The 2021 season gets underway tonight (August 26) for the Virginia men’s soccer team as the Cavaliers welcome Western Michigan to Klöckner Stadium. Virginia played two exhibition games to warm up for the regular season, securing a 2-1 win over Longwood and a 4-1 victory over Radford.
Like many programs across the country, the 2020 season one was difficult for Virginia. The Hoos went 7-8-1 last season, with a 4-7-1 mark in the ACC. Virginia opened the regular season in October — after two cancelations and a postponement — with four straight single or double overtime games.
After a loss to No. 2 Clemson in the ACC tournament semifinals, Virginia started up the spring season in February with a 1-0 loss to Virginia Tech. The season ended with a 5-0 loss to No. 1 Pitt, and 2020-21 was the first time the Cavaliers did not make the NCAA tournament since 1980.
Although last season was disappointing for head coach George Gelnovatch and the Hoos, it’s not entirely surprising given the perfect storm of a very successful 2019 National Championship game appearance, multiple stars leaving the program for professional opportunities, and the challenges of the pandemic.
“At some level, you put it behind you, but at another level, we learned a lot, to be honest with you,” Gelnovatch said of balancing putting last season behind them while still learning from the experience. “[We learned] some different ways to think tactically, which we had to do with our personnel and just everything that we went through. We also developed some players and played some players that in a normal season, we may not have. That will help us this fall and next fall. You don’t want to dwell on it too much or just put it behind you, so I think we struck a good balance.”
Only two players that saw playing time in that College Cup — Andreas Ueland and Cabrel Happi Kamseu — are still on the roster for the Hoos, but there is a lot of young talent and skill on the squad.
Second year Leo Afonso has already gotten off to a hot start, scoring four goals across the two exhibition games. A forward from San Paolo, Brazil, Afonso had just two goals through 15 games last year. He’s fast, has a nice first touch, and always seems to be in the right spot for the goal.
“It’s always good to score goals,” Afonso said of his role on the team. “That’s my goal, but just being able to win, that’s what matters at the end of the day is as long as we win, I’m happy.”
Afonso is one of the team captains — alongside Ueland — and he described this Virginia offense as one that likes to create a mess for opponents to deal with. “I think it’s gonna be very different than last year,” he stated. “We have a lot of players that like to come in behind and just cause a mess for the opposition, and they can’t really defend us in a way.”
Gelnovatch has everyone pressing a little more, something that Afonso described as “a dream” as a forward. Rather than the fullbacks staying back, there are more scoring opportunities and the ball is being distributed by more sources.
First year Michael Tsicoulias was one of those distributors, assisting two of Afonso’s exhibition goals. Virginia will also have third year Kevin Ogudugu and second year Kaya Ignacio on the attack, with the duo combining for nine shots so far.
Defensively, Virginia will have Holden Brown in as the goalkeeper. A second year that wears the No. 99, Brown did not play last season. Ueland, a 6’5 third year, will anchor the Virginia defense in front of Brown. Based on the preseason games, we are likely to see fourth year Oliver Gerbig and first year Paul Wiese in the back as well.
Western Michigan went 7-3-1 (5-3-1 MAC) last season, finishing second in the MAC regular season. The Broncos return forward Mike Melaragni, who had six goals and four assists — both team highs — last year before being named First Team All-MAC. Teammate Dylan Sing, who had five goals and an assist in 2020, also returns as part of a formidable attack.
This is just the second meeting between the two teams, and you can catch all the action at 7pm on ACC Network Extra.