Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics
Nyambi Jabang celebrates with his Tar Heel teammates after his goal in UNC's 3-0 win over Pitt Friday in Chapel Hill.
FETZER FIELD/ CHAPEL HILL—The headline is that the North Carolina Tar Heels won a decisive 3-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers to open its 2014 ACC men's soccer season. The real story of the match is the player who propelled them to the win.
The first goal and assist by redshirt sophomore Nyambi Jabang paced the No. 3 Tar Heels to their fourth win of the season.
According to UNC head coach Carlos Somoano, however, the game didn't start so swimmingly.
“I didn’t like the way we came out,” Somoano said. “I thought we were sluggish. The tempo of the game was not what our expectations are. The substitutes came on and made a difference, so I’m very pleased that those young guys were able to come on and separate the game for us and give us a win.”
Indeed, although his Tar Heels dominated first-half possession, Somoano was displeased with the distribution from his back line. So, in just the 13th minute, he subbed off starting defenders Colton Storm and C.J. Odenigwe and brought on sophomore Nick Williams and freshman David October.
The 19-year-old October, nicknamed was “Rocco” during his four years as part of the Ipswich Town FC youth academy, proved a sound presence at left back, where the Tar Heels have been lacking since a season-ending knee injury suffered by senior Jordan McCrary.
“David is a very competent player,” Somoano said. “He came in with a hamstring pull, so he’s just getting himself fit, and he’s definitely a nice option to have.”
Once the back line was steadied, the Tar Heels settled into a first half dominated by attacking chances left largely wanting. That finally changed in the 42nd minute thanks to two other first half substitutions. Jabang, who came on for senior Robbie Lovejoy in the 34th, made a hard drive off the right wing toward the end line. Once there, he delivered a short cross to touted freshman striker Alan Winn, who took advantage of his space in the box to blast an angled shot past Pitt goalkeeper Dan Lynd for the 1-0 lead.
The goal was Winn’s first of his nascent college career, and it was Jabang’s first assist at UNC.
In the second half, Jabang stayed on the field and continued to pester the Panther full backs. In the 65th minute, his reverse curler from distance flew just wide and high of goal. But in the 68th, Jabang notched his first collegiate goal. Overlapping Storm off the right wing, Jabang took possession of the ball just inside the 18-yard box and drove hard toward the middle of the area. After finding space, he uncorked an on-target left-footer that nicked a defender before nestling into the back of the net.
“I saw the ball coming out wide and [Storm] gave it to me quick,” Jabang said. “I went straight at [the defender] and, since I’m right-footed, I acted like I was going right. I took him to the right, then I came back to my left … and I just shot it in.”
The final score came in the 72nd minute. A poor Pitt clearance out of their box left the ball at the waiting foot of Jonathan Campbell, who calmly slotted a dead-on shot past Lynd for the final 3-0 tally.
Jabang’s performance is the latest chapter in his star-crossed soccer career. Born in The Gambia, Jabang’s 2012 freshman season ended with a season-ending knee injury. More injuries required him to redshirt the 2013 campaign.
“His is an amazing story,” Somoano elaborated. “He tore his ACL in high school, came here, then three weeks in he tore his meniscus. Then he broke his leg after recovering from his meniscus surgery. Six months later he tore his ACL again. So he hasn’t played soccer in four years prior to this summer.”
Jabang greeted his Pitt performance with an equal measure of joy and relief.
“It’s been frustrating for me,” Jabang said. “Coach has been saying, ‘Can you imagine if you had played four years straight how much better you would have been?’ He said, ‘It’s unbelievable how a lot of players go through the same injury you’ve been through and can’t do what you’ve been doing.’
“It’s a challenge for me,” Jabang continued. “[My teammates] have been playing and scoring goals. I have to make sure I get in there, too, and it’s a fight every practice. I’m on the B team … and when you get a chance to get in the game, you’ve got to make it matter.”
The Tar Heels now embark on a pivotal four-match road stretch that includes trips to Duke and defending national championship Notre Dame. UNC returns to Chapel Hill on Friday, Oct. 3 against Clemson.
Somoano hopes Jabang’s reemergence is the new beginning the entire team has been hoping for.
“We knew [Jabang] was an unbelievable talent coming out of high school, and that’s why we brought him here,” Somoano said. “We had hoped he would come in and play right away as a freshman, but it didn’t happen. We couldn’t be more pleased that he’s on the field playing, much less playing well. I think I speak for everybody on our team that it brings a smile to our face to see him out there.”