The Virginia men’s soccer team has allowed one goal through its first 10 matches, and the Cavaliers haven’t allowed a goal in their last 627 minutes of game action.
On paper, it’s easy to chalk that success up to goalkeeper Colin Shutler and his defenders. A closer look, however, reveals that UVa’s shutout streak is largely a product of the work of the midfielders and attackers.
“You know, it’s funny because I think certainly the first think you think of is your goalkeeper, your back four, your defense,” Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said. “And they’ve done great things, but I think it’s more of a team mentality.”
The team’s mindset starts on the offensive end. Through 10 matches, Virginia has scored in the first half seven times, including a goal in the second minute of its 2-0 win over Louisville on Friday. The Cavaliers scored goals in the first 30 minutes in five of their 10 victories.
Early goals allow Virginia to control possession in the midfield without needing to score. The comfort of an early lead offers UVa the chance to keep the ball away from opponents, limiting quality scoring chances and wearing out opposing teams by running them side to side and forcing them to defend.
Passing across midfield gives Virginia the chance to survey the defense and create quality chances as well. In games where Virginia scored in the first half, they’ve added at least one more goal in five of those seven matches. Taking a 1-0 lead out of the gate forces Virginia’s opponents to become more aggressive, letting the Cavaliers generate quality counterattacks.
Holding opponents to one goal through 10 matches requires more than just scoring early goals, though. Virginia’s defensive quality is undeniable, and the team excels in defending set pieces and hustling back when an opponent breaks into the open field.
“When we lose the ball and a team is countering on us, we work hard to get behind the ball,” Gelnovatch said. “That’s all 10 field players.”
The attackers and midfielders have bought in to the team’s defensive mentality. There’s naturally a focus on the attack, but the forwards are just as proud as the team posting a clean sheet as the defenders and goalkeeper.
“Our defensive players have made some great plays,” Robin Afamefuna said, “but so far I feel like everybody on the field starts to value how important defense is.”
Afamefuna said the team’s defensive prowess started to blossom in preseason matches. The Cavaliers started playing transition defense effectively, and the confidence spiraled from there. As the season progresses and the Cavaliers have kept nine of their 10 opponents from scoring, the confidence builds with each match.
“I gotta give it to the team,” Shutler said about the shutout streak. “It’s all of their running that they do in transition and just getting behind the ball, not giving me hard shots to save.”
Although Shutler is quick to pass credit to his teammates, he’s been stellar in goal. The redshirt junior has won a pair of ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors this season, and he’s leading the country in goals against average, save percentage and shutouts.
The combination of Shutler and quality defenders makes it difficult to score on the Cavaliers. Adding quick goals and a team-wide commitment to defense leads to the foundation of the ACC’s best defensive team. Aside from UVa, every ACC program has yielded at least seven goals this season.
Virginia’s defense faces a couple of the ACC’s top attacks through the rest of the season. Virginia Tech and North Carolina both rank among the four best teams in the conference in goals per game. Nonconference opponent JMU features Manuel Ferriol, who ranks second nationally in goals scored.
It won’t be an easy finish to the regular season, but the Cavaliers haven’t found any issues with quality opposition through 10 matches.