The Virginia men's soccer team took a familiar 70-mile bus ride on I-64 to Richmond on Saturday to play a familiar opponent, Virginia Commonwealth. The circumstances, however, were most unfamiliar for the Cavaliers.
Virginia -- winner of four NCAA championships in the 1990s -- went to VCU unranked by Soccer America magazine for the first time in 178 weeks, dating from 1984. The Rams, meanwhile, were ranked seventh -- the highest in program history.
It would be hard to imagine an NCAA tournament without Virginia, which has qualified for the postseason for 18 consecutive years. But going into the VCU game, that possibility existed -- and still does, even though the Cavaliers (7-4-1) picked up a 2-0 victory Saturday to help them return to the rankings at No. 18. The reason: Men's college soccer has changed dramatically since Major League Soccer started in 1996, and Virginia is feeling the changes more than most programs.
Virginia Coach George Gelnovatch still lands many of the nation's elite high school players. But players such as Ben Olsen, Brian West, Scott Vermillion, Chris Albright and Jason Moore have been lured out of school early by the professional league, and the Cavaliers' roster now has one senior, six juniors, eight sophomores and nine freshmen.
"It's been interesting," said midfielder Drew O'Donnell, the Cavaliers' lone senior. "When I was recruited by Virginia, they were the four-time national champions and they were just expected to win all the time. . . . We still have incredible talent, but we lack experience. It takes a while to know how to maintain a lead and not give up stupid goals. When we play our best, we can be as good as any team in the country."
One example of the Cavaliers' inexperience came Oct. 3 against N.C. State when freshman midfielder Kyle Martino whacked an opponent in frustration and earned a red card ejection with 35 minutes remaining. The Wolfpack scored with three seconds remaining to win, 2-1. Martino and fellow midfield starter Ryan Trout, who had a death in his family, missed the Cavaliers' next game -- a 1-0 loss to William & Mary. It was the first Tribe victory in 12 visits to Charlottesville.
"Before MLS, Virginia basically had a young MLS team, and now they are a very good college team," William & Mary Coach Al Albert said.
"I don't think that is a knock at all on their program. They've lost more talent than the rest of us have," he said.
Gelnovatch, hired to replace Bruce Arena when he left to coach D.C. United in 1996, is also learning on the fly.
"I refuse to not recruit the best players in the country, so I expect some of them to leave early," Gelnovatch said. "You can't help but notice that you are not ranked and be upset by that, but when you stop and think about it, you realize, `Whatever.' I know enough about the game and about teams around the country to know that we are a good team."
Virginia has six regular season games remaining, including matches with ACC contender Clemson, No. 17 Cal State-Fullerton, No. 6 Duke and No. 2 UCLA. Virginia has not lost five games in a season since 1990. Maryland made the tournament with seven losses last season and advanced to the national semifinals. Although the Cavaliers are ranked again, it has been a long time since Virginia had so little margin for error.
"Usually around this time, we have one, maybe two losses and we start to lose focus a little bit," Gelnovatch said. "Obviously, we would rather have one loss right now, but to me, this is exciting.
"Putting your backs against the wall is a different place to be. You get to see what you're made of."