Best save came at home for Restrepo
After long journey to U-Va., goalie leads record shutout streak, trip to College Cup

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

The caller said there had been an accident outside Gustavo Restrepo's real estate office in Cali, Colombia, and his immediate assistance was needed.

"You're a generous guy, come help us out here," the unfamiliar voice pleaded.

It was 2001 and, although violence fueled by drug wars was on the decline after battering Colombia for decades, shootings and kidnappings continued to haunt the shaken nation. Restrepo's son, Diego, was 13 -- eight years until he would enjoy one of the finest seasons by a goalkeeper in NCAA soccer history.

"My dad was ready to go out there and help, but my mom had been on the phone at the same time," Diego, a junior at the University of Virginia, said this week. "She heard it. She stopped him. She had a bad feeling."

Ligney Restrepo's instincts were correct. Police would later tell the family that the caller had been part of a group planning to kidnap Gustavo, a successful businessman and prime target.

"That was it for us," Diego recalled. "We left."

Gustavo was a U.S. citizen, having lived in New York as a teenager and later managing McDonald's restaurants in Times Square and Los Angeles and working in real estate in South Florida. After the latest of several threats, he moved the family back to Florida, where he resumed real estate work with a relative.

For Diego, it meant the birth of a new life, one that would take him to an elite residency program; to the Under-17 World Cup in Peru; to tryouts with pro clubs in Italy, Germany and England; to the University of South Florida for two seasons; and finally to Charlottesville, where he has been instrumental in the Cavaliers' charge to the College Cup.

Second-seeded Virginia, which boasts a 14-game unbeaten streak, will play ACC rival Wake Forest in a national semifinal Friday at 5 p.m. in Cary, N.C. Undefeated and No. 1 Akron will face fifth-seeded North Carolina in the second match. The final is Sunday afternoon at WakeMed Soccer Park near Raleigh.

Restrepo has helped the Cavaliers register an NCAA-record 11 consecutive shutouts, and he has not conceded a goal since the opening minutes of a league game at Virginia Tech on Oct. 17 -- a stretch of 1,107 minutes 34 seconds, which is the equivalent of 18 1/2 hours. The record is 1,318:26, set by Michigan State's Avery Steinlage this year.

Restrepo's 0.29 goals against average is just behind the national single-season mark of 0.21 by Northern Illinois' Joe Zimka in 2006. Virginia has not allowed more than a goal in any of its 23 matches and permitted seven overall, the same as Akron.

"He's been unbelievable," Cavaliers Coach George Gelnovatch said of Restrepo, who is small for a goalie (6 feet, 175 pounds). "He has good reactions with his hands and feet, and he really understands the game. He gets it. He understands where the ball should go next, anticipating a cross, cutting down angles."

The College Cup is the culmination of a circuitous journey. In the process of relocating from Florida to Colombia (both his parents are originally from the South American country), the family was visiting relatives in Venezuela when Ligney went into premature labor and Diego was born in Venezuela. "I'm still a little bitter," he said with a laugh, explaining that he considers himself Colombian and American.

He lived in Colombia through age 13, initially in Medellín, then primarily in Cali. His idol was René Higuita, the national team goalkeeper known for his daring, and often reckless, forays outside the penalty area. (Wisely, Restrepo did not imitate Higuita's style.)

Colombia's violence, however, prevented him from playing organized soccer.

"It was just too dangerous," he said. "My mom was very protective of me. I went to school and came straight home. You never knew when someone was going to get you."

The kidnapping scare prompted Gustavo to move the family to West Palm Beach, Fla., where Diego played regularly at the high school and club level, attracting attention from national coaches. He was invited to the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and was the backup keeper for the U-17 World Cup squad.

He initially planned to continue his career at Santa Clara University, but the international exposure led to workouts with second- and third-division clubs in Italy, as well as Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Reading in England.

Restrepo said he declined a low-budget offer in Italy and decided his best course was through the college system. Santa Clara was too far from home, he realized, so he opted for South Florida, where, after redshirting his first year, he had eight shutouts in 19 starts as a freshman. In 2008, though, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and made just three appearances, prompting a decision to transfer.

With fond memories of his visit to Charlottesville for an exhibition in August 2007, Restrepo transferred to Virginia. When he enrolled last spring, "he was overweight and wasn't sharp because he hadn't played much" for South Florida in 2008, Gelnovatch said. "But once he joined us and got into shape, it rejuvenated him."

With the other two goalies on this year's roster lacking experience, Gelnovatch knew right away that Restrepo would be his starter. Restrepo has played all but 45 minutes.

"We knew he was going to be very good," Gelnovatch said, "but we probably wouldn't have guessed he would have a shutout streak like this one. It's been a special year for Diego and for our team."

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