For the 11th time in the history of a storied program – and the fourth time in George Gelnovatch’s 18 seasons as head coach – the University of Virginia men’s soccer team is headed to the College Cup.
“It never, ever gets old,” Gelnovatch said Friday night. “But it’s the first time for these guys, and there’s a different look and brightness and freshness and excitement about the group, about going to the College Cup. The College Cup is something special.”
About 15 minutes earlier, after the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, sealing Virginia’s 2-1 win over the University of Connecticut, Gelnovatch had watched his players mob each other on the field.
“Obviously the whole team is very excited,” junior midfielder Ryan Zinkhan said. “We have a little extra bounce in our step. We’re going to enjoy it tonight and just turn the page tomorrow, because there’s still unfinished business. We gotta go to the College Cup and make our mark.”
Before the season, Zinkhan said, the players “talked about that. We wanted to leave our mark, because we want to add to the history of this program.”
The College Cup appearance will be the Cavaliers’ first since 2009, when they blanked Maryland in an NCAA quarterfinal at Klöckner.
The College Cup was held in Cary, N.C, that year, and the Wahoos came away with their sixth NCAA title. Virginia’s bid for another national championship continues next Friday night in Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia.
At PPL Park, home of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union, No. 8 seed U.Va. (13-5-5) will meet the fourth-seeded University of California, Berkeley or the fifth-seeded University of Maryland in the NCAA semifinals. Cal was to host Maryland in a quarterfinal today at 4:30 p.m.
U.Va. tied the Terrapins in the regular season and lost 1-0 to them in the ACC championship game.
“There’s part of me that would like another shot at Maryland,” Gelnovatch said. “There’s a part of me that would like to play another team. Like I said last week, just give us the next game. We know we’ll be in a great environment. We’ll be up for it. The field will be good. We’re excited for it, whoever it is.”
Gelnovatch played for and then worked as an assistant under Bruce Arena at U.Va. before taking over as head coach after the 1995 season. His latest team was picked to finish fifth in the ACC, and after four games Virginia was 1-3 overall and 0-2 in conference play.
“I really think this schedule that we put together, early on, it could have killed us,” Gelnovatch said.
But the Cavaliers persevered, stringing together victories and ties and slowly growing into a formidable team. U.Va. finally moved above .500 on Sept. 28, with a 2-0 win at No. 24 Syracuse, and did not lose in October.
“Along the way we were developing this mental toughness, along with playing well and figuring each other out and believing in each other, and I think what you have now is not just a gritty team,” Gelnovatch said. “I mean, it is that. But it’s also a good soccer team, and these guys are good. They’re stringing passes together, they’re making great runs in the attacking half of the field in front of the goal, and we’re scoring goals and creating chances. It’s a good team.”
Even at 1-3, freshman midfielder Jordan Allen said, “we felt like we were a much better team than the record showed. We just had some mental lapses in the beginning of the season. We weren’t defending as stoutly as we are now. So we figured once we turned that around, we knew we’d be able to make a run. And George had been telling us from the beginning that we were going to get it going, it was just a matter of time. To have that actually happen, it feels great.”
UConn (12-3-8) arrived at Klöckner with a 17-game unbeaten streak after eliminating UCLA, the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seed, in the round of 16. The Huskies were bigger than the Cavaliers at most positions, but that didn’t faze the home team.
“They have a lot of size, no question about it, but there’s a way to deal with it,” Gelnovatch said, “and I relate it to basketball. You gotta put a body on a guy.”
U.Va.’s players studied videotape of the Huskies, Zinkhan said, and “we knew they had two great forwards, big bodies, that we had to double-down on. They were everything we expected. They were a great team. They moved the ball well, and the two forwards held the ball up really well, so it made it difficult for us. But we packed it in, we did really well defensively, shut those guys out and then just did our thing offensively.”
In the 12th minute, sophomore forward Darius Madison, from the left side, sent a low cross into the six-yard box, where Zinkhan volleyed it past goalkeeper Andre Blake to make it 1-0. The goal was Zinkhan’s fifth of the season and second in this NCAA tournament.
“Darius did all the hard work,” Zinkhan said. “He played a great ball. It was a matter of me just being in the right spot.”
UConn pulled even late in the first half after U.Va. struggled to clear a corner kick. The ’Hoos remained unfazed.
“Our strategy didn’t change,” Gelnovatch said. “We wanted to keep pressing and keep going. We do well in the second half.”
In the 63rd minute, moments after Zinkhan nearly scored on a header, the breakthrough came. UConn was unable to clear a corner kick by U.Va. sophomore Scott Thomsen. In the ensuing scramble, the ball came to another Virginia sophomore, Zach Carroll, who popped it over to Allen just outside the six-yard box.
Allen did the rest, and after what he described as “probably like a half-bicycle kick,” the Cavaliers led 2-1.
“It was just kind of an instinctual thing,” Allen said. “The ball popped up, and I didn’t really have time to think about it. It just kind of happened really quickly. Luckily after we got that goal, we were able to hunker in and finish out the game, which was most important.”
In the last 15 minutes, Gelnovatch said, his players “knew they were going [to the College Cup]. We were winning 2-1, and they were going to make sure they weren’t going to get scored on.”
No Cavalier was happier than Madison, who’s from Philadelphia. He has emerged as one of the nation’s most dangerous forwards, and now he’ll get to play at least one College Cup game in front of family and friends near his hometown.
In the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, against Marquette, Virginia played the final 89 minutes with 10 players after defender Matt Brown was red-carded 57 seconds in. Madison scored a sensational goal in the second half that proved to be the game-winner in U.Va.’s 3-1 victory, and he was even more of a factor against UConn.
“It was probably the best game I’ve seen him play here,” Gelnovatch said, and that’s high praise, considering that Madison scored both goals in U.Va.’s 2-0 victory at then-No. 1 Notre Dame on Oct. 26.
Still, Gelnovatch said Friday night, as impressive as Madison’s performance against Notre Dame was, in “this game he had a guy on him that was 6-4, 190 pounds, a foot taller than him almost, and [Madison] was holding him off and taking fouls and beating him off the dribble and holding the ball up and connecting on his passes. He was outstanding, and with [sophomore forward] Marcus Salandy-Defour up front, the dynamic of those two is really tough to deal with.”
The result at Klöckner made Virginia the first school since North Carolina in 2009 to reach the College Cup in both men’s and men’s soccer.
Some 200 miles away, in an NCAA semifinal in Cary, the U.Va. women’s postseason run ended in heartbreaking fashion Friday night when they fell to UCLA in penalty kicks.
The Virginia women, who finished 24-1-1, did not lose until the ACC tournament. The regular season was more of a struggle for the men’s team, but the Cavaliers are peaking at the right time.
“Typically teams at the end of the season, they’re lackadaisical or they’re mentally or physically just exhausted,” Zinkhan said. “I think this team, we’re just getting started.”