ThBy Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CARY, N.C. –– By any standard, it was a season to treasure for the University of Virginia men’s soccer team.
The Cavaliers won 21 games –– one shy of the program record. They won the ACC’s Coastal Division. They won the ACC tournament for the first time since 2009. They earned the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seed for the first time under longtime head coach George Gelnovatch, and they were still playing, on the college game’s biggest stage, on the final day of the season.
“We kind of checked every box,” Gelnovatch said Sunday night, “and [then] fell short of the last one. We fell short in a very, very hard way. But on the flip side, I’ve been on the winning side of two of those.”
In Gelnovatch’s 24 years as head coach at his alma mater, the Wahoos have twice been crowned NCAA champions, in 2009 and 2014. Each time they prevailed, after 110 scoreless minutes, in a penalty-kick shootout at WakeMed Soccer Park.
On a clear, cold Sunday night, on that same pitch, Virginia experienced the pain Akron felt in 2009 and UCLA in 2014. In a shootout that went seven rounds, third-seeded Georgetown won 7-6 to secure its first NCAA championship. On the final penalty, goalkeeper Tomas Romero dived to his right and stopped UVA freshman Alex Gunnarsson’s shot.
“Great fighting spirit,” Gelnovatch said of the Hoyas. “Great game. I’m also very, very proud of our fighting spirit. I think you saw two teams out there really going for it.”
UVA (21-2-1) went second in the shootout and each time had to answer a successful penalty by Georgetown (20-1-3). Joe Bell, Daniel Steedman, Irakoze Donasiyano, Andreas Ueland, Nathaniel Crofts and Bret Halsey converted for the Cavaliers before Romero’s match-winning save.
“Traditionally, we’ve been really good at it when we get to this phase,” Gelnovatch said, “and we made six today. What else can you ask for as a coach? We were prepared, they were prepared, and we missed the last one. There’s not really much else to say about that.”
This game matched the nation’s top two defensive teams. UVA came in having allowed 10 goals all season. The Hoyas had given up only 11. So what unfolded before a spirited crowd of 8,314 at Sahlen’s Stadium? A frenetic game that featured end-to-end action and was tied 3-3 after 110 minutes.
“I think it would have been enjoyable to watch as a neutral,” Bell said.
For a UVA program that prides itself on its defense, however, there were too many uncharacteristically shaky stretches at that end of the field.
“You can’t go against the facts,” Virginia junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler said. “We got scored on three times today. We were a bit unfortunate on most of those plays. It’s definitely a [product of] the quick turnaround, with guys fatigued and just mental breakdowns here and there, myself included.”
The six goals were the most in an NCAA championship game since 1980. Each team was playing on short rest –– the semifinals were Friday night –– and that led to defensive errors, multiple scoring opportunities and numerous fouls. Ten yellow cards were issued, seven of them on Virginia.
“That second half you’re very fatigued,” said Bell, a junior midfielder who last week was named a first-team All-American. “It’s tough, and I think that does open up the chance for mistakes a lot more. So the 3-3 was an interesting scoreline, but I think [the comeback] gave you a bit of insight into our team as well.”
Gelnovatch said: “The game became pretty transitional, more than most. It was two teams going for it. Instead of protecting yourself, just punching each other.”
The Cavaliers landed the first blow, on an unassisted goal by Bell in the 10th minute. Georgetown answered in the 16th and 22nd minutes, and the score was still 2-1 at the half.
Twice Virginia pulled even in the second half, at 2-2 and 3-3, on goals by Steedman and sophomore forward Daryl Dike, respectively. Steedman, off a pass from Donasiyano, scored in the 58th minute and Dike, with an unassisted blast from directly in front of the goal, in the 86th minute.
The Cavaliers “were an unbelievably talented, unbelievably hard team to deal with,” Georgetown head coach Brian Wiese said. “It felt a little like a war of attrition at the end … You’re trying to outlast them at the end.”
Bell said: “We talk about as a team the will to win, and I think tonight was a perfect example of that, because when you play in the Final Four, especially the championship match, it’s tough, there is pressure, and you know if you don’t step up and score goals, then that’s your season done.”
In the first 10-minute overtime, each team had two shots. In the 108th minute, Romero punched away Donasiyano’s potential game-winner. In the second OT, the Hoyas had all three shots, but again none connected, and an epic shootout followed.
“Not too many go to six or seven rounds,” Gelnovatch said. “Both teams took some pretty good pens. The times that I’ve won in pens here, it’s never gone past five [rounds].”
Virginia suffered a major loss when fullback Robin Afamefuna, one of the team’s captains, left with an apparent concussion in the 78th minute. His replacement, Aaron James, had appeared in only 10 games all season, and the Hoyas targeted him immediately. Georgetown scored in the 81st minute to take a 3-2 lead that forced the Cavaliers to play from behind again.
James “got thrown into a really tough situation,” Gelnovatch said. “The game was super transitional at that point. Both teams were going for it in the closing minutes of the game. He probably wasn’t fully ready, because it happened so quick. He was warming up, but it was a really tough position to be put into, and a mistake happened, and to Georgetown’s credit they capitalized on it.”
Virginia, which defeated fourth-seeded Wake Forest 2-1 in the second semifinal Friday night, placed five players on the all-tournament team: Bell, Steedman, Dike, Shutler and center back Henry Kessler.
Dike, who scored both of UVA’s goal against Wake, was named the College Cup’s top offensive player. He finished the season with 28 points on 10 goals and eight assists, all team highs.
For the Hoos to come so close to winning the program’s eighth NCAA title, and then not do so, was frustrating, but “at the same time, if you look back at the season, there’s so many things that we did [accomplish],” said Dike, a third-team All-American.
“It’s something that we’re going to have to learn from, but at the same we should all be looking at each other and be happy with how the whole season turned out.”
Shutler said: “Obviously we’re disappointed we didn’t win, but we can’t be disappointed in anyone’s effort. With everything that these guys have put in, it’s been one incredible season.”
It was “a tough way to lose, but you can’t really be prouder of the effort the team put in,” said Bell, one of several UVA players with eligibility remaining who will have the option of turning pro early.
“You kind of sign up for this when you start playing soccer. It goes either way. Tonight it didn’t go our way, but it is what it is.”
In its second match of the season, Virginia blanked then-reigning NCAA champion Maryland 2-0 at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. That performance gave Gelnovatch reason to believe this might be a special team, and his assessment never changed.
“One of the best,” Gelnovatch said when asked to rate the Cavaliers’ season. “It’s hard to say. We didn’t finish with a national championship, and when you do finish with a national championship, there’s a lot to be said for that … But I’m so proud of the guys.”