The lead-up to the 2014 NCAA Tournament provided little in the way of foreshadowing for the Virginia men’s soccer team. The Cavaliers posted a 2-3-1 record in the games before the tourney, giving them half of their losses on the season in a span of three weeks.
After climbing back into the top 10 with a four-game winning streak, UVa’s chances for a National Championship appeared to be off the rails. A 3-0 loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament further cemented the loss of momentum.
The Hoos, however, gained something very valuable with that setback against the Irish. Perspective and extra practice time.
“In the end, we were a team that was trying to go forward and attack and weren’t getting enough out of how much we were committing forward,” Cavalier coach George Gelnovatch said. “That led us to say, ‘Look, if we’re going to make a run here, we’re going to have to pull these reins back a little bit and we’ll have to stop teams from scoring and we’ll figure out a way to get a goal.’ We took that approach, we trained it hard for two weeks getting ready for the playoffs, and the guys executed it perfectly.”
The strategic shift involved a bunker mentality and opportunistic counter attacks. The Cavaliers opened the NCAA Tournament with a 3-1 win against UNC Wilmington and then scored just three more goals the rest of the way.
There were plenty of anxious moments in the low-scoring games. That included a 1-0 win against Notre Dame, the top seed and reigning National Champion, in South Bend when Nicko Corriveau scored in the 82nd minute. The Irish took 11 shots, while the Hoos took just 8. At Georgetown in the quarterfinals, the Hoyas outshot the Cavaliers 16-8 but a Todd Wharton goal in the final minute of the second half eventually sent the game to penalty kicks. Virginia won 5-4.
At the College Cup in Cary, N.C., UVa again prevailed with a 1-0 score. This time, UMBC held the advantage in shots with five while Virginia produced only three. Of course, Darius Madison put one home in the fifth minute and that was enough to advance. In the title match, No. 2 seed UCLA outshot Virginia 15-9 but couldn’t get one in the net. That led to penalty kicks again and the Hoos prevailed 4-2 to win the program’s seventh national title. The sixteenth-seeded Cavaliers matched the lowest seed ever to take the crown.
“That’s just the job of a forward. In big games, you’re not always going to get a ton of opportunities and chances. It’s just part of growing up and you have to realize when you get your opportunity, you have to make the best of it,” Madison said. “I don’t think it was really that hard for us a team because we go over tactics all the time, formations, switching. … I think we handled the situation really well.”
The tactical turn in the postseason was part of a winding journey for this group of Hoos. They faced challenges nearly every step of the way. It started at the end of the previous season when Jordan Allen left for MLS after All-ACC (third team) and All-NCAA Tournament honors. Back in the summer, Marcus Salandy-Defour tore his ACL and missed the season. He had started 19 games the previous season.
Then Madison turned an ankle in the first preseason game and missed four games. At the start of the NCAA Tournament, Eric Bird suffered a groin injury after an All-ACC season (first team) and didn’t return until the College Cup.
In other words, it seemed like adversity waited around every corner. But the Cavaliers persevered, adjusted their approach, and put it all together at the right time. As a result, Gelnovatch led the program to its fifth College Cup appearance and second National Championship in his tenure.
“Talent is one thing and you have to have talent to win National Championships and this team has talent, but I’ve had more talented teams before,” Gelnovatch said. “The willingness and coachability of this group, the willingness to adapt – some guys that played a position all year were asked to do something completely different. Attacking players played in a different position and were asked to defend more than they every have. The willingness to buy into that for the sake of the team and for the sake of winning will trump talent every time. I think we’re a pretty good example of that.”
With a seventh star now bound for the program shield, the Cavaliers had little time to celebrate. Final exams and papers were waiting on Monday for the players. Still amid the hustle and bustle of the semester’s end, the accomplishment definitely hits home and brings another smile with it.
“In between studying you’re going about your day, and it’s just like, wait a minute. I’m a National Champion. We’re National Champions,” Madison said.