FETZER FIELD/ CHAPEL HILL—The roller coaster season for the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s soccer team reached another ebb Sunday afternoon at an autumnal Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels, who opened their 2014 fall season in the middle of the myriad of preseason Top 25 polls, quickly rose in the rankings after winning five of their opening six matches, including a victory over highly ranked California and a Virginia road trifecta over Old Dominion, VCU and William & Mary.
However, three straight road losses followed, including rival Duke and ACC regular season champ Notre Dame, and that sent UNC into another tumble down the standings. But a return home for six of their following eight games propelled the Tar Heels to an eight-match unbeaten streak (including seven victories) leading into their ACC Men’s Soccer Championship quarterfinals tie Sunday against Louisville, a team UNC hadn’t played this year and hadn’t won a match since a 3-0 result over Evansville on Oct. 21.
Bedeviling the odds, the Cardinals (9-6-3) clipped a 76th minute goal by Ivan Gutierrez to upend the Tar Heels 1-0, unceremoniously ousting them from the ACC tourney and a semifinals sojourn down I-40 to WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary next Friday.
In many ways, it was an odd, tentative match. The teams combined for 13 shots, but each goalkeeper only made one save each. There was only a single corner kick the entire game, and the Tar Heels didn’t take that until the 85th minute. Rob Lovejoy, one of UNC’s starting strikers, spent an appreciable period of time playing left back in the first half. And a Tar Heel midfielder—Omar Holness—attempted as many shots (3) all his fellow striker teammates combined.
Ultimately, it was the pliability of Louisville’s tactical approach that confounded the Tar Heels and set the stage for their game-winning goal. With UNC playing tentative in the first half, the Cardinals were happy looking to offensively push the pace and create build-up opportunities. When the Tar Heels exited intermission on their offensive front foot, Louisville sat back and patiently looked for counterattacking chances.
That led to the game’s lone score in the 76th. One of many giveaways by the Tar Heels’ midfielders triggered a counter by Louisville. Cardinal forward Ricardo Velazco drove into the attacking third, and before he was closed down by UNC senior defender Boyd Okwuonu slipped a diagonal through ball just beyond the outreached leg of fellow defender Walter Hume to a streaking Gutierrez. The sophomore Cardinal midfielder took a touch before slotting a shot past goalkeeper Brendan Moore for the go-ahead goal.
After the match, Okwuonu—who played an otherwise outstanding match in the back—sought to shoulder responsibility for the goal when at least two or three teammates actually deserved more blame.
“One slip-up, my mistake,” Okwuonu said. “There was a transition and we should have circled back in the box once [the ball] went out wide. So it was self-inflicted.”
UNC manager Carlos Somoano said the Tar Heels’ aggressive second-half mentality was made fully aware of the possible consequences.
“I think in the first half we played tentative, trying to not make mistakes and not to lose,” Somoano said. “I really wanted us to speed up the play in the second half and lay it on the line a little more, and I thought we did that. Obviously that opens [us] up more for counterattacks, and we knew that was [Louisville’s] strength and their game plan.
“It didn’t work out for us, but I’d rather lay it on the line than play tentative or play not to make a mistake. If that’s the choice we have to make, I’d make it again.”
The Tar Heels (12-5-1) figure to received an at-large bid to the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament, which will be announced on Nov. 17. What remains up in the air is their seeding, including whether they’ll receive a first-round bye and how many matches they might host before the NCAA Division I Men’s College Cup commences on Dec. 12, also at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
Meanwhile, next weekend’s ACC Men’s Soccer Championship semifinals in Cary will not include a single school from North Carolina. Also on Sunday, Duke lost at Syracuse and Wake Forest went down in a penalty shootout to Clemson. In addition, Notre Dame got past Virginia to round out the ACC semifinals.