WAKE MED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—It was a hideous day to be outdoors, and the collateral wind and water from Tropical Storm Ida just about ruined everyone's day in Cary. Eight ACC men's soccer teams were scheduled to play consecutive games, but not even a daytime visit from Lilian Thuram could coax activity on the field. In the end, the four games were played two by two, on fields 2 and 3, at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
While I sat shuddering in the leaking media tent overlooking Field 2—and a juicy first-round matchup between the UNC Tar Heels and the NC State Wolfpack—on the far field, Wake Forest was thrashing Clemson 3-0. There was apparently no media tent over there, so the beat writers covering that game watched it through binoculars from the main tent.
The game in front of us promised to be a good one: UNC, 13-2-3 and ranked No. 4 in the country according to the NCAA's RPI standings, and the Wolfpack, which are 12-5-2 and ranked a not-too-shabby No. 25 (which makes them seventh among the ACC teams—talk about a power conference).
However, the soccer was mostly excruciating, with players on both teams failing to complete many passes or build a sustained attack. Neither side was inclined to send players forward, and even when attacks began to build, the Tar Heels especially seemed averse to making a move for the goal.
The Wolfpack's best chance came on an extra-time shot from defender Chandler Knox that hit the crossbar, while UNC's Alex Dixon took a golden opportunity, crumpled it up and set it on fire when he nicked a ball along the byline from ’Pack keeper Christopher Widman outside of his box, and then inexplicably wasted the gift by firing into the side netting from an unmakeable angle.
Although the keepers were mostly untroubled—indeed, they might have wished for more action in order to stay warm—they did battle the high winds on their punts and goal kicks (punts toward the north end were often comically short, batted down short of the midfield line).
But you can't keep a Widman down. The dead ringer for Manchester United's Edwin Van der Sar recovered from his misadventure with Dixon to utterly take over on penalty kicks. The 6-foot-4 senior stopped UNC's second and third kicks, and stepped forward to take his team's third kick, which he banged to the left corner past his suddenly hapless UNC counterpart, Brooks Haggerty.
Afterward, UNC coach Elmar Bolowich marveled at Widman's composure, and wingspan, "of 8 or 9 feet," he said as Haggerty and UNC midfielder Kirk Urso, whose PK effort was blocked by Widman, shivered next to him.
A few minutes later, Widman, Knox and N.C. State coach George Tarantini came into the rapidly destabilizing media tent—the wind was lifting the side panels and the florescent lights overhead were swaying. Widman looked up nervously. I asked him how he decided which way he was going to lunge on the PKs—he stopped two of three:
"I make a decision before [the shot is taken], I try to look at the guy and see if he gives me anything—how he's standing, how he's set up. If not, I mean, sometimes it's just a guess."
It was a bad day for the other Triangle school, 12th-ranked Duke, which lost in overtime to Boston College. N.C. State moves on to play the Eagles Friday at 8 p.m. Click here for official tournament info.
And Widman, just because you totally dominated, and because you look like a certain Dutchman, here's a YouTube clip dedication in your honor. Yes, it's the epic PK shootout in the European Champions League final of 2008, played in Moscow between Chelsea and Manchester United, and yes, that game was also contested in the rain.