Virginia vs. Indiana has makings of ‘classic, elite’ soccer battle

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

With a fully recovered Leo Afonso back in the fold, along with dynamic freshman Stephen Annor, Virginia has become a dangerous team to deal with in the postseason.

The duo will help lead the Cavaliers (11-3-4) when they host Indiana (14-4-4) in the third round of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship on Sunday (1 p.m., Klöckner Stadium, ESPN+). UVA coach George Gelnovatch believes fans are in store for a “classic, elite” battle between two of the premiere programs in America.

Only Saint Louis has won more national titles (10) than Virginia (7) and Indiana (8), so this has all the makings of a royal brawl.

The No. 7-seeded Cavaliers reached the Round of 16 with a 2-1 overtime win over FIU, while unseeded Indiana posted wins over Lipscomb and No. 10 seed Wake Forest. The winner of Sunday’s UVA-Indiana match will advance to the NCAA quarterfinals against the winner of No. 2 Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan.

Afonso, who was Virginia’s leading scorer a year ago, missed most of this season with an injury, but made a big difference in the win over FIU, scoring two goals, his second on a bicycle kick in overtime.

Annor, a freshman from Ghana, was remarkable in Afonso’s absence. Now that they’re sometimes playing together, along with Mouhameth Thiam (senior transfer from Oregon State), opponents need to be aware.

“We had to shuffle things around a little bit positionally,” Gelnovatch said about how he adjusted with Afonso sidelined. “Steven became the kind of the main center forward and Mo started out wide and we brought him back underneath so that they could play together.

“Without the two of them and without Leo, we would have been in trouble, so those two picked up a lot of slack.”

Annor, who has 20 points and 10 goals for the Cavaliers, has been a force to deal with.

“Teams are setting up to prevent him from doing what he’s really good at,” Gelnovatch said of the prized freshman. “So having Leo back to kind of absorb some that dynamic, whether I’m taking Leo out and putting Stephen in, or playing them together, which I did both … I brought Leo in for Stephen and then at the end of the game, I brought both in. Just having both of them makes us dangerous.”

The longtime UVA coach believes his team is doing something right to reach this point in the season and hasn’t actually lost since Sept. 22 at Notre Dame. This deep in the postseason, Gelnovatch is confident that this team is going to create chances and score and be in a position to defend a lead. He just wants his team to be able to close out games.

At this time of year, teams are so well-scouted, there are few surprises.

“So everything’s a little bit tougher to do, the way that you want to play,” Gelnovatch said. “Most teams that we play are setting up differently to play us. They’re trying to prevent a lot of things so they completely changed their formation.”

The last three teams UVA has faced have completely changed their formation, although he doesn’t expect that from Indiana, “just because of who they are,” Gelnovatch said.

He’s impressed that even though the Hoosiers entered the tournament unseeded, they made it to the third round off experience, desire and talent.

“Last year they were the lowest-seeded team and they made it to the national championship game, so I have a ton of respect for them,” the UVA coach said. “They’re a very good team.”