In the parity of college soccer, repeating as champions is a difficult task. And it’s exactly what head coach George Gelnovatch is trying to do with the University of Virginia men’s program in 2010.
Gelnovatch replaced current LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena as coach of Virginia back in 1996, guiding the Cavaliers to the 2009 NCAA title for the first time since Arena coached them to a four-peat from 1991-1994.
Making Gelnovatch’s job more difficult is the loss of a number of contributors from last season, including New York Red Bulls midfielder Tony Tchani and Colorado Rapids midfielder Ross LaBauex.
Gelnovatch checked in with MLSsoccer.com to talk about how the title defense has gone.
MLSsoccer.com: What is your assessment of the Cavaliers’ season so far?
Gelnovatch: Where we stand, there’s two ways to look at the season – overall and in the conference. Overall, I’m relatively happy with where we are now. In our conference, we’re just under .500, and I think you need to end up at least .500 in our conference, which is what we did last year.
The trick is, as you get through the season, you’ve got to get results. But just as important as some of those results is the fact you have to get better as a team. I’ve had teams where we’ve gotten good results, but haven’t necessarily gotten better, so when you get into the ACC tournament or NCAA tournament, you’re at risk of getting by-passed and therefore get beat.
To get better, you’ve got to have taken a loss or two and learn from it. As a coach, you’ve got to be open minded to try guys in different positions, develop players that maybe weren’t playing for you early on in the season but at the end are getting minutes for you or even starting. That’s how teams evolve and that’s how you get better.
MLSsoccer.com: How has the rebuilding of the midfield gone?
Gelnovatch: It’s still a work in progress, to be honest with you. I said this publicly before the season that this is a little bit of a rebuilding year for us. We lost five of 11 guys, three of them were central midfielders and one of them was a wide midfielder. That’s a lot of midfielders.
MLSsoccer.com: How have the defense and Diego Retrepo performed?
Gelnovatch: Diego’s been fine. I think we’ve had around five or six goals scored on us for the year, which is pretty good. [He's] got to be one of the best in the country and our conference; that bodes well for [Restrepo]. But when you say defense, for me, it’s ... your back four, but it’s a team mentality, too. It’s how we all defend on restarts, how when we lose the ball ... we get around to get it back, how we defend on our last third of the field with a lot of people in the box, with closing people down, and blocking shots. That’s all a part of our team mentality, not just of our defenders.
MLSsoccer.com: How is Brian Ownby’s health?
Gelnovatch: I think, health-wise, he’s probably close to 100 percent. Timing, fitness, touch -- that’s still going to take some time. That’s not here yet. He hasn’t really played full-time soccer for a year. I think he’s still trying to get over the rut. I don’t think anything is bothering him. He’s getting lots of minutes and our hope is [for him to return in] November and December
MLSsocccer.com: Will Bates had a solid year as a freshman in 2009. How is he doing in his sophomore year?
Gelnovatch: He’s doing okay. His performance has been solid. He’s worked very hard and we’re trying to continue to work with him on holding the ball with his back to the goal, making the right connections when you have your back to the goal and holding off a big central defender, making sure he’s making high percentage passes.
MLSsoccer.com: How is freshman Brian Span adjusting to the collegiate level?
Gelnovatch: He’s been in our starting lineup, and if you are a freshman, a true freshman, and you can start in the ACC I think you’re pretty good. He’s got a lot of ability – very technical, clean, he’s 6’3’’, athletic, and a lot of potential, but he’s got a lot to learn, too: the day-in day-out of everyday training, the ACC, games twice a week, playing against big, athletic, strong defenders.
MLSsoccer.com: What’s it like having Alecko Eskandarian around?
[Editor’s note: Eskandarian is taking classes at UVA and is a volunteer assistant with the team.]
Gelnovatch: He has a level of respect from our guys, being a pro, having accomplished what he’s accomplished, particularly at our program when he was national player of the year.
From that standpoint, it’s good to have a guy like that around around – he’s not quite a coach, a little bit of a ‘tweener and can be a good guy that guys can lean on from time to time if they don’t want to approach a coach, particularly if you’re a forward.
The other part of it is he’s had several concussions and that’s why he’s not playing anywhere. Guys can see how vulnerable they are – getting a degree is pretty important, and if you leave early, fair enough, but work and build toward finishing your degree.
On several levels, it’s been good to have him around.