Oct. 9, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thirty-two minutes into his first appearance for the University of Virginia men’s soccer team in nearly 22 months, the fleet midfielder in the No. 13 jersey scored a goal last Friday afternoon at Klöckner Stadium.

Three nights later, he scored again at Klöckner, this time against Portland.

You remember Marcus Salandy-Defour, right?

“It’s great to have him back,” Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch said.

A starter on the team that in December 2013 reached the College Cup in Philadelphia, where UVA lost to then-ACC foe Maryland in the NCAA semifinals, Salandy-Defour tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while training with D.C. United in July 2014.

Reconstructive surgery followed, and Salandy-Defour missed the 2014 season. That relegated him to a spectator’s role during the Wahoos’ run to their seventh NCAA championship, a bittersweet occasion for Salandy-Defour.

“Obviously at the end of the day I’m really happy we won,” he said this week. “But any time you’re not playing, regardless of if your team’s winning or losing, it’s not fun. It’s not what you want to do.”

The early part of this season wasn’t much fun for Salandy-Defour, either. His knee was fine, but nagging groin and hamstring injuries forced the 5-9, 160-pound redshirt junior from Kensington, Md., to miss the Cavaliers’ first eight games.

“It wasn’t planned,” he said, “but that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

Of his 2015 debut, Salandy-Defour said, “It’s always a great feeling to score, especially in your first game. It’s something I’ve been waiting for, for [more than] a year now. I was really happy and excited I got the chance to play.”

He arrived at UVA in 2012 as part of a highly regarded recruiting class whose other members included midfielder Todd Wharton and defender Scott Thomsen.

Wharton, a midfielder, has started every game this season for 10th-ranked Virginia (7-1-2 overall, 2-1-1 ACC), which meets Boston College (7-3-1, 2-2) at 7 p.m. Friday in Newton, Mass. Thomsen, however, is recovering from a sports hernia and hasn’t played since the Aug. 29 opener.

To have Salandy-Defour back on the field, Wharton said, has “obviously been great, because he’s played in two games and scored in both. But more than that he just brings a level of composure and leadership and experience that we haven’t had much of this season, since he and Scott have both been out.”

Gelnovatch said Salandy-Defour continued to grow as a player during his long rehabilitation. “Even though he didn’t play last year, he’s a year older and more mature,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s technically a senior.”

Salandy-Defour is not the most vocal leader, but he’s among the team’s most respected players.

“He’s a good, grounded guy who works hard, stays fit,” Gelnovatch said. “Guys know he’s really professional [in his approach]. He takes care of himself. He was here all summer lifting. Guys know that about him, so I think he’s got a lot of respect.”

Wharton said: “He’s someone who works hard every day and leads by example.”

His experience at UVA has been a positive one, said Salandy-Defour, a history major. “I definitely think I’ve grown and matured over my four years here. It’s definitely been tough, but it made me a better person for sure.”

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, Salandy-Defour grew up around the game. His father, who’s from Trinidad, played soccer, and Salandy-Defour showed an early aptitude for the sport.

After spending his middle-school years at St. Anselm’s, Salandy-Defour transferred to Georgetown Prep, where he was a four-year starter. He also played in the D.C. United Academy program and earned four caps with the United States’ Under-18 national team.

Not long after graduating from Georgetown Prep, Salandy-Defour enrolled at UVa, where he made an immediate impact in one of college soccer’s most storied programs.

In 2012, he started all 21 games, contributed seven points (two goals and three assists), and made the ACC’s all-freshman team.

As a sophomore, Salandy-Defour had three goals and four assists in 21 games, made the All-ACC Tournament team, and helped the ‘Hoos reach the College Cup for the first time since 2009.

In 2014, he watched the Cavaliers struggle at the attacking end. Virginia won the NCAA title despite finishing the season with only 27 goals, its fewest in Gelnovatch’s nearly two decades as head coach.

“I like to think I could have helped,” Salandy-Defour said.

He’s already helped this season, and he narrowly missed recordings a second goal against Portland.

His fitness level is “definitely not where I want it to be,” Salandy-Defour said. “But for being two games into the season, it’s not bad. It could be worse, I think.”

He started and played 51 minutes against Louisville, a game UVA won on an improbable free kick by junior defender Patrick Foss with 94 seconds remaining.

Against Portland, on a night when the Cavaliers were without nine suspended players, Salandy-Defour started and logged 79 minutes before giving way to freshman Simeon Okoro, who scored the winning goal with 50 seconds left.

“We still need to get Marcus fitter, but he’s also fresh and hungry and eager after being off,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s added not only his talent, his speed, all that stuff, but he’s added a freshness to the team.”

Salandy-Defour is the fastest Cavalier, not only in sprints but in the two-mile Cooper Test every player must pass each summer.

“It’s kind of unusual,” Gelnovatch said. “Those are two different energy systems, two different tanks of gas, and you’re blessed to have both.

“I’ve got guys with unbelievable anaerobic capacity [who excel at] short sprints but who really struggle with the aerobic, and the Cooper has more aerobic. Marcus has got both tanks, which is pretty rare.”

Wharton said he and Thomsen “always talk about how Marcus is a freak of nature. When he got hurt, we knew he’d be out for the year, but we knew he’d come back even stronger, just because he’s that type of athlete, and he put in the work to get back.”

Salandy-Defour believes, with his hamstring and groin problems behind him, that he can get a step or two faster. And that bodes well for the ‘Hoos as the postseason approaches.

Opponents may not be as pleased about Salandy-Defour’s return.

“Can you imagine [opponents] watching our Louisville game, and saying, ‘Who the heck is that guy? Who’s that again?’ ” Gelnovatch said, smiling. “They’re looking through the roster, seeing him shooting down the flank, and realizing, ‘Holy smokes, Marcus Salandy’s back. We forgot about that guy.’ ”

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