By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Joe Bell has significantly more international experience than the average college soccer player. The University of Virginia’s All-America midfielder played for New Zealand’s senior national team in friendlies against Ireland and Lithuania last month and has represented his country at two U20 World Cups. He trained last summer with Viking FK, a professional team in Norway.
In his travels, Bell was asked Wednesday at Klöckner Stadium, has he seen many players with Daryl Dike’s combination of size, strength and skills?
“I have not,” Bell said, smiling. “Daryl, I think, is very unique. You do focus on his strength, but it’s not just that. It’s the way he deals with the football.”
Former UVA goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, whose rights recently were acquired by Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, has represented the United States at the U17, U18 and U20 levels. He played this year in USL Championship, the second division of American professional soccer.
“You don’t come across many like Daryl,” Caldwell said Wednesday, “and not just his skills and size: his personality, mentality, all of it. He comes in every day with a smile and works his butt off.
“He’s going to be really successful. He has qualities that other people just don’t have. You can’t train or coach the physical side, and I think he works diligently on the soccer side, and he does it the right way.”
Dike, a 6-2, 218-pound forward from Edmond, Okla., contributed five goals and an assist in 2018 for a UVA team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s third round.
That freshman season, as promising as it was, only hinted at the impact he’s had this fall for the Cavaliers, who are two wins from the program’s eighth NCAA title.
“We definitely knew going into preseason that we were going to be a very good team, and it’s showing,” Dike said.
In the second College Cup semifinal, top-seeded UVA (20-1-1) meets fourth-seeded Wake Forest (16-4-2) at approximately 8:30 p.m. Friday in Cary, N.C. Third-seeded Georgetown takes on seventh-seeded Stanford at 6 p.m. ESPNU will televise both matches.
Dike (pronounced Dee-Kay) leads Virginia in goals (seven) and assists (eight), and with 22 points he’s well ahead of Bell, who’s second on the team with 16. Moreover, plays on which Dike has been fouled, most of them in the penalty area, have set up seven other UVA goals.
“I definitely think that I’ve gotten better,” said Dike, who was named a third-team All-American on Thursday. “My teammates have pushed me to get better, the coaches have pushed me to get better, and I’ve trained really hard to try and get better.”
His mentors include his brother, Bright Dike, who starred for Notre Dame and then played professionally in MLS and in Europe. Bright noted this week that Daryl missed four games with a quad injury last season.
“He’s healthy this year, and I think that’s the big difference,” Bright said. “When you’re able to play the whole season healthy, then you can really show what you’re actually able to do.
“I think the other thing is, you can see his hunger. I’ve told him time and time again, that’s one of the most important things, that hunger to get better and to learn and to actually show what you can do. Yes, his freshman year was good enough that people were like, ‘OK, he’s a good player.’ But he was disappointed in himself, because he felt like he should show so much more and hadn’t been able to.
“I think this year you’re starting to see what he’s actually capable of doing and how he can completely change a game. But at the same time, the scary thing is, he can get so much better than what he is right now, and that’s what’s really exciting about him.”
Dike has improved technically since his first year, UVA head coach George Gelnovatch said. “He’s always going to be a handful, just with his power, pace, physicality,” Gelnovatch said. “I’ve never seen a guy like that. What he’s gotten better at, and what he needs to continue getting better at, is soccer movements, like the runs he makes, his feet in tight spaces, posting up, holding up with his back to the goal when ball is coming into his feet, and being able to hold the ball and connect with a pass.”
Junior center back Henry Kessler, a second-team All-American, often is matched up against Dike in practice.
“What makes him such a force? His strength,” Kessler said on a recent VirginiaSports.com podcast. “I think he’s probably the most physical player in college soccer. He’s an absolute beast. His hold-up play is really good, but his shooting ability is also very good, as he showed against Maryland” –– Dike scored on a sensational strike from outside the box in UVA’s 2-0 win –– “and on other goals that were very technical finishes.”
