By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His mother is from Israel and his father from Denmark, and they met as law students at the University of Buckingham in England.
“So we have an international family,” Daniel Barir said Wednesday at the University of Virginia, where he is a second-year student and a starter on the men’s soccer team.
Barir, who has dual citizenship, was born in Israel but never lived there. He was raised in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, a Scandinavian country near Norway and Sweden, and speaks four languages, some better than others.
“England is my mother tongue, and Danish as well,” Barir said. “I speak some Hebrew. I used to be fluent when I was small — now it’s kind of disappeared — and then I know German from school.”
As chance would have it, his father, Lars LÃƒÆ’Ã†’Â¼thjohan Jensen, attended Collegiate School in Richmond as an exchange student for a year as a boy. So when Barir, in Copenhagen, started exploring the possibility of playing college soccer in the United States, some of his father’s connections from Collegiate recommended UVA.
Barir had originally committed to Cal Poly, but he re-opened his commitment after a coaching change at that school. As he neared graduation from ÃƒÆ’Ã†’Ãƒâ€¹Ã…”regÃƒÆ’Ã†’Â¥rd Gymnasium, his high school in Copenhagen, he wasn’t set on attending college in the U.S., but the possibility intrigued him.
“It was never 100 percent,” Barir recalled. “I wanted to see where football would take me in Denmark as well. But it’s always been in the back of my mind, I think, since we have an international family.”
After attending a winter camp at UVA, where he impressed head coach George Gelnovatch and assistants Matt Chulis and Terry Boss, Barir decided to become a Cavalier. He enrolled at the University in the summer of 2015, fully expecting to play a significant role last fall.
“I knew it’d be tough as a freshman, but I have faith in my abilities,” said Barir, who’s played with national age-group teams in Israel, where his maternal grandparents live.
Virtually all of his time on the field for Virginia last season, however, came in practice. Barir played in only one game, partly because he wasn’t ready to contribute and partly because the Cavaliers’ coaches weren’t sure how to best use him. Still, he didn’t pout.
“I was trying to take the chances I got,” Barir said, “but I’ve been patient. I don’t give up. I played for three years [for elite teams] in Copenhagen, and there was a lot of adversity at times there as well.
“So I like to stick it out. I feel like even though you might not play all the minutes, you gain something different from working your way into the lineup.”
Once Barir realized he didn’t figure prominently in the Cavaliers’ plans for 2015, he began preparing for ’16. With Gelnovatch’s permission, Barir sometimes skipped light practices for one-on-one sessions with athletic trainer Bill Miller. His goal, Barir said, was “to get stronger and get a head start for the spring.”
His plan is paying dividends. Barir, whom Gelnovatch considers a hybrid forward-midfielder, has started every game for 16th-ranked Virginia (3-1-2 overall, 0-1-1 ACC), which plays Saturday night at No. 13 Louisville (6-1-1, 2-0).
Barir has yet to score a goal but leads the Wahoos with three assists.
“He has very good technique,” Gelnovatch said, “and he’s got a European pedigree from a technique standpoint: his touches, how he turns, his tactical awareness. He understands the game to an extent that when you review tactics, he knows exactly what you’re talking about and how to apply them. He’s a very smart kid who asks good questions.”
What Barir is not, at 5-9, 140 pounds, is physically imposing.
“He’s a little guy, right?” Gelnovatch said. “But he’s fast. I wouldn’t call him a burner, but he’s fast, and his engine is incredible. He can run, run, run, run, run.
“And then from the tactical standpoint, he understands how to pressure you, what angle to take, specifically when it’s on the weak side, which guy he’s supposed to [mark]. He gets all of that.”
In Virginia’s season opener, a 2-1 win over visiting Coastal Carolina, Barir dribbled into the box and earned a penalty kick that Paddy Foss converted. Barir had two assists in a 3-0 win over VCU and helped set up UVA’s first goal last weekend against Clemson at Klöckner Stadium.
“He doesn’t quite have the pace or power to do it on his own, or to beat you individually on his own,” Gelnovatch said, but he added that Barir’s tactical awareness, technique and conditioning make him invaluable.
Barir, who lives with teammates Edward Opoku, Victor Falck and Simeon Okoro, does not intend to study law as his parents did. (His father is an attorney in Copenhagen.) He’s applied to the prestigious McIntire School of Commerce and is thriving at UVA.
“I love the whole experience,” Barir said. “It was a big step for me in becoming independent, being far from home.”
On the field, Barir starts up top on the left side in Virginia’s 3-4-3 formation and often is asked to operate between the opponent’s backline and midfield. To do so effectively, Gelnovatch said, a player must “be really tight on his turn, getting thet ball and turning in those gaps and those seams.”
Gelnovatch cited UVA’s first goal against VCU last week at Klöckner. In the 12th minute, Sergi Nus played the ball ahead to Barir, who then slipped a pass to Opoku, who did the rest.
“Daniel’s technique on that turn — go back and watch it — was unbelievable,” Gelnovatch said. “Not too many guys can do that. That ball’s coming in really fast. To be able to receive it in between the lines, turn, and then slip a great little ball to Eddie, that’s his quality.”
Moreover, Gelnovatch said, when the Cavaliers lose the ball, Barir instinctively “knows where to go tactically. On the strong side, on the weak side, he knows who to pick up, and he breaks up [plays and knocks balls away]. When we press them back and win it back quickly, we’ve scored goals from him doing that.”
The goals are coming more frequently for the `Hoos this season. In 2015, when they advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round, the Cavaliers totaled only 24 goals in 18 games. They’ve scored 12 in six games this season.
“I feel like we’ve very dynamic up front now,” Barir said. “I think that comes from having a lot of different players up front with different qualities.”
Equally important, perhaps, Virginia’s team chemistry is markedly improved this season.
“I think we’re really gelling this year,” Barir said. “We’ve got a lot of different personalities, but they click somehow this year. We’re a much bigger group, but we’re still close. The whole team connects.”
Of the players who have started at least five games apiece for UVA this season, two are freshmen (Terrell Lowe and Robin Afamefuna) and four are sophomores (Barir, Opoku, Nus and Jean-Christophe Koffi).
The Cavaliers are as talented, though, as they are inexperienced at some positions.
“There’s a couple things we need to work on,” said Gelnovatch, whose son, Jake, is a freshman goalkeeper at Louisville, “but the theme of the week is: We’ve got to grow up. We’re playing great, we’re dangerous as hell and I’m really pleased, but there are plays where we show our youth too much.”