DURHAM — Junior Jeremy Kelly and sophomore Raul Aguilera stood by the corner flag, waiting for the referee to blow the whistle.
Aguilera lofted the ball to the near goal post, and it connected with senior Nils Bruening’s head. With a quick flick, the ball landed at Mauricio Pineda’s feet. The junior midfielder scored from point blank range, boosting the North Carolina men's soccer team into the lead in the 13th minute.
After that moment, something came unhinged within the No. 5 Tar Heels (3-1). The intensity dropped and the team made sloppy mistakes.
Eventually, UNC slipped past Jacksonville (0-4) with a 2-0 victory; however, the team left the field more disappointed than excited about the shutout.
“In any game, you’re not completely satisfied,” Kelly said. “There are very few games where you feel like you had a really good performance. The amount of shots we had definitely show that we could’ve done better.”
The Tar Heels ended the night with a total of 12 shots, half of which were on goal, compared to their opponent’s two shots, neither of which were on frame. Over the course of the last three matches, North Carolina has not allowed its opponents to take more than three shots on goal.
With a strong defense and trigger happy offense, the midfield is left to stabilize and aid the two. However, that group in particular, seemed fatigued Monday night.
“Raul was quite good tonight, but the other three looked labored,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “They looked like it was a chore for them tonight instead of just going out there and enjoying the game, playing hard, playing fresh.”
Despite the coach's comments and his teammates' inconsistent play, Pineda had a strong performance. He tallied up three shots, two on frame, and scored the first goal, all while playing the full 90 minutes. He was quick to take the spotlight off himself and praise his fellow midfielders.
“We have a lot of guys who are starting and coming off the bench that are doing really well for us, and it’s good to have that depth,” Pineda said. “It’s hard to play in there all 90 minutes, but I really like what we’ve seen from the guys coming off the bench. They’ve shown a lot of intensity.”
The midfield is arguably the most crucial part of a soccer team. They serve as both offensive and defensive players, running more than any other position on the field in most cases. That’s expected of midfielders, and it’s a tall order to fill at times.
“You’re always involved,” Kelly said. “As a midfielder, especially the two center mids, it goes through you so you do get a lot of touches on the ball, which is always nice as a soccer player.”
When the midfield falters, things can go south very quickly. For the Tar Heels on Monday night, a lacking midfield hampered the defensive effort of the entire team.
“Our defensive intensity is kind of what spurs our attack, and I don’t think we played with the same defensive intensity today,” Somoano said. “This has been one of our staples for the team this year — having that resiliency that seems like we are never out of a play defensively. They have a good ‘never say die’ attitude.”
The Tar Heels may have not given up, but mistakes made all over the field, especially by the midfield, led to a rocky night in what should have been a blowout win. Limited communication led to two Tar Heels going after a ball and fighting against one another for it. Timing was off, causing delayed touches and missed opportunities. However, considering its play in the previous three matches, this night was just an anomaly for the midfield.
“Over the last few games, they’ve been the heart and soul of the team,” Somoano said. “They’ve just been crazy good."
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