This is Gelnovatch’s 24th season as head coach at his alma mater, and he can’t remember another UVA player who’s earned as many penalty kicks for his team as Dike has this season.
“Opposing coaches instruct their center backs to be really physical with Daryl, bump him, foul him if they have to,” Gelnovatch said Tuesday, “and the problem is, that message carries over into the penalty area. They’re too aggressive with him.
“It’s actually dumb to be too aggressive, because if he gets you on his hip and turns you, you’ve got no chance. We just told the team today: Any time Daryl is in the box with his back to the goal, posting up, get it to his feet, because the people defending him are going to be too aggressive and foul him.”
Dike said: “Obviously, I’m a pretty physically imposing player, and I tend to get in more tussles than the average player. People try and tussle with me back, and sometimes in the box they may foul me or have an unlucky touch or an unlucky tackle, and then the next thing you know, Joe’s smashing a PK in.”
Dike, whose parents are from Nigeria, is the youngest of five children. All of his siblings have college degrees: Bright from Notre Dame, Kimberly and Brittny from Oklahoma, and Courtney from Oklahoma State.
Courtney is a certified public accountant. Kimberly graduated from medical school at Drexel and is residency in Houston. Brittny attends Meharry Medical College in Tennessee. Bright works as a cloud security engineer for Booz Allen Hamilton in the D.C. area.
Their mother is a teacher, and if her children’s grades slipped when they were growing up, Bright said, she would not let them play soccer.
“Our family is very big on education,” Bright said, “because you have to have that fallback if soccer doesn’t work out, or for when soccer finishes, because it’s not going to last forever.”
At Virginia, Daryl is “getting the best of both worlds,” Bright said.
Dike has applied to UVA’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce. He won’t learn until next semester if he’s been accepted. He’s likely to have an opportunity to turn pro after this season, but his immediate concerns are the College Cup and his final exams.
“If anything happens, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes,” Dike said.
The Wahoos have won two NCAA titles (2009 and 2014) under Gelnovatch. To play for a third this weekend, they’ll need to get past Wake for the second time in a month. In the ACC semifinals, the Wahoos edged the Demon Deacons 1-0 at Klöckner Stadium.
“Obviously it’s hard to beat the same team twice,” Dike said, “but at the same time I think we’ll be fine. We’re going to play our game and try to impose our style in the game.”
His parents will be back in Oklahoma, watching on TV, but his brother will be in Cary for the College Cup. Bright attends most of the Cavaliers’ games, after which he critiques Daryl’s play.
“I’m trying to push him to a different level, because I believe that he can go anywhere he wants to if he keeps pushing himself,” Bright said. “I’ve played with some of the best players in the world. I’ve played with players that played in the World Cup. I’ve seen what they’re able to do on the field, and I’m telling you right now, if he keeps pushing, he can get to that level.
“So that’s why I’m really excited to see how he keeps progressing. If he stays humble and keeps learning, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Bright was listed at 6-1, 223 pounds when he played striker at Notre Dame, and he finished his college career with 27 goals. Among active players, Daryl patterns himself after Romelu Lukaku, a 6-2, 205-pounder striker from Belgium whose club team is Inter Milan.
“I’d say he’s the player I’m the most similar to,” Dike said. “Same type of build, same type of style. He’s definitely a player that I look up to and kind of aspire to be.”
It’s important to him, Dike said, to be known as more than a physical presence on the pitch.
“I obviously know that I’m a bigger body, and everyone always seems to point that out,” Dike said, “but when I play, I try to use my feet and let people know that I’m not just a big body. And that’s something I’ve tried to improve on in the offseason as well, to not to have to use my body in every single situation possible. I try to use both feet.
“I definitely think technique is something that I’ve improved on, whether it be passing, dribbling, my first touch, shooting. I think that’s all gotten better, because I’m trying to change my game a little bit to where I’m not just using my body for every single situation that I can.”
Bell said: “He’s doing great and he’s developing great, and I’m really excited for this weekend to see what he can do at the Final Four, because he’s a quality player and he’s got big things ahead of him.”