charlotte, the No. 10 overall seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, returned a strong nucleus from that team, including senior forward Kyle Parker, Conference USA’s offensive player of the year in 2014. Win or lose Saturday night, Gelnovatch said, battling the 49ers was going to benefit his team.
“I think the way they play — they’re hard, they’re physical, they’re organized, they get after it — we’re going to get that every game,” Gelnovatch said.
From its NCAA championship team, Virginia lost several key players, including Eric Bird, Ryan Zinkhan, Matt Brown, Kyler Sullivan, Calle Brown and Darius Madison. But even with a revamped defense, the Cavaliers successfully limited the 49ers’ scoring opportunities.
“We had a game plan coming in, and we executed, and we won,” said Caldwell, Calle Brown’s successor as No. 1 goalkeeper.
“We didn’t give up a goal. That’s our biggest thing right now. Obviously a big thing for us this year is scoring more goals, but it’s a moot point if we don’t continue being absolutely steadfast in the back. We start here. It’s a foundation. Now we know we can win like this, and next time out [maybe the Cavaliers] come out and win 4-nil instead of 1-nil.”
Gelnovatch said: “When we got in our defensive set, we did a real good job. And it’s not easy against [the 49ers]. They had some good, big boys. Down in the last 10 minutes of the game, closing it out, it was reminiscent of how we were at the end of last year.”
Virginia’s first-year players are talented, but they’re not yet used to the rigors of high-level college soccer. And so, Gelnovatch said Saturday night, “I decided in this game to not start so many young guys.”
Against Charlotte, Virginia opened with two seniors (Wharton and Scott Thomsen), three juniors (Corriveau, Sam Hayward and Riggs Lennon), five sophomores (Caldwell, Wesley Suggs, Pablo Aguilar, Jake Rozhansky and Sheldon Sullivan), and one freshman (Dixon).
Off the bench, Opoku played 49 minutes, Etienne played 26 and another freshman, Jean-Christophe Koffi, played 14. The 5-6 Opoku provided an immediate jolt of energy with his pace and quickness and appears destined to become a fan favorite at Klöckner.
“I thought Edward looked much more comfortable coming onto the game rather than starting the game, and it showed tonight,” Gelnovatch said. “And he’ll get better. He’ll put away those chances, he’ll get more comfortable. So will Derrick, so will Koffi, so will Malcolm and some of the other guys. So it was a good night.”
During one stretch late in the second half, Dixon, Opoku, Etienne and Koffi were on the field together.
“We’re a great class, and we all believe in our abilities, and so does the coach,” said Dixon, who played with Etienne and another UVa freshman, forward Wesley Wade, in the New York Red Bulls Academy. “I think we’ll do well going forward.”
Wharton agreed. “I’m really excited to see those guys progress.”
UVa’s next game is Friday at 7 p.m. against Tulsa (0-1) at Klöckner. The Golden Hurricane edged the `Hoos 1-0 in two overtimes last season in Tulsa.
“We’re looking forward to having them here,” said Gelnovatch, who hopes to have Salandy-Defour available for the game.
“The nice part is we got a week to get ready for it. We’ll get a good scout on them. We already know a lot about them, and we’ll be ready to go.”