By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In an ACC men’s soccer game in Blacksburg last fall, Jean-Christophe Koffi came off the bench and played 58 minutes for Virginia in a 1-0 victory over Virginia Tech.
“We were thrilled that he could make it that long,” UVA head coach George Gelnovatch recalled.
Fitness was an issue for Koffi as a freshman, but his conditioning has improved dramatically. Tuesday night at Klöckner Stadium, the native of Ivory Coast played the full 110 minutes in Virginia’s 1-1 double-overtime draw with Radford.
“He’s evolving,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s a thick, strong dude, and he needs to continue to work on [fitness]. But he’s made massive strides.”
And that’s big news for the Cavaliers. A 5-9, 175-pound midfielder, Koffi was already fast, powerful and technically proficient when he enrolled at UVA last year, but he gave the coaching staff reason to question his commitment to the team, the sport and his schoolwork.
“I think he would tell you that he needed some improvement in being a better teammate,” Gelnovatch said. “He wasn’t a bad teammate, but he had to learn that it’s not just about him and the plays he pulls off, but about being more of a team guy. And he’s done that. He’s actually become a little bit of a leader.”
Koffi (pronounced KOE-fee), a graduate of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., acknowledges that he struggled in his first year of college. As a sophomore, he’s taking better care of his body, spending more time on his schoolwork, and contributing more to the team.
“Obviously, I’ve made some mistakes in the past,” said Koffi, a product of the D.C. United Academy.
He’s also made noticeable progress. As a sophomore, Koffi has started 11 games for No. 21 Virginia (6-2-4 overall, 1-2-2 ACC), which hosts second-ranked Notre Dame (10-1-1, 3-1-1) at Klöckner Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday.
“He’s become a more consistent, reliable, sturdy guy for us,” said Gelnovatch, who’s in his 21st season as head coach at his alma mater.
In the Wahoos’ most recent ACC game, a 2-1 upset of then-No. 4 North Carolina last weekend in Chapel Hill, Koffi played the full 90 minutes. He spent most of the match marking one or the other of the Hume twins: 6-5, 204-pound Tucker and 6-5, 203-pound Walker.
“That was tough,” Koffi said. “It was probably the hardest job I’ve ever had to do on defense, because they were so tall. You just had to make it hard on them. You couldn’t go up and try to win the ball.”
The Carolina game was probably Koffi’s “worst performance of the year from the standpoint of passing and dribbling,” Gelnovatch said. “But he was still able to give us a high level of reliability to help us win the game, with just his defensive responsibilities.
“That’s a mature player.”
As a freshman, when he started one game for a team that lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round, Koffi had two goals and an assist. His scoring is down this season — Koffi has one assist and no goals — but his role has changed. He’s one of the team’s defensive anchors.
“He’s what we call a box-to-box midfielder,” Gelnovatch said. “Our positions are numbered, just like in basketball. He’s a No. 8, which is a box-to-box guy.”
The day is coming, Gelnovatch believes, when Koffi “starts to be able to be a little bit more dangerous [at the attacking end]. Right now I think we’re still trying to teach him the back half, or defensive responsibilities, of being that No. 8 box-to-box guy.”
For most of his career, Koffi has been used at the offensive end, and “I’ve always been concerned with how he handles the ball in our [defensive] half of the field, when it turns over, and how he does defensively, organizationally and tactically,” Gelnovatch said. “And that’s why I’ve always had him further up the field, where those concerns are less. But he’s been really, really good for a pretty good stretch now.”
If offense has always come easily for Koffi, the “hard part has been what we’re working on with him,” Gelnovatch said. “And to his credit he’s embraced it. He’s learned. He asks questions, and he’s become a little more of a student of the game. He has a little more reflection after the games, and he’ll ask good questions, and in training he’ll ask good questions, which are very good signs.
“He’s not out of the woods, but I’ll also say that, in a stretch of time, a year, he’s made as much progress in all of these things, on the field and off the field, as anybody I’ve seen here.”
When the Cavaliers opened practice in August, Koffi was not among their starters. Assistant coach Terry Boss advised Koffi on how to earn a larger role.
“We had a one-to-one discussion,” Koffi recalled, “and he just said, `You need to prove to us that we can rely on you and be an accountable person. So just keep working hard, and good things will happen for you.’ That’s what I did. I just kept working hard and buying into whatever the coaches said. I never complained, I was just all for the team.”
Koffi moved to the United States with his parents and his brother, who’s now in middle school, in 2009. (His sister has been in Paris, where she’s studying accounting, for seven years). His father, Adrin Daniel Koffi, is a financial attachÃƒÆ’Ã†’Â© at the Ivory Coast’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
The elder Koffi came to America to give his children a better “chance to succeed in life,” Jean-Christophe said, “whatever we want to do, whether it’s soccer or school.”
Did he inherit his soccer ability from his father? Koffi isn’t sure.
“He always told me, `You picked up on my talents,’ but I’ve never really seen him play,” Koffi said, laughing.
When the family arrived in the U.S., Koffi spoke only one language, French, with which he converses at UVA with basketball player Mamadi Diakite, a native of Guineau. Koffi now speaks English fluently, but his first year in the United States was challenging for him.
“I had no idea how to get around and communicate with people,” he said.
Koffi committed to UVA in the summer before his senior year of high school. He was eager to make an immediate impact in 2015, but he wasn’t fully prepared for what awaited him in Charlottesville.
“Coming to UVA, it was a big change and transition for me, because I’d never been away from my parents, and I never had to take care of myself as a man,” Koffi said.
Keeping up with all his academic and soccer obligations proved difficult for Koffi.
“I never really had this much work, and meetings and places you have to be and be on time,” he said. “So many strict rules. But last year was just a good experience for me to make me better this year.”
He’s happier on the field, too, as the `Hoos head into what Koffi called “probably the biggest game of the year.” There’s more unity and cohesion in the program — considerably more, players and coaches say — than in 2015.
“I think our success right now is because everyone’s buying into what the coaches are giving us, compared to last year, when everyone wanted to do their own thing,” Koffi said. “But this year I think the team chemistry is so great. The team spirit is excellent.”
So too is Koffi’s.
“I love the school,” he said. “I think UVA’s the perfect place.”