One regret I've constantly had in writing this blog is that I don't get enough of a chance to write about the men's soccer team. It's a fall sport, see, and it's sort of not really the biggest thing going on, and it basically just gets massively overshadowed by football. With the bye this week though, we get a chance to check in....
....on a team playing nowhere near its historical expectations. Only Indiana and St. Louis have won more NCAA titles than UVA (and SLU hasn't won since 1973) so much is expected of the Hoos. Unfortunately, the team's streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is in serious jeopardy. They sit at 8-6-1 and just 2-4-1 in ACC play, with their only wins over Duke and Virginia Tech, and the latter required a spirited comeback from a two-goal deficit. UVa will find itself most likely with a 6 or 7 seed in the ACC tourney, requiring them to play either UNC or Wake Forest, the latter of which the Hoos lost to 4-1 in the regular season. (That said, UVA has had a way, in the past several years, of crushing Wake's postseason dreams almost literally every time we face them.)
So what has gone wrong for the Hoos this season? Let's examine, paper-tiger style, some of the reasons for the disappointing results.
-- Youth. Exactly one senior exists on the roster. It's a semi-normal condition to have a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, since college soccer is forever being pilfered by the professionals. No system whatsoever exists such as the NBA's age limit to keep pro teams from signing up all the good players, since most of those teams exist in Europe. That said, it's still a bad situation this year for UVA. The only senior on the roster is Will Bates, most of the juniors aren't starters (or even regular players), and the situation only got worse in September when midfielder Ari Dimas, a huge part of the team these past few seasons, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Apparently club soccer - which Dimas played as a freshman - counts toward your eligibility clock. Yeah.
That robbed UVA of a huge veteran presence and a guy who was a big spark plug for the offense. If it weren't for Bates, the whole starting lineup would be underclassmen. Defender Sean Murnane is really the only junior that gets a lot of playing time.
-- Injuries. Something that's really plagued UVA the past couple years. (Though one might be a blessing in disguise: if Bates wasn't so damn good at getting hurt, he might have been signed already.) Murnane spent some time on the injured list, as have forwards Darius Madison and Ryan Zinkhan. Zinkhan was a big piece of last year's team, scoring four goals and three assists, and Madison has played in every game this year that he hasn't missed with injury. Murnane got Wally Pipped a little; he's been coming off the bench since his return.
-- Goaltending. Whoo boy do we miss Diego Restrepo. Sophomore Spencer LaCivita is in net for his second year as a starter. All the usual chicken-or-the-egg caveats apply about whether poor defense causes poor goaltending or vice versa, as does the fact I haven't seen a single game live, but there's no getting around the fact that LaCivita's save percentage is at the very bottom of the NCAA pecking order. Restrepo always hung out in the .800s; LaCivita, before tonight's game at Boston College (which was a 0-0 tie) was at .754, which put him at 94th of 103 qualifed goalies. Tonights result should get him into the low 80s, but still.
So can the Hoos get into the tournament? I venture a "yes" but with no guarantees. In their favor: wins over likely tournament teams Cal, High Point, and on the road at VCU, another probable tourney team. They've also been highly competitive in OT losses to Georgetown and UCLA (currently ranked #6 and #7, respectively) and a 1-0 loss on the road to unanimous #1 Maryland. A tie against #12 (and unbeaten) Xavier should also work in their favor. A home loss to 5-8-3 Clemson and the blowout home loss to Wake will weigh them down, as does a record that's barely over .500 and a conference record guaranteed to finish below that. Fortunately, all this youth means better times ahead; this year's freshman class was rated #2 by Top Drawer Soccer (though it took the usual pros-related hits) and is already a major contributor. Partly by necessity, yes, but still. The future for UVA soccer looks bright, we just have to put up with the present for now. (And where have you heard that before?)