by Neil Morris
Still, despite dominated long stretches of the contest, Head Coach Carlos Somoano was flummoxed by his team’s inability to put away Boston despite holding a two-goal lead late in the second half. Such is the cross to bear for the defending NCAA champions and undefeated number one ranked team in the country, which hadn’t surrendered a goal since the last year’s College Cup semifinals against UCLA.
“I’m happy to get the win; obviously it’s great to be 3-0 at this point,” said Somoano. “But to be honest, I’m a little disappointed in the performance tonight. I thought we got sloppy, perhaps even a little bit arrogant maybe thinking we’re impenetrable.”
The Tar Heels controlled pace and possession throughout the first half, drawing first blood in the 20th minute. Sophomore Verneri Valimaa delivered one of many long balls over the top of the Terriers’ three-player back line to striker Andy Craven stationed on the left side of the box. Craven maneuvered around out-rushing keeper Nick Thompson and sent a chip shot that snuck inside the right post.
“[Valimaa] got the ball and turned, and the other team was only playing with three defenders so it was kind of easy to make a through ball run,” Craven remembered. “He picked his head up and saw I was making a run. He played a perfect ball in to me, and I just focused on my first touch and then poked it with the outside of my foot past the keeper.”
The teams exchanged unrequited chances for the remainder of the first half. In the 28th minute, Danny Garcia fed a nifty through ball to a streaking Craven, but the curly-haired forward couldn’t completely turn on the sphere and planted it into the side netting. Two minutes later, a Boston corner triggered two shots on goal, both cleared by the Tar Heels defense. And in the 36th minute, a sure header by Jordan Gafa off a UNC corner was tipped away by Thompson.
In the 55th minute, Gafa sent a seeing-eye cross that found a diving Garcia, but the freshman’s header flew just wide of goal. With Carolina pelting shots at the Boston keeper, the home team’s second score came off, of all things, a penalty kick. In the 68th, midfielder Raby George made a run into the right side of the box and attempted to launch another cross to Garcia. However, George was taken down from behind by Jeroen Blugh, who earned a yellow card and penalty for his effort. Martin Murphy, who scored the game-winner Friday night against West Virginia, stepped to the spot and then stutter-stepped his way to a conversion into the left netting.
A combination of feckless finishing, (over)confidence and The Most Dangerous Lead in Soccer™ allowed the Terriers to continue nipping at the Tar Heels. With storm clouds literally on the horizon, Boston broke through in the 84th minute when Michael Bustamante delivered a laser cross that found the head of Dominique Badji on its way into the goal.
Continued pressure by Boston and, on the other end, a couple of misses by Craven were all that separated UNC from their third victory to open the season. Meanwhile, this was the fourth consecutive road game for the Terriers (1-3-0) out of six straight to open their 2012 campaign. Moreover, Boston faced all ranked opponents over that four-match span, none more formidable than the number one Tar Heels.
Still, a catalog of Carolina’s missteps during the game’s closing stages stood out most for Somoano.
“A lot of careless turnovers, guys not getting to good spots on the field where they know they’re supposed to be, not traveling with the ball, [and ] just getting outworked. I thought Boston University just outworked us the last 20 minutes. They showed good response; you have to give them some credit. But our job is to respond to that, and I don’t think that we did.”
The most notable tactical facet of the contest was UNC’s partiality for playing long balls over the top of the defense, particularly in light of Somoano’s preference of keeping the ball on the deck to build-up scoring chances. On the one hand, the long balls proved quite effective against Boston’s back line—which allowed acres of space on the flanks—and created most of the Tar Heels’ scoring opportunities, including Craven’s opening goal. However, reliance became overreliance in the game’s latter stages when keeping possession to run clock would have been preferable to searching balls that became turnovers, giving Boston added runs at goal.
After the game, players and coach were still of two minds on the subject.
“If the other team is giving it to us then why not do that?,” said Craven, a junior transfer beginning his first season with the Tar Heels after two at the College of Charleston. “That’s the quickest and easiest route to the goal, and if they’re just going to give that to us then we’ll put it down their throats and take it to them. If other teams sit back farther then we have to adjust to that. But this team didn’t follow marks that well. I was running in from behind and they weren’t extremely fast, so through balls were on.”
“Boston gives you a lot of space to play in behind, so it’s hard not to take it,” Somoano countered. “They kind of suck you into that kind of game—they squeeze everybody in and give you half a field to play in from behind, and your eyes get big and you want to try. And that’s the difference between being a very mature, refined team and where we are right now. If you’re just a little bit smarter and be little bit more patient at key moments you can play in from behind, but you can also keep the ball at other times. We couldn’t find that balance.”
The Tar Heels begin conference play next Saturday when they host Virginia Tech. Somoano says his team is ready, notwithstanding his misgivings over elements of Sunday’s performance.
“At the same time, we can’t beat ourselves up,” he said. “We beat a very good Boston University team, and we deserved to win the game. So, you have to take the good with the bad.”