By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — One day, defender Sheldon Sullivan may look to the sideline during a University of Virginia men’s soccer game and see a substitute coming in for him. It hasn’t happened yet, though, because Sullivan has made himself indispensable to head coach George Gelnovatch.
As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Sullivan started every game and played all 2,174 minutes for the Cavaliers, who capped the season by winning the program’s seventh NCAA title.
“He got better and better and better as the year went on,” Gelnovatch said of Sullivan, who made the all-tournament team at the College Cup, “and I think he’s picking up where he left off.”
Sullivan has played all 490 minutes this season for sixth-ranked UVa (0-0-1, 3-0-2), whose ACC home opener is Friday at 7 p.m. against NC State (1-0, 5-1) at Klöckner Stadium.
“He’s our anchor,” Gelnovatch said.
It’s become customary during UVa games to see opposing teams threaten to score, only to be thwarted when Sullivan comes “flying in from out of nowhere,” as Gelnovatch put it, to clear the ball.
“That’s not only his athleticism, but his ability to anticipate and read plays,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s got a different gear. And one of the things he can do well, when he comes over to clean it up, is he can take a big touch and push [the ball] out wide and run after it and put it up the field. He’s fast enough to do that.”
For all of Sullivan’s considerable skills, his forte is not scoring goals, and that doesn’t bother him.
“Maybe in overtime if Coach sends everybody forward on a corner kick, I’ll get lucky,” Sullivan said. “But I’m OK with shutouts. I’d prefer a shutout to a goal.”
Coming out of North Stafford High School, the 5-9, 160-pound Sullivan was not a heralded recruit. Then again, neither was his brother, Kyler, who preceded him at UVa. Kyler, who now works for a consulting firm in Northern Virginia, is two years older than Sheldon.
“I actually found Kyler watching Eric Bird,” Gelnovatch said. “They played in a state championship [club match], and I saw Kyler playing when I went to watch Eric. And that started the process of recruiting Kyler, and we quickly got to know his brother. Great family. Both those kids are first-class guys.”
When he was young, Sheldon recalled, “I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to play with Kyler [in college]. I kind of always wanted to beat him. But academically Virginia was up there, in soccer they were up there, and every time I went on a visit here, I loved it, so I had to choose it.”
He remembers attending a regular-season game at Klöckner Stadium in 2009, when Virginia’s standouts include Tony Tchani and Jonathan Villanueva, and marveling at the atmosphere.
“After that they kind of had me,” Sheldon said, smiling.
Kyler was a four-year starter at right back for the Wahoos, and the brothers played together last season, as they had at North Stafford High. The right-footed Kyler wore jersey No. 13, and the left-footed Sheldon wore No. 31. Each had tremendous strength and a low center of gravity.
Starting alongside his brother was “always something special,” Sheldon said. “I know my parents were at almost every game, and it’s always nice to see them enjoying both of us playing at the same time. I know they weren’t really too thrilled about me not playing and Kyler playing [in 2013], but now they couldn’t be any more proud.”
The coaching staff chose to redshirt Sheldon in 2013, partly because the `Hoos had an experienced backline that fall and partly because an early-season injury slowed his development.
By the latter part of the 2013 season, Sullivan was playing so well in practice that he could have contributed in games, Gelnovatch said. But it did not make sense to trade a full year of eligibility for a handful of appearances, and so Sullivan remained on the sideline.
He benefited from the experience, emerging from his redshirt year an improved player.
“It helped me think about the game more, think about why I’m here and think about what the coaches want from me,” Sullivan said.
Gelnovatch said: “Part of that was his upbringing and his personality. Him and Kyler, they rarely get down. They’re always smiling. They show up and work hard every day. They buy into what you’re teaching and going over. He got better. He wasn’t playing in games, but by the end of the year we all knew he was going to be a really good player.”
Sullivan impressed the Cavaliers’ coaches in the spring of 2014 and earned a starting job last summer. For most of the season, Virginia used a three-man backline in which Sullivan played left back. When the `Hoos switched to a four-man backline late in the year, Sullivan moved to left center back, with Scott Thomsen on his left and Matt Brown and Kyler Sullivan on his right.
Sheldon finished the season with only one point, but that assist was monumental. In the NCAA quarterfinals, with UVa trailing Georgetown 1-0 in the final minute, Sullivan sent a long ball into the box. Riggs Lennon headed the ball to Todd Wharton, who volleyed it into the net for the equalizer.
Buoyed by their last-minute reprieve, the visiting `Hoos went on to oust the favored Hoyas on penalty kicks.
“I never saw us losing in the Elite Eight,” Sullivan said. “I saw us going to the College Cup again, like we did the year before. So when that ball came to me, it was like, `Hey, we gotta get this goal as soon as possible.’ ”
At the College Cup in Cary, N.C., UVa did not allow a goal in its semifinal against UMBC or in the final against UCLA. Sullivan was everywhere, it seemed, in the championship game. At one point, a Bruin, stymied by Sullivan’s defense, was assessed a yellow card for kicking Sullivan in frustration.
This summer, Sullivan, who was born in California when his father was in the Marines, played with Wharton on the Portland Timbers’ U23 team in the Premier Development League.
“It was a lot different, because I hadn’t been to the West Coast since I was born, honestly,” Sullivan said. “But soccer-wise, they play really fast.
“Once I started getting adjusted to the speed of play, I realized that’s the next level [in soccer] and that’s where I need to be, so it was just giving me something that I’ve been trying to work on since I’ve gotten back.”
From the defense that started in last year’s NCAA tournament, Virginia lost three starters: Matt Brown, Kyler Sullivan and goalkeeper Calle Brown. Gelnovatch went into this season planning to start Jeff Caldwell in goal, Marcus Salandy-Defour at right back, Wesley Suggs at right center back, Sheldon Sullivan at left center back, and Thomsen at left back.
Of that group, however, only Sullivan, Suggs and Caldwell have been fixtures in the lineup so far. Salandy-Defour, hindered by hamstring and groin injuries, has yet to play this season, and Thomsen recently had surgery to repair a sports hernia.
As a result, Virginia’s defense has been uncharacteristically shaky at times. But Salandy-Defour is expected to make his 2015 debut soon, and the chemistry among the other defenders — Suggs, Sullivan, Patrick Foss, Manny Scere and Malcolm Dixon — figures to improve as they gain experience playing together.
“As we start communicating more and get used to each other, we should be fine,” said Sullivan, who may end up majoring in economics and minoring in sociology at Virginia.
As a team, UVa remains a work in progress, too.
“The talent’s definitely there, and everyone can see it,” Sullivan said. ” We’ve won a couple games, but I still feel like we’re not all completely used to each other. You can see it on the field. Off the field, we all know each other for the most part, but we haven’t really come together like we did during the tournament last year. So I think once that happens it’ll all look really nice.”
And if Gelnovatch should choose for some reason to sub for No. 31 during a game? Sullivan pondered that possibility and then smiled.
“George is a smart coach, so no matter what, I’d have to respect it,” he said. “As disappointing as that would be, to end the streak of playing every minute, I’d be OK with it.”