In an incredibly physical and chippy match, the Virginia men’s soccer team kept a cool head to secure a 2-1 win over Western Michigan to open the 2021-22 season. It was the 800th win in program history, and the Cavaliers had to fight every step of the way.
Virginia played the majority of the game up one man, and about half of it with a two-man advantage as two WMU players earned red cards. Both teams were credited with 14 fouls apiece, but the Broncos were clearly trying to disrupt Virginia’s rhythm with physicality from the beginning of the game.
“The good news is we won,” Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch said after the game. “I think we dealt with the physicality and all the BS that went along with it, to be honest with you, and the guys did a good job — a really good job — of dealing with it and getting the winner.”
It was first year Ank Nibogora that put the game winner in the back of the net in the 87th minute, making his first career goal a memorable one as fans could finally return after 18 months of the pandemic. “It’s amazing. It’s the first time. The coaches are always talking about it [Klöckner Stadium], and getting to see the whole place...it’s amazing,” Nibogora said with a smile and laugh. “No words can describe it, and then being able to score as well...it’s great. I’m just smiling.”
Nibogora was one of seven first years that played in tonight’s opener, and Gelnovatch was impressed with the maturity shown by his more inexperienced team.
“We talked about keeping our heads because I could see from the first minute, the stuff that was going on on the field verbally and physically, like off the ball to try to wind us up to try to like, you know, trash talk all that stuff,” Gelnovatch said of WMU. “So I give our guys a lot of credit for dealing with that.”
Western Michigan lost a man in the 35th minute after junior midfielder Caden Jackman was shown a red card for a dangerous challenge against Virginia’s Nils Henry Orywol in the air. The Broncos continued to get good possession in the center of the field as Virginia looked rusty at midfield, but the Cavaliers took a 1-0 lead with the header by Afonso.
On the play, first year defender Paul Wiese chipped the ball from the the right center side of the field about 15 yards outside the box. Afonso moved onto the ball perfectly, nudging it just inside the near post and out of the reach of WMU’s Lukas Von Lienen.
The Cavaliers had two more really good looks in the half, with both Afonso and Cabrel Happi Kamseu forcing Von Lienen to make difficult saves to prevent the score. Von Lienen had three saves on five shots faced in the first half.
Although Western Michigan threatened with pressure a fair amount in the first half, they didn’t take a single shot. Virginia’s defense of Andreas Ueland, Wiese, and Orywol did a great job limiting the Bronco attack and keeping 2020 First Team All-MAC player Mike Melaragni in check.
The second half was more physical than the first right out of the gate as WMU tried to even up the game. It backfired on the Broncos as defender Philip Smith earned two yellow cards in the span of 2:18, giving him a red card and Virginia a two-man advantage with over 35 minutes of regulation to play.
Virginia got a good chance at a second goal from Isaiah Byrd in the 62nd minute, but Von Leinen made a sliding save to prevent the score. The Hoos threatened again with nine minutes remaining, getting several good looks on goal that just wouldn’t go in.
Western Michigan evened the score with 6:55 to play, and the intensity continued to ramp up as the Bronco team celebrated in front of the Virginia bench.
It took a little over four minutes for Virginia to respond as first year Nibogora put away the game-winner off of a deflected header from Ueland. The play, which was set up by yet another WMU foul, started with a great service from the left side from Wiese. Ueland redirected the ball in front of the goal in traffic, and Nibogora cleaned it up with his right.
Next up, Virginia faces High Point on September 2 in Charlottesville. The game is scheduled for 7pm and will be streamed on ACC Network Extra.