By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — For two seasons they were adrift, one of the many teams on the outside looking in when the field for the NCAA men’s soccer tournament was announced.

The Virginia Cavaliers were unaccustomed to that perspective. Starting in 1981, they’d advanced to 39 consecutive NCAA tournaments and won seven national championships, and now they were postseason spectators. But the Wahoos regained their footing in 2022, when they were rewarded with the No. 4 seed in the 48-team NCAA tournament, and they earned the No. 7 seed this year.

UVA’s season ended Sunday with a 1-0 loss to Indiana in a Sweet Sixteen game at Klöckner Stadium. Afterward, tears fell as George Gelnovatch addressed his team on the field for the last time this year.

“It’s tough,” Gelnovatch said at the end of his 28th season as head coach at his alma mater. “This team and this program, our goals are to win it all, and when we don’t it hurts. And so that’s why you see many guys down right now.”

Not since Sept. 22, when they fell 3-1 at Notre Dame, had the Cavaliers (11-4-4) lost a game  After that trip to South Bend, Ind., the Hoos defeated East Tennessee State, Louisville, Pitt, Virginia Tech, High Point and North Carolina. They tied Hofstra, Boston College and Syracuse (which advanced to the ACC semifinals after winning a penalty-kick shootout).

“So this has been a really, really good group that’s had a really good season, and there’s only one team that ends up happy,” Gelnovatch said. “There’s 207 Division I college soccer teams, and I don’t care how far you make it, because I’ve been in the national semifinals and I’ve been in the national championship, it feels just like this [after a season-ending loss] … But let’s remember the season that we had to get us to this point where we’re able to play [in the round of 16] on our home field against a team like Indiana. I think we’ll have a lot to build on from this team and a lot of guys returning and we’ll take advantage of it.”

Among the UVA players whose college careers ended Sunday were forward Leo Afonso and midfielder Mouhameth Thiam. Afonso totaled 52 points, on 22 goals and eight assists, in his four years in the program. Thiam, a transfer from Oregon State, contributed five goals and four assists this season, his first at Virginia.

Thiam didn’t join the program until after the 2022-23 school year, but throughout his time as a Cavalier it’s been clear “how invested he is,” Gelnovatch said.

“I’m proud of those guys. They’ll heal in the next couple days, and I’m hoping for guys like Mo that he’s got a professional career [next]. We’ll see what level that is, and Leo potentially too. Hopefully there’s bigger and better things for those guys, but I couldn’t be happier and prouder for those guys.”

Leo Afonso (7)

In the 10th minute Sunday, Thiam nearly put Virginia in front, but his shot bounced off the crossbar, leading to a goal kick for Indiana (15-4-4).

“It’s a different game if that goes in,” Afonso said.

About a minute later, the Hoosiers seized the advantage, scoring what turned out to be the game’s only goal.

“They caught us on the back side not doing a good job marking, and to their credit they were able to [hold on] in the second half,” Gelnovatch said.

The Hoosiers advance to meet No. 2 seed Notre Dame in the NCAA quarterfinals. “They’re a good team,” Afonso said. “They took care of business, they put a goal way and stuck to their plan.”

Twice in the second half Virginia nearly tied the game. In the 63rd minute, Indiana defender Jansen Miller cleared freshman forward Stephen Annor’s header off the line. In the 70th minute, Miller rescued the Hoosiers again, this time clearing an Annor shot off the line before the ball could reach the goal.

“That’s really the difference in that game,” Gelnovatch said.

Afonso missed much of the regular season with a sprained ankle, and the Cavaliers were shorthanded again Sunday. Center back Aidan O’Connor and midfielder Umberto Pelá missed the game with injuries.

For long stretches this season “I thought right up the spine we were really good,” Gelnovatch said. “We had Stephen scoring goals, Umberto was kind of our anchor in the midfield and Aidan was our anchor as a center back, and two of those three guys weren’t on the field today. So do I think it made a difference? Yeah, but it’s sport and you gotta deal with it.”

Annor, the ACC Freshman of the Year, led the Cavaliers with 20 points on 10 goals. He and O’Connor are likely to explore professional opportunities, but each could be back for Virginia in 2024, along with such players as goalkeeper Joey Batrouni, wingbacks Paul Wiese and Reese Miller, midfielders Brendan Lambe, Albin Gashi and Pelá, and forward Kome Ubogu.

“I think we have a pretty good foundation moving forward to set us up for next year,” Gelnovatch said.

In 2022, the Cavaliers lost a penalty-kick shootout to Marshall in the NCAA tournament’s second round. Their season lasted a week longer this year, and that should help the Hoos’ returning players in 2024.

“It’s great,” Afonso said. “The younger guys, they got that experience of being here and knowing what it takes. My first two years, we didn’t know, and this was my first time playing in the round of 16. So it was just a priceless experience that these kids are getting.”

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George Gelnovatch