Virginia Seeks First NCAA Men's Soccer Title Since 1994
CARY, N.C. -- The message written on a white board inside the locker room in Charlottesville almost two weeks ago served as a reminder of what has eluded the otherwise thriving Virginia men's soccer program for more than a decade -- and as motivation for the Cavaliers' current quest:
The author was Chase Neinken, a reserve forward from Georgia, who, like his teammates and the dozens of players who have passed through the program since Virginia boasted a dynasty two decades ago, had grown impatient with the failure to win an NCAA championship.
"Everyone comes to the school because of the tradition and pride putting on this jersey," Neinken said on the eve of the College Cup final between the second-seeded Cavaliers and No. 1 Akron on Sunday afternoon at WakeMed Soccer Park. "It has taken a while for us to get back to the point where we are today. We want to carry that [history] as well as create some tradition of our own."
With a collection of ACC trophies, annual trips to the NCAA tournament and a portfolio of former players competing in MLS and European leagues, Virginia has retained its status as one of the nation's elite programs. Yet the modern-day Cavaliers probably will be forever overshadowed by the teams that won five titles between 1989 and 1994 under legendary coach Bruce Arena.
Until, perhaps, they win one of their own.
"We've been looking at it ever since and keep talking about it," senior midfielder Neil Barlow said of Neinken's statement. "Fifteen years is a very long time, especially for a program that has such a rich history. It's definitely time to bring back a national championship to Charlottesville."
A title would be particularly gratifying to Coach George Gelnovatch, who succeeded Arena in late 1995. Gelnovatch was a high-scoring forward for Arena in the mid-1980s and an assistant during the championship years before being promoted when Arena was appointed D.C. United's first coach.
While Arena has enjoyed success in MLS and with the U.S. national team, leading two teams to the World Cup, Gelnovatch has sustained Virginia's excellence by averaging 15 victories over 14 seasons and winning four ACC crowns.
Before defeating Wake Forest in overtime on Friday night, Virginia (18-3-3) had not advanced to the championship game in 12 years. Its previous final four appearance came three years ago.
The absence of a championship is "a reminder that winning is tough business," Gelnovatch said. "Winning consistently is tough business. Winning at this level, it's tough as heck to get into the playoffs, it's tough as heck to get to the College Cup and, once you get to the College Cup, it's tough as heck to get to the final."
Reminders of Virginia's splendor are everywhere: championship flags at Klockner Stadium, regular visits by former players, and the five stars above the crest on the jersey. Arena attended the quarterfinal against Maryland and Claudio Reyna, who starred on three championship squads before playing in multiple World Cups, has spoken to the squad in recent years.
Akron Coach Caleb Porter was familiar with Virginia's tradition long before the teams converged here this weekend. In 1994, he was a freshman midfielder for perennial power Indiana, which lost to the Cavaliers in the final.
"At Indiana, we certainly didn't like the fact that they were winning five championships but had great respect for what they were doing," he said. "George has continued the work that Bruce started."
Akron is a considerable obstacle for Virginia. The Zips (23-0-1) are attempting to become the first team to win the NCAA crown without a loss since 1989, when Santa Clara shared the title with the Cavaliers. They have yet to concede a goal in the NCAA tournament.
Since Oct. 7, the Cavaliers are unbeaten in 15 straight, but when goals were tough to come by early in the season and they lost at home to lowly Clemson, Gelnovatch questioned whether this squad was capable of ending the championship rut.
"There were some points during the course of the season that, back in the far parts of your head, you are wondering, no question about it," he said. "We were all really disappointed, but nobody was looking at each other funny, no one was pointing fingers. We just stayed the course. It was a gradual process for us."