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The Daily Tar Heel

Men's soccer falls short in College Cup

Akron downs Tar Heels on penalty kicks

CARY – North Carolina’s season ended at 10:41 p.m. Friday, yet senior captain Zach Loyd couldn’t – heck, wouldn’t – immediately leave the WakeMed Soccer Park field.

All season long, the brunt and burden of making a repeat visit to the College Cup fell on the UNC defense. And all season long – including 12 remarkable shutouts – a makeshift line of seniors and injury survivors delivered.

It seemed Loyd realized as much as he trudged aimlessly around midfield, his eyes fixed on the ground beneath. He seemed searching for another lifeline, some sort of mulligan, but none came.

The defense had done all it could, but for once, its methodical, drag-it-out style just wasn’t enough.

“It was obviously the close game that we expected,” UNC coach Elmar Bolowich said of his team’s penalty-shootout loss to No. 1 seed Akron. “You may think that a low scoring game may be somewhat labeled as a boring game, but I didn’t think that was the case at all. There was a lot of neutralizing going on where strong defense neutralized attacks. We had very disciplined play, very committed play and enormous structure and organization on both sides.”

Still, it’s likely that Bolowich chose to overlook Brett King’s momentary lapse in the 70th minute as part of this disciplined speel.

The redshirt sophomore defender tripped – though not blatantly – an opposing Zip attacker who was on his way to goal. The refereee, Alex Prus, left no doubt as to his course of action, quickly ejecting King with his second yellow card of the night.

The Akron student section behind the UNC goal went bananas, sensing a huge shift in momentum. No one seemed to realize – or perhaps, accept – that No. 5 seed North Carolina could continue to thrive defensively.

Not with the nation’s leading goal-scorer, Teal Bunbury, still nipping at their heels. And with another UNC backup, Daniel Tannous, substituting in for his first action of the game.

But thanks in large part to the Tar Heels’ All-American, Zach Loyd, that’s exactly what happened.

“(Bunbury) was close several times, and he was a handful like he normally is,” Akron coach Caleb Porter said. “In the second half, we wanted to look to keep them behind him early. And in the first five minutes, we sent two balls in behind, and he was in a foot race with Zach Loyd, who did a tremendous job putting out fires. I thought (Loyd) held it together for them in the back, and he shut down a couple very fast players in Darlington Nagbe and Bunbury. He was smart and read the game and sealed them off.”

Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be playing center back at the beginning of season. But that’s been the story of the 2009 UNC defense: adapt and move on.

Before the preseason began, center back David Rodriquez went out with a season-ending injury. Later, defensive midfielder – and preseason All-American candidate – Stephen McCarthy went down. And to make matters worse, even senior defender Eddie Ababio reinjured himself and was sidelined for the year.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries this year,” Jordan Graye said back in early October after tying Wake Forest, 2-2. “I’d say about half our starting lineup is injured or out for the season. We don’t use that as an excuse.”

It seemed almost unjust for the Tar Heels, with a lofty preseason No. 1 ranking, to never be able to field a healthy squad or even play their expected postions. The injuries forced Bolowich to move the versatile Loyd back to defender from his midfield spot.

Yet somehow, no one missed a beat.

The aforementioned Graye switched habituatlly between the outside back positions, just as he did Friday night against the Zips.

Redshirt sophomore Drew McKinney manned the center with Loyd, successfully returned from three surgeries that prevented him from playing in a regular-season game before this season.

And on the outside, King provided vocal leadership and a physical presence.

“Coming off of last year with the loss in the finals, the team was so pumped up for this game,” UNC goalkeeper Brooks Haggerty said. “We worked as hard as we could today, and I give (Akron) all the credit.

“We went a man down, and the defense was awesome.”

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Through 90 minutes of regular play and two overtimes, they certainly were. But so too was Haggerty, who suited up for the last time with North Carolina.

The senior matched a career-high with seven saves, as he became a virtual wall against close-range efforts.

fact, with nearly 15 minutes remaining in regulation, Haggerty subdued a great effort by Akron’s Bunbury. And with five minutes left in the first overtime, he did it again – this time off a deflected shot from Scott Caldwell. But even so, a penalty shootout eventually ensued, and Haggerty couldn’t provide the one stop UNC needed.

Afterward, just like Loyd, Haggerty walked the field – seemingly searching for his own answers. When perhaps none came to fruition, he met the equally disheartened Loyd close to midfield, and the pair engulfed each other in a bear hug.

For the second straight year, the Tar Heels had come painstakingly close to that ultimate dream, yet left once more with none fulfilled.

“I was so confident in my team, and it was just unfortunate that we lost,” Haggerty said.