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April 24, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a sunny April afternoon, Robin Afamefuna streaked down the left side and crossed the ball into the box, where teammate Edward Opoku flicked it past Virginia Tech’s goalkeeper to push Virginia’s lead to 2-0 in a spring exhibition.

Such plays are why UVA head men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch shifted Afamefuna, a 5-10, 170-pound rising sophomore from Germany, into a new role this year.

“That epitomizes what he can do,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s been like that all spring. His instincts in positioning are really, really good, the best that we have.”

In the Cavaliers’ three-man backline, Afamefuna (uh-FAH-may-FOO-nuh) started on the left side last season and earned a spot on the ACC’s All-Freshman team. But he missed the NCAA tournament while recovering from a concussion, and Sheldon Sullivan sparkled at left back in those two games: a 2-1 win over Vermont and a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Stanford in the round of 16.

“That was a big loss, not having Robin,” said Gelnovatch, who has won two NCAA titles as head coach of his alma mater. “But it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise in that we were able to [evaluate Sullivan at left back].”

Sullivan, who’ll be a fifth-year senior in the fall, played in a midfield position on the left wing for most of last season. He defended well but posed little threat offensively, and the Wahoos’ coaches would prefer their wingbacks to be scoring threats. And so Afamefuna and Sullivan switched positions this spring, with promising results.

“It’s a completely different element that Robin adds in that wingback position, being able to take guys on,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s smart on the ball. Good passer. Good crosser. I think in that position he’s going to be dangerous.”

In his first season at UVA, Afamefuna recorded no goals or assists.

“Back in Germany, we played with four in the back, and I played either left center back or left back,” he said. “Of course there were some assists, but I never was a big goal-scorer. But I think now that I’m able to go up and be in the box when the wingback on the other side crosses it in, I’ll be able to score some goals.

“I set myself a goal to get at least six, seven assists and score two or three goals, and I think I’ll be able to do that.”

In a spring exhibition against Georgetown on April 1, Afamefuna earned a penalty kick for UVA when he was taken down in the box. Two weeks later, in Virginia’s penultimate spring game, he set up Opoku’s goal against the Hokies on the practice field next to Klöckner Stadium. The ‘Hoos won that game 3-1.

“Robin’s a very good technical and tactical footballer,” UVA associate head coach Terry Boss said. “He understands roles, he understands space, he understands timing, and he’s shown this spring his ability to get forward to create those 2 v 1 situations and then exploit them. He’s uncanny with his ability to unbalance a defender and get on the wrong side of him, and then that defender’s got no chance.”

Afamefuna, 20, is from WÃÆ’Æ‘¼rselen, a town of about 40,000 residents in soccer-mad Germany. He graduated from high school in 2015, after which he took a gap year to focus on his soccer career. After his U16 season, he changed clubs, moving from Alemannia Aachen to Borussia MÃÆ’Æ‘¶nchengladbach.

“I played there for three years,” Afamefuna recalled. “At the beginning I had a very tough time there and didn’t make the roster very often. But still I kept working. Of course, it’s highly competitive. Every practice you’re playing with under-19, under-18 national players, playing with future pros who make it big playing Champions League.”

On Borussia MÃÆ’Æ‘¶nchengladbach’s U19 team, he finally became a starter and played well at left back in games. But during the final practice before the team was to fly to Spain for a UEFA Youth League game against Sevilla, Afamefuna tore the meniscus in his right knee.

At the time, he didn’t realize the severity of the injury, and Afamefuna played through the pain against Sevilla. But his knee required surgery in September 2015, and he wasn’t healthy again until March 2016.

While he was sidelined, Afamefuna said, he sensed his coaches were no longer enthusiastic about his future with the club . He was unlikely to be offered a professional contract in Germany, and so he started to explore his options in the United States.

“The opportunities in Germany were very limited for a player who has been injured for six months,” Afamefuna said. “Different teams haven’t seen you for a while. It’s hard for them to say, `Yeah, he would probably help us as a team.’ “

An agency in Europe prepared a highlight tape of Afamefuna’s best games and sent it to dozens of colleges in the U.S., including UVA.

“When we saw the video of Robin, I remember thinking, `The kid’s unbelievable,’ ” Boss said.

Afamefuna, who’s fluent in German and English, had been to the United States once with his family as a young boy but remembered little about that visit. His older brother Chika Afamefuna lives in Atlanta, but Robin knew nothing about NCAA soccer in general or UVA in particular.

He learned quickly. “Terry Boss made a very, very good impression,” Afamefuna said. “He told me how great this university is academically and also the soccer part. At the end I decided to come here.”

Boss said he focused first on “building a relationship with Robin over the phone and getting to know each other and trust each other. Secondly, we’re very fortunate to work at a school that sells itself. So getting him the right links, the right videos, the right articles about our program and really explaining the history of the program, I think was really important. And obviously the academic side here is very [appealing] as well. Robin does a great job in the classroom. He’s one of our best students.”

Afamefuna, who arrived in Charlottesville early last summer, earned a 3.6 grade-point average in his first semester at UVA.

“I’m very happy that the University gave me the opportunity to go to school here and be a student at one of the best universities in the whole country,” he said.

Boss said Afamefuna is “committed in the classroom, and on the field he’s been a fantastic addition. I can’t say enough about what a pleasure Robin has been to have in the locker room. He’s just incredibly, incredibly driven.”

Afamefuna, whose favorite club in Germany is Bayern Munich, hopes to play professionally in Major League Soccer. His UVA coaches believe that’s a realistic goal for him.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in our domestic leagues right now,” Boss said, “and he’s definitely a player that should have those exposures.”

For now, Afamefuna is focused on helping the `Hoos pursue the program’s eighth NCAA title. UVA, which posted a 3-1-1 record this spring, is likely to start the season ranked in the top 10 nationally.

“We definitely have a very good team,” Afamefuna said.

In voting by the league’s coaches last fall, seven Virginia players received All-ACC recognition, and all are back this year. Opoku, goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell and midfielder Pablo Aguilar made the All-ACC second team; midfielder Jean-Christophe Koffi and center back Sergi Nus made the All-ACC third team; and Afamefuna’s roommate, midfielder Terrell Lowe, joined him on the All-Freshman team.

The Cavaliers’ roster includes players with roots in such countries as Germany, Spain, Guatemala, Denmark, Ivory Coast, Trinidad & Tobago, New Zealand and Ghana.

“I love it,” Afamefuna said of the exposure to diverse backgrounds.

His time on Grounds has enlightened him, too.

“What my mother told me before I came here was, even if the soccer part does not work out, this is always going to be an experience you will never lose,” Afamefuna said.

“Being part of a different culture, it’s very helpful for the individual development, being a human being and learning things. My mom was right, definitely.”

On the soccer field, he said, “I feel very comfortable with the team, with the coaches who trust me. I see myself as a captain. I want to take responsibility for the team. I want to feel guilty when we lose a game. I want to know what I did wrong and what maybe I could help other people with. I’ve had many experiences from playing soccer in Germany, and I want to help the team with that part.”

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