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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC's defense helps in win over Duke

DURHAM — In the waning minutes of the North Carolina men’s soccer team’s 1-0 victory at Duke, the UNC defense faced a challenge that might have given it fits just two weeks ago.

After collecting the ball in the midfield, Duke rushed forward and played a long ball intended for the dangerous feet of leading scorer Ryan Finley.

But where the Tar Heels had previously been vulnerable on the counterattack and tentative reacting to balls played through the air, they neutralized this threat in short order.

UNC midfielder Drew McKinney sprinted beside Finley, cutting off his route to the ball. As he did this, goalkeeper Scott Goodwin moved forward swiftly, gobbling up the pass and suffocating the Blue Devils’ last gasp for an equalizer.

“Everybody in the back actually was outstanding,” coach Elmar Bolowich said. “The guys did a wonderful job.”

Of the four starting defenders and Goodwin, only McKinney and defender Brett King were regular starters on defense in 2009. This lack of familiarity and experience hurt the unit early, as UNC conceded four goals during its opening-weekend games against Akron and Seton Hall.

But now that they’ve had some time to gel, the Tar Heels have posted back-to-back road shutouts in front of hostile crowds at rivals N.C. State and Duke.

“It’s nothing technical, it’s not a formation, it’s really just an attitude change,” Goodwin said. “We have to approach the game knowing that we’re the better team, knowing that we’re going to enforce our style of play on the other team.”

This mindset was on display from the very beginning Friday night. The Tar Heel defense was stifling in the first half, allowing three shots, just one of which was on goal.

But even though UNC’s midfield controlled possession through most of the first 45 minutes, the Tar Heels were unable to put together a coherent attack on the Duke goal.

So at halftime, coach Bolowich decided to move his back line forward, exhorting King and his outside back counterpart Dustin McCarty to push up the field and participate in the attack.

The tactical change was a success. McCarty and King made threatening runs down the flanks and the back line was able to station itself at midfield, containing most of the game in Duke’s half of the field. The pressure wore down the Duke defense.

“Our midfielders play a diamond and it forces us outside backs to get up,” King said. “It creates huge gaps for us, then we play in the midfield. So it gives us eight guys on offense as opposed to just six. It really helps.”

As long as his defense continues to play with this sort of poise, Bolowich is confident his team will have a chance to win every time.

“The fact is that if your defense holds strong, it puts less pressure on the attacking players of having to convert, of having to make that goal,” Bolowich said. “Because we know in the course of 90 minutes, chances are we’re going to sink one in.”

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