Feb. 26, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- It's the last week of February, and Darius Madison would rather be in Mexico. That's no reflection on his feelings about the University of Virginia, where he's a first-year student.
"I love this school," Madison said. "Nice people, nice environment, great weather. I can't complain."
The appeal of Mexico? That's where the United States' under-20 men's soccer team, at the CONCACAF Championships in Puebla, is trying to qualify for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
A 5-8, 160-pound forward from Philadelphia, Madison started 15 of the 17 games he played for UVa in the fall and was named to the ACC's All-Freshman team.
His performance in the ACC tournament impressed the U-20 coaching staff, and after the college season Madison was one of 24 players called into the national team's training camp held Dec. 15-22 in Sunrise, Fla. Then came another training camp, Jan. 14-22 in Mexico, where Madison played in one of the U.S. team's two games against Panama.
"I could have played a whole lot better," Madison said of his performance in Puebla, where a sprained ankle limited his effectiveness. "I didn't play too bad, but I didn't really play my game. I was nervous, and it was a new squad, and I had to get settled in. Then with the altitude and everything like that, it was taking away from my fitness."
Madison was not shocked, then, to be omitted from U.S. coach Tab Ramos' 20-player roster for the CONCACAF tournament.
"I know I didn't play my best game, so I was frustrated at myself," Madison said. "I wasn't frustrated at anyone else, I can't blame anyone else. I was just kind of mad at myself that I didn't play the way I knew how to play. I was trying to play conservative. I was playing it safe, when I should have just played my game."
Even so, Madison said, he returned to Charlottesville better for his time with the national team.
"I've learned some things that I need to work on, and I've learned some things from just being in that environment with mostly young professionals," he said.
On a UVa team that finished 10-7-4 after losing to New Mexico in the NCAA tournament's second round, seven freshmen started at least 10 games apiece last season: Madison, his roommate Jordan Poarch, Zach Carroll, Scott Thomsen, Marcus Salandy-Defour, Brian James and Todd Wharton.
Moreover, four sophomores -- Eric Bird, Matt Brown, Kyler Sullivan and goalie Spencer LaCivita -- started at least 15 games each. The only senior to play a prominent role for the Wahoos was All-ACC forward Will Bates, who's now with Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders.
Bates scored 12 of Virginia's 29 goals last season, and Carroll was second on the team with four. Madison, who missed four games with a high-ankle sprain, scored only twice: on a penalty kick Sept. 11 against Mount St. Mary's and in the second overtime Nov. 1 to lift UVa to a 2-1 win over NC State.
"That to me is probably the most powerful data that I can give Darius," Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said. "You can talk about, `You need to be better at this, you need to be better at that,' but the bottom line is you have to put points on the board if you're going to be a next-level attacking guy.
"At the next level, if you're a forward, you gotta score goals. If he wants to play at the next level, he's gotta start doing that on a regular basis, and to do that you gotta work at it. And I think this spring, that's what we're working on."
Madison's assessment of his first college season?
"I was dangerous, but I didn't score enough," he said. "I've only scored two goals, and it's not like I wasn't creating chances. It wasn't like I wasn't getting shots on goal. Sometimes I just felt unlucky. The goalie would just be in the right spot at the right time for a great save, or I'd hit the crossbar or the post.
"I can't wait until next season, because I'm scoring goals. That's what I'm looking forward to: proving myself."
Spring practice is under way for the Cavaliers, and Madison and Co. are getting plenty of opportunities to work on finishing.
"It's just like free throws [for a basketball team]," Gelnovatch said. "Every single day, 30 minutes, we shoot, and there's different types of shooting, just like in basketball: side-footing the ball, driving the ball, left foot, right foot, curls, headers, all sorts of different things that you just have to do over and over and over again."
Madison also must work on his decision-making. At LaSalle College High School and on his club teams, he was a prolific scorer, in part because of his superior speed and quickness. He didn't fare as well as a UVa freshman in one-on-one battles with defenders.
"It's just about being smarter," Madison said. "I can still do the things that I've done in the previous years of my soccer career, but I just have to know when to do them and when not to do them. "
Madison missed the first week of classes at UVa last month while in Mexico, but his professors "worked with me and sent me assignments and told me what I had to do," he said, "so I kind of stayed on top of my work while I was away."
The experience that Madison gained with the U-20 team, Gelnovatch said, should pay dividends for him and for the `Hoos.
"It's a high level, it's fast, it's professional [culture]," Gelnovatch said. "How the individual player deals with that experience and brings it back to us, it varies by individual. So far I feel like Darius is taking advantage of it. He has a good work ethic and knows what he needs to better at. He's listening and working, as opposed to going with the 20s, getting a taste of a higher level and then coming back and feeling that this is kind of a letdown, and then maybe not working as hard or thinking he's arrived.
"I think he's like a tweener, because he got called into a couple camps but didn't quite make it. That gives him hunger to reach that level."
Madison is also hungry to help Virginia, which in 2009 won its sixth NCAA title, challenge for another championship. Not only does UVa return virtually all of its 2012 starters, but its incoming recruiting class is ranked among the nation's best. The jewels of the group are Jordan Allen (Rochester, N.Y.) and Nicko Corriveau (Potomac, Md.), whom The Washington Post honored as the D.C. area's top high school player in 2012. Both are expected to contend for starting jobs this summer.
"It's pretty exciting," Madison said. "We should be really good."