Aug. 26, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even the most ardent University of Virginia men’s soccer supporters figure to be regularly checking their programs Friday night at Klöckner Stadium.

The floppy-haired guy at center back? That’s Sergi Nus, a sophomore who starred last fall for Fresno Pacific, a Division II school in California.

The left back? That’s freshman Robin Afamefuna, who’s from Germany.

The right back? That’s freshman Victor Falck, who enrolled at UVA in January after graduating early from Cox High School in Virginia Beach.

Of the Cavaliers’ four starting midfielders, two were elsewhere last season. Junior Bay Kurtz was playing for Liberty University and freshman Terrell Lowe with the United States’ U17 national team.

“We are a completely revamped team,” said George Gelnovatch, who’s in his 21st season as head coach at his alma mater.

Not only in terms of personnel, but formation. No. 17 Virginia, which hosts No. 21 Coastal Carolina at 7 p.m. Friday in the season opener for both teams, has employed a 3-4-3 since starting practice early this month, with positive results.

The Wahoos went 3-0 in their exhibition games, outscoring their opponents (Longwood, Liberty and Georgetown) by a combined 9-2.

“Because of the personnel we have, we’ve been able to set up completely differently,” Gelnovatch said. “And the idea is to be more aggressive in the attacking half of the field, score more goals, and see where we are with that.”

The Wahoos scored only 24 goals last season, when they finished 10-5-3 after losing to Maryland in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.

UVA played with four backs in 2015. For most of the 2014 season, the `Hoos went with a three-man backline. But Gelnovatch abandoned that formation late that fall and, during a postseason run that ended with the program’s seventh NCAA title, reverted to the more common four-back defense.

“A month from now, I could be here scrapping the whole thing and going back to a four-back system,” Gelnovatch said after practice Tuesday, “but with this group, it’s vastly different.”

A lineup with only three backs can be effective, Gelnovatch said, “but they have to be good with the ball, and confident. It’s not easy to find that, and it’s not easy to develop it.”

It’s also essential to have a talented holding midfielder, Gelnovatch said, and Lowe qualifies as such. He’s played this year with the U19 national team.

In the middle of the defense is the 6-1, 185-pound Nus, who’s from Barcelona, Spain, and, naturally, pulls for the Lionel Messi-led local club.

His family lives near Camp Nou, where FC Barcelona plays its home games, “and I always try to go there when I have time,” Nus said. “I really miss it.”

But he’s thrilled to be in Charlottesville — even if he’s still adjusting to the oppressive humidity — and the coaching staff is delighted to have Nus, who helped Fresno Pacific win the PacWest Conference title last season.

In Virginia’s 4-2 victory over Liberty on Aug. 16, Nus scored two goals — one on a header.

“I don’t want to overdo it with him, but he’s a big body,” Gelnovatch said, “and his soccer IQ and positioning and decision-making so far, from what I can see, are outstanding. Super-high level. And his passing and his comfort level [are excellent, too].”

When goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell looks to distribute the ball, Nus “legitimately feels comfortable and wants the ball, and so do Robin and Victor,” Gelnovatch said. “So I’ve got three guys, starting with our center back in Sergi, that are really, really comfortable and want the ball.”

And that, Gelnovatch said, should benefit the Cavaliers at the offensive end, too.

“We’ve set up a system where we let these three guys just come out with the ball and everybody else pushes up,” he said, “and we have these patterns now of how we’re going to break you down.”

Before arriving in Charlottesville this summer, Nus played with two of his future UVA teammates, Peter Pearson and Simeon Okoro, for the Fresno Fuego in the Premier Development League.

Nus’ brother, Gerard, is head coach of Rayo OKC, an Oklahoma City-based professional club that competes in the North American Soccer League. The elder Nus also has coached in such places as Spain, England, South Korea and Australia.

What he likes most about his brother as a player, Gerard Nus said, is “his mental approach. He’s so determined. I think there are so many people, when things are not going well, they look for excuses or they look for other ways around, and he’s a player that fights for everything.”

Sergi Nus is also technically precise, his brother said. “He’s a Barcelona style of player. He cares about the ball.”

The Nus brothers grew up in a country where futbol is king and clubs such as Real Madrid and FC Barcelona dominate the headlines.

“All my family has always been supporting soccer and watching soccer,” Gerard Nus said. “In Spain, in Catalonia, it’s part of our DNA, it’s part of our culture. Soccer is so important, and we’re part of it.”

In the United States, soccer’s popularity continues to grow, but the landscape is much different.

“Here it’s a younger sport,” said Sergi Nus, who plans to major in kinesiology at UVA. “Here you guys have more passion about basketball, more passion about baseball and American football, but I like [college soccer]. The level is good. Maybe it’s a little more physical, less tactical [than in Europe], but Coach George is really good in tactics, so I’m learning so far a lot, and I’m looking forward to this next year.”

Leaving his friends and teammates at Fresno Pacific wasn’t easy, Nus said, but the opportunity to attend UVA and play at the highest level of NCAA soccer was one he couldn’t pass up.

“I had no doubt, and I think I made the right choice,” he said.

His brother agreed.

“It is a step forward, I think, for his career,” Gerard Nus said.

ON THE MEND: Fifth-year senior Marcus Salandy-Defour, one of the Cavaliers’ most dynamic players, was cleared this week to return to practice.

Salandy-Defour, who missed the 2014 season while recovering from a torn ACL, suffered another knee injury early this year.

In 2015, Salandy-Defour started all 10 games in which he appeared and had three goals and an assist. In his three seasons at UVA, he’s started 50 games and totaled eight goals and eight assists.

Salandy-Defour won’t play against Coastal Carolina, Gelnovatch said, “but I think inside of the next couple of weeks you’ll start to see some more of him.”

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