When asked about his knee injury, senior forward Nils Bruening — the one who scored two goals against Virginia Tech, including an 84th-minute game winner — couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“Which injury?” he asked.
Bruening overcame not one, but two ACL