CHARLOTTESVILLE — In NCAA men’s soccer, the only school to reach the College Cup in both 2013 and ’14 — the University of Virginia — entered this season hoping to reach the Final Four for the third consecutive year.
The defending champion Cavaliers fell well short of their goal. UVA was ousted in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 last month. So was UCLA, which Virginia defeated in penalty kicks in last year’s NCAA title game. Neither of the other teams that advanced to the College Cup in 2014 — Providence and Maryland-Baltimore County — even made the NCAA tourney this year.
That speaks to the parity in the men’s game. The Wahoos’ up-and-down season also underscores the challenges facing a team trying to repeat as national champion.
After losing in the NCAA semifinals in 2013, Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch said, his team came back “hungry — very hungry — to win a national championship in 2014. And in the end, some of those intangibles and the hunger piece of it were off the charts, and I think it really helped us.”
This year, Gelnovatch said, the Cavaliers’ focus wasn’t as singular, their chemistry wasn’t as strong, and some players occasionally put personal goals ahead of the team’s objectives.
“I’m not mad at them,” Gelnovatch said. “It’s kind of human nature. It happens. But we’ve had two years of great success, capped off by a national championship, and it’s human nature to start to think a little more about yourself than about the team.”
The `Hoos, 14-6-3 in 2014, finished 10-5-3 this season after losing 1-0 to former ACC rival Maryland in College Park on Nov. 22. After a midseason stretch in which they allowed 9 goals in four games, the Cavaliers tightened up defensively late in the year. Ultimately, though, Virginia was unable to overcome its lack of firepower in the attacking third.
In 2014, when the `Hoos won the NCAA title for the second time in six seasons, they scored 27 goals. That was the fewest ever by a Gelnovatch-coached team, but Virginia’s defense was virtually impregnable during the postseason.
This season, their 20th under Gelnovatch, the Cavaliers scored only 24 goals, though they averaged more per game (1.33) than in 2014 (1.17). Only one Virginia player — sophomore midfielder Jake Rozhansky — totaled more than three goals this fall.
“I thought we would score more goals,” Gelnovatch said. “We scored more goals in the spring.”
The early-season absence of Marcus Salandy-Defour set UVA back offensively. Salandy-Defour, a starter in 2013, missed the entire 2014 season while recovering from a torn ACL. His knee was fine by the start of preseason practice this year, but groin and hamstring injuries sidelined Salandy-Defour for the first eight games. Then, once Salandy-Defour returned, Gelnovatch frequently played him at right back to help strengthen a struggling defense.
Two other veterans Virginia needed to establish themselves as scoring threats, juniors Riggs Lennon and Sam Hayward, had quiet seasons offensively, as did redshirt sophomore Pablo Aguilar, who started 16 games in the midfield.
Freshman forward Edward Opoku threatened defenses all season, and the conference’s head coaches named him to the All-ACC third team. Still, given Opoku’s team-high totals in shots (32) and shot on goals (15), his production was modest: two goals and three assists.
“I think next year five of those [other shots] go in, just because he’s a little bit less nervous, a little bit more composed,” Gelnovatch said. “But he almost takes too much accountability or responsibility [for those misses]. When we met with him after the season, he was feeling bad about those five or six plays he should have scored on. And I know he will. But the fact is, we didn’t score on those plays. That certainly would have helped us.”
Rozhansky, one of two Cavaliers named to the All-ACC second team, along with senior midfielder Todd Wharton, finished with nine points (four goals and one assists). That tied him with junior defender Patrick Foss (two goals, five assists) for the team lead.
Next, with seven points apiece, were Salandy-Defour and Opoku, and Lennon and junior midfielder Nicko Corriveau each contributed six points. Three Cavaliers finished with five points each: Wharton and freshman midfielders Derrick Etienne and Jean-Christophe Koffi.
“Moving forward, we’ve got to find goal-scorers,” Gelnovatch said.
He’d like to complement the 5-foot-6 Opoku with a bigger forward, someone in the mold of former UVA stars Will Bates, Adam Cristman and Yannick Reyering.
“We need to find a guy with a different dimension,” Gelnovatch said, “that scores goals, that has a little bit of a different presence and size and athleticism, and we’re looking for that guy.”
Virginia loses three seniors: Wharton; defender Scott Thomsen, a starter who missed 13 games with a sports hernia this season; and reserve goalkeeper Andrew Freschi. Moreover, two of the team’s most talented underclassmen, Rozhansky and Etienne, who made the ACC’s all-freshman team, may well turn pro early.
If that happens, the biggest holes for Gelnovatch to will be in the defensive midfield, where Virginia’s starters this season were Wharton and Rozhansky. Sophomore Peter Pearson will have an opportunity this spring to earn one of those starting jobs.
“He’s one of my best character guys, and he’s off-the-charts athletic,” Gelnovatch said of Pearson, who appeared in only one game this season.
“He needs confidence. He needs experience. He needs fitness. But he has technique. He’s strong. He can get out of trouble with his feet, and he’s going to [play extensively] in the spring in that role.”
With sophomore Jeff Caldwell (third-team All-ACC) in goal, the Cavaliers recorded seven shutouts this season. Caldwell will be back in 2016, along with four defenders who have starting experience: Foss, redshirt sophomores Wesley Suggs and Sheldon Sullivan, and sophomore Nate Odusote.
Sullivan, who started Virginia’s first 15 games at left center back, missed the final three after suffering a groin injury Oct. 30 against North Carolina. In Sullivan’s absence, Odusote played remarkably well, giving the Cavaliers’ coaches reason to believe he can handle a significant role in 2016.
“Nate’s always been a little bit of an enigma for me,” Gelovatch said, “trying to figure out if he can do it [in games]. And sometimes it takes somebody getting hurt. Something unfortunate happens like Shelly pulling his groin, and you have no choice. In a big game, you have no choice as a coach. Put him in. Sink or swim. He was thrown to the wolves. And he did very well.”
Redshirt freshman Julian Cummings, who impressed against Maryland in 23 minutes off the bench, will be a candidate to start at right back. If Cummings can handle that responsibility, Gelnovatch would be free to use Salandy-Defour, the team’s fastest player, at the attacking end.
Inconsistency marked the play of Virginia’s heralded freshman class, but the newcomers flashed their talent throughout the season. Overall, the group did not have the impact many expected, but as sophomores such players as Opoku, Koffi, Cummings, Wesley Wade, Malcolm Dixon and Simeon Okoro will have an opportunity in 2016 to help the Cavaliers reach the goal that eluded them this season.
“I think losing in the second round of the playoffs is a reminder for all of us that it’s gotta be about the team,” Gelnovatch said. “If it becomes about individuals, you won’t have that intangible that gives you that extra percent going down the stretch. We’ve had that the past couple years, and we’ll make sure we get it going again.”
When Virginia’s players return next month for the spring semester, they’ll start training eight hours a week. The team’s training schedule will increase in late February.
The Cavaliers might play as many as five exhibition games in the spring. Four opponents are set: Wake Forest, Elon, VCU and the Richmond Kickers.