“I never would have predicted that,” Wiese said, “in a thousand years.”
In Charlottesville, there was never any question about the starter: Colin Shutler, whose 2018 postseason was cut short by a concussion, has played every minute of every match during Virginia’s nearly immaculate campaign, even though his older, more experienced brother joined the squad this fall and an ankle injury threatened to shelve him last weekend in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
Contrasting approaches toward goalkeeping have yielded similar rewards for the third-seeded Hoyas and No. 1 Cavaliers, who have reported to Cary, N.C., for the College Cup semifinals Friday.
After Georgetown (17-1-3) faces seventh-seeded Stanford (14-2-5) at 6 p.m. Eastern time, Virginia (20-1-1) will play No. 4 Wake Forest (16-4-2). The final is Sunday.
Their success has been rooted in defense. The Cavaliers have conceded the fewest goals in the country (nine) and posted the most shutouts (15), while the Hoyas are second in the first category (11) and tied for third (12) in the latter.
Goalkeepers typically reap the credit for such miserly numbers, but in these cases, they have not had much to do. Georgetown’s opponents have recorded 75 shots on goal, Virginia’s 64.
Nonetheless, when on the spot, both Shutler and the Georgetown duo have performed well. Shutler was voted to the all-ACC first team, while Georgetown sophomore Giannis Nikopolidis received the same honors in the Big East.
The Cavaliers’ possession game leaves foes with little opportunity to generate scoring chances. The 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Southern Methodist — in which Shutler was a game-time decision because of a faulty ankle — marked the second time they had allowed multiple goals.
“A big part of it has been us being able to manipulate the other team,” said Shutler, a junior who starred at Briar Woods High in Ashburn, Va., “and force them to focus on us most of the time.”
Shutler’s strengths — playing the ball with his feet and distributing it — are an ideal match for his team’s style.
“We couldn’t do what we do without his feet,” Coach George Gelnovatch said, “and he wouldn’t shine as much without this type of team.”
Although a goalkeeper’s prime responsibility is shot-blocking, the modern game requires keepers to initiate attacks and pass the ball as well as some defenders.
Since he was young, Shutler said he worked at improving his footwork, modeling his game after Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, the prototype for contemporary goalkeepers who are as comfortable with their feet as their hands and unafraid of jetting off their line to play the ball.
“I love the tactics George has taken,” he said. “Working with my feet was a huge emphasis as a goalkeeper growing up. The game is changing and it’s really helped me get to where I am now and for the way U-Va. plays.”
While Shutler fine-tunes his footwork, he continues to work on his shot-stopping skills and command of the penalty area.
“The thing he probably needs to develop is shot-stopping and being a goalkeeper for a normal college soccer team,” Gelnovatch said. “Most of what you do for those teams is shot-blocking. You’re not asked to make decisions with your feet.”
Shutler’s brother joined him this season. A starter at Binghamton, Chris Shutler graduated with one year of eligibility left. Having long planned to enroll in the engineering graduate program at Virginia, he also joined the soccer team.
“I was talking to the coaches about it,” Colin said, “and they thought it was a great idea to have him as a more experienced guy to mentor me further mentally and as a morale guy on the sideline.”
At Georgetown, Nikopolidis and freshman Tomas Romero have split playing time almost evenly. Nikopolidis has a 0.53 goals against average in 11 starts, Romero 0.44 in 10 matches, including a 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Washington.
Assuming Wiese maintains his pattern, Nikopolidis will start against Stanford on Friday, and if the Hoyas advance, Romero would play Sunday.
Wiese said he and his staff will weigh Stanford’s strengths in deciding the starter, but “in all likelihood, we’ll keep it the way it is. It’s what has gotten us here, and you have to trust it. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.”
Nikopolidis was the primary starter last year, but Wiese said: “It was really unsettled. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion this year.”
Romero arrived after a summer of playing regularly as an amateur for a pro team, Bethlehem Steel, the second-division affiliate of MLS’s Philadelphia Union.
The competition was on.
Nikopolidis said Wiese told the pair “we’re going start out by switching you every game and go with one of you” at some point.
“But,” the Greek native said with a smile, “I don’t think we left him with a choice” but to keep playing both of them.
Romero said: “It’s been working. Why fix something that isn’t broken?”
Over the season, Wiese said, “somebody should have lost form along the way. Someone should have not handled it mentally well along the way. But they’ve both handled it superbly.”
Though competitive nature drives them to win the job outright, both say they are on the same page.
“Since we know the dynamic, if it’s Giannis’s turn, I will push him,” Romero said, “and he’ll do the same for me.”
Their differences lie more in personality than athletic attributes, Wiese said.
“You’ve got Giannis, who is going at his own pace. When he got here last year, a lot of it was acclimation culturally to not only the United States and college, but training is harder here. It took him a long time.
“Enter Tomas, who was a regimented pro [with Bethlehem]. They’ve probably been very good for each other because Romero’s drive and push has elevated Giannis’s drive and push and Giannis has let Tomas relax in some ways. They’ve rubbed off on each other.”
Nikopolidis is from Greek soccer royalty, the son of Antonis Nikopolidis, the starting goalkeeper during Greece’s stunning run to the 2004 European Championship title and a fixture for heavyweight clubs Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. He played 90 times for his country and 61 times in the UEFA Champions League.
Giannis remembers attending Greece’s 2008 European Championship matches in Austria and watching his father play against elite clubs. Antonis has coached the Greek under-21 national team, a squad Giannis hopes to join after competing for the U-19s.
Giannis rose through Olympiacos’s youth system and considered turning pro after high school, but urged by his parents to get an education first, he randomly emailed the Georgetown staff two years ago.
“Those things almost never pan out,” Wiese said. But the attached videos and Nikopolidis’s pedigree intrigued him, and for perhaps the only time in his 14 years at Georgetown, Wiese chose a recruit without assessing him in person.
“It was a leap of faith for him,” he said, “and for us.”
Romero is from Cherry Hill, N.J., but through his father’s roots plays for El Salvador’s under-23 national team, which this spring will attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
Nikopolidis and Romero have alternated all season, except in late September and early October, when each played back-to-back matches.
“It goes against conventional wisdom,” Wiese said. “But I don’t think we’ve had a moment in the season where we’ve thought maybe one of them is the starter over the other. It just hasn’t happened.”
At WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
All matched will be televised on ESPNU.
No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 7 Stanford, 6
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Wake Forest, 8:30
Sunday’s final, 6 p.m.