Nov. 18, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- During a two-week period of the regular season, the University of Virginia men's soccer team gave up three goals to Notre Dame, two to Louisville, two to Portland and two to Boston College.
The Cavaliers won two of those matches, so it did not qualify as a disastrous stretch. Still, for a program that rode an unyielding defense to the NCAA title in 2014, the torrent of opponents' goals was troubling.
On the field for every minute of those games was goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, a sophomore from Todd, N.C.
"That was a frustrating point in the season," Caldwell recalled this week after a morning practice at Klöckner Stadium, where Virginia (9-4-3) hosts Rider (14-5-1) in the NCAA tournament's first round Thursday at 7 p.m.
"For me, being a young goalkeeper, that was definitely my low point in terms of performances this season."
Some of the goals were not Caldwell's fault, UVA head coach George Gelnovatch said, but "there were some where we thought he could have been better. It was little bit of a funky stretch for us, and for him even.
"But I'll say this about Jeff: He's pretty mentally tough. I never sensed him second-guessing himself or getting nervous or jittery."
In the five games since that rocky stretch, the Wahoos have allowed a total of three goals. They've improved defensively in part, Caldwell said, because of their early struggles.
"You always go through parts of the season where things get a little tough," Caldwell said. "Especially as a goalkeeper, or the back four, you're going to have bad nights. But if you don't go through points of the season like that earlier on and you aren't faced with a situation that you have to fix. I think that kind of leaves you a little vulnerable when it comes to this time of the year, when you don't get chances to fix it.
"It wasn't fun, but I think it was important for us to go through."
Working out Wednesday at Klöckner was former UVA goalkeeper Calle Brown, who recently signed with Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo. In 2014, Caldwell started the Cavaliers' season opener but left the country soon after to train with the United States' U20 team in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Caldwell rejoined the team about 10 days later, in early September, but the coaching staff decided to stay with Brown, a fifth-year senior who had shined during Virginia's run to the College Cup in 2013.
Brown ended up starting 21 of Virginia's 23 games in 2014, which meant Caldwell came into this season with virtually no college experience. Over the past three months, he's improved steadily.
"The more you see situations in a game, the better you're going to be," said Caldwell, who has posted six shutouts this season.
"This is the most consistent and highest volume of work in a season that I've had in a long time, since high school, in terms of consistently playing games in a proper league where you know your routines and you know it's going to be a tough opponent every week. And I think that's been huge for my growth. I feel better now than I've really felt at any point in my career."
Caldwell, who also has represented the United States at the U17 and U18 levels, trains daily with Virginia assistant coach Terry Boss, a former MLS goalkeeper.
"I couldn't be more proud of where he's at," Boss said. "He's the goalkeeper I thought he'd be at this time of the year. He's grown a lot, and I think he's playing the best soccer of his life.
"As with every goalkeeper in the world, there's going to be ups and downs through a season, and he managed them well. He came out for training every day, worked hard, and he's put himself in a place where he's making big-time saves in practice, and that's translated to the games."
The Cavaliers' coaches aren't the only ones Caldwell, 19, has impressed. Last week, he was named to the All-ACC third team in voting by the league's 12 head coaches.
"And by the way, he's still a young goalkeeper," Gelnovatch said. "He's still young."
The goalkeepers on the All-ACC first team and second teams -- Clemson's Andrew Tarbell and Wake Forest's Alec Ferrell, respectively -- are juniors who are three-year starters.
"It was a little surprising, honestly," Caldwell said of his All-ACC selection. "I don't really think about those things during the season, because I think stuff like that is kind of a distraction. But it was an honor, and hopefully I'm going to live up to that and keep producing at a high level."
This is Gelnovatch's 20th as head coach at his alma mater, and he can't remember another UVA goalkeeper during his tenure who was as advanced as a sophomore as Caldwell.
"He's a pretty relentless worker, too," Gelnovatch said. "He's a guy who really tries to hone in on what he needs to get better at, and he's very cerebral about it."
Caldwell's work ethic is "one of my favorite characteristics," Boss said. "That's the player I want to work with: the player that wants to come to practice every day, wants to get better, and that's why I have no doubt that there's not a ceiling for him. Because he's going to come in day in and day out, and if he's not getting better, he's unhappy."
In 2014, Virginia entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 16 seed. As one of the top 16 seeds, UVA earned a first-round bye in the 48-team tourney. The `Hoos, who have reached the NCAAs for the 35th consecutive season, are unseeded this year.
"The extra game obviously isn't ideal," Caldwell said, "but I don't think there's any harm in it. It just gives us a chance to get a good result and go into the later rounds with even more momentum."
The Virginia-Rider winner will meet No. 10 seed Maryland (10-5-5), the Big Ten champion, in a second-round game Sunday at 5 p.m. in College Park.
As was the case in 2014, the Cavaliers have struggled to finish scoring opportunities this season, and they enter the NCAA tournament with a modest 22 goals. Still, Caldwell remains confident as UVA begins its bid for a third straight trip to the College Cup.
"We've really prided ourselves on not giving up goals," Caldwell said, "and if we don't give up a goal, we're going to advance. And it's not just the back four. It's a team mentality from top to bottom, that we're not going to give up goals, and if we don't give up goals, we're going through."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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