By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In its first NCAA tournament game, the University of Virginia men’s soccer team faced an opponent whose top scorer, Thibaut Jacquel, had 18 goals on the season.
Top-seeded UVA held Jacquel without a shot in its 2-0 win at Klöckner Stadium on Nov. 24.
That moved the Cavaliers, who had a first-round bye, into the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, where they faced No. 16 seed St. John’s. The Red Storm’s leading scorer, Tani Oluwaseyi, entered the game with 11 goals.
UVA didn’t allow Oluwaseyi a shot in a 3-0 victory Saturday night at Klöckner.
“We knew he was fast and strong,” freshman Andreas Ueland said, “but for us it doesn’t really matter. We play our game, and we’re really good defenders, the whole team. We work together. It’s not just the back four and Colin [Shutler] our goalkeeper, but the whole team.”
This is George Gelnovatch’s 24th season as head coach at UVA, and his program is known for its defensive prowess. His latest team has given up only seven goals in 21 games.
With 15 shutouts, the Hoos lead the nation, thanks in part to their superlative center backs: Ueland and junior Henry Kessler, the MVP of last month’s ACC tournament.
“I really do think we have the best tandem [in the country],” Gelnovatch said. “Those two guys are great back there. But I also think it’s how we play: coming out of our half, keeping possession of the ball. If you can control those big transitional moments where those goal-scorers get loose, you can contain those guys, and that’s what we do.”
Their victory over St. John’s sends the Cavaliers (19-1-1) to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2014, when they captured the program’s seventh national title (and second under Gelnovatch).
UVA, which has won seven straight games, will host No. 8 seed Southern Methodist University (18-1-1) on Friday at Klöckner Stadium. SMU advanced with a 2-1 overtime win over No. 9 Central Florida in Dallas.
“We’re playing in December and we’re home, so I don’t think we could ask for a better situation,” said junior midfielder Joe Bell, whose penalty kick in the 36th minute Friday night, after St. John’s fouled teammate Daryl Dike in the box, put Virginia ahead 3-0.
Against St. John’s (14-5-1), the Cavaliers’ onslaught began early. One hundred thirty seconds into the match, Ueland scored the first of his two goals. Each came off a corner kick by sophomore forward Daniel Steedman.
On the first, freshman forward Axel Gunnarsson headed Steedman’s kick to the back post, where Ueland headed the ball into the net.
On the second, in the 15th minute, Ueland’s head got to the ball from Steedman before goalkeeper Jan Hoffelner’s hands, and suddenly the Cavaliers had a commanding lead.
“We asked Daniel today to just kind of hang up the balls and not whip ’em in there [on corner kicks],” Gelnovatch said, “because we have some big bodies, and we took advantage of it.”
Kessler stands 6-4. That’s Ueland’s listed height, too, “but he’s probably closer to 6-6,” Gelnovatch said.
“I don’t know if that’s true,” Ueland said, laughing. “Maybe closer to 6-5.”
Whatever his exact height, he’s a large target in the box on corner kicks, but until Saturday night he had not scored off a header. Had there been other opportunities?
“So many,” Ueland said. “I should have had at least five goals by now, so it was good to get these two today.”
Ueland is from Byrne, Norway. His best friend, Einar Lye, is from the village of Undheim in that Scandanavian country. Lye, a midfielder, plays for St. John’s, “so it was especially nice to get those two goals against him,” Ueland said, smiling. “I can talk to my boys at home about it.”
The Cavaliers outshot St. John’s 18-3, and Shutler had to make only one save.
“I think we’re getting better and better,” said Bell, the ACC’s midfielder of the year. “Throughout the season we’ve been learning more about how we react in situations, how players deal with stress and pressure, and it’s important to carry this momentum on.”
In five postseason games –– three in the ACC tournament and two in the NCAAs –– Virginia has outscored its opponents 11-2. The Cavaliers surrendered one of those goals in the ACC quarterfinals after building a 2-0 lead against Syracuse.
Gelnovatch wasn’t pleased that his team’s focus waned in the second half against the Orange. There were no such lapses Saturday night.
“I think we’re growing each game,” Bell said, “and that’s something we learned from [the Syracuse] game. At this time of the season, there isn’t the opportunity to switch off in the second half.”
Against St. John’s, the Cavaliers “had a fantastic first half getting the three goals, but I think we kept that intensity,” Bell said. “We kept the pressure on the team, and I think that was why it stayed 0-0 in the second half. But I think that’s an important thing that we’re hoping to take on for the rest of the tournament, our intensity. Not just with the ball, but the way we defend, and I think the evidence is in the clean sheets we keep tallying up.”
Six more matches are scheduled for today in the NCAA tournament, after which only eight teams will be left from the 204 that began the season.
“When you’re playing in December, you’re doing something right,” Gelnovatch said. “To be in a quarterfinal in December on your home stadium in front of your home fans, you couldn’t ask for more.”