With the regular season spiraling to an end, the Virginia men’s soccer team continues to dial in on final adjustments and plans for the stretch run. At 8-3-2 overall and 3-2-1 in the ACC, the Hoos are in the thick of things for an ACC Tournament home game with a top four seed and an NCAA Tournament spot as well.
The Cavaliers found themselves in a similar spot at this point in the regular season a year ago at 9-4-1 and 3-2-1 in the ACC before finding the right mix of strategy and personnel for the postseason. They surged to the program’s seventh National Championship as a result.
“In some ways, not too dissimilar from this time last year,” UVa coach George Gelnovatch said. “We’re a good team, talented team, but there’s probably 10, maybe 15, teams like us out there. For me, it now comes down to injuries, maybe a little bit of good fortune of course, and are you getting better as a team? … What have you learned from your team up til now? What are you good at? What are you not good at? What’s going to work down the stretch?”
The Cavaliers opened the season with an eight-game unbeaten streak before a 3-1 loss at Notre Dame stopped the momentum on Sept. 25. During October so far, the Hoos are 3-2 with a pair of higher scoring games (3-2 wins against Louisville and Portland) and a pair of close low-scoring losses (2-1 at Boston College and 1-0 against American). A week ago, however, they rallied with three goals in the second half to dispatch Pittsburgh 3-1.
Over the last month, Gelnovatch has experimented with different tactics and lineups to see where the team might be at its strongest. The moves have included things like Derrick Etienne playing first as a sub then as a starter, Sam Hayward at forward, and Marcus Salandy-Defour returning from injury as a midfielder before moving to defense for example.
Salandy-Defour has given Virginia a stabilizing presence on defense, but he can also move forward as a fullback to stay involved in the attack potentially. Gelnovatch said he thinks the redshirt junior is “settling in” where he’s needed defensively.
“His first two games back with us, I played him further up the field,” Gelnovatch said. “He did well there and scored in the Louisville game and the Portland game. So his first two games back he scored two goals by me putting him higher up the field, but we’ve also been struggling at our right back position and he’d demonstrated before he got hurt again early in the preseason … he did really well at that position. Those fullbacks both left and right are first defensive positions, but they’re also attacking positions. … He’s really dangerous at doing that.”
Against Pitt, the moves with Salandy-Defour and Etienne matched up with another personnel shift. Gelnovatch inserted freshman Wesley Wade as a substitute at a critical spot in an ACC match. Wade, who Gelnovatch said was “on my mind for a month,” had made just two previous appearances this season and had yet to make an impact. Against the Panthers, he stepped up with the opportunity and put home two second-half goals. The combination of Salandy-Defour, Etienne, and Wade on the right side showed promise and Gelnovatch expects to use Wade again in Friday night’s matchup with Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers may need a spark for the contest in Blacksburg if recent history is a guide. Despite owning a 38-4-3 advantage all-time against the Hokies and a 7-0-3 mark in the last 10 games, four of the last six matchups have gone to extra time. The Hoos held a big shots advantage in both contests last season, but won 1-0 each time. So even though the Hokies enter this contest with a 0-3-3 mark in ACC play, it should be a tough test for UVa.
“It’s a tough place,” Gelnovatch said. “It seems to be Homecoming every time we go there or Senior Night or Alumni Weekend or something. It’s a big rivalry and a big game and I think the one they get up the most for. Always a good crowd. It’s usually 10 degrees colder and windy there so we have to get ready for that. We’re expecting a very tough game.”
The match, of course, is part of the Commonwealth Clash between the two schools. The all-sports competition in 2015-2016 features 21 varsity sports in which the two schools compete against each other. The first school to 11 points wins the clash. UVa, who won last year’s inaugural competition 15-7, currently leads 0.5 to 0 behind volleyball’s win last month.
“I played here. I know what it means,” Gelnovatch said. “We don’t like them, they don’t like us, and we like beating them. It feels really good when we beat them.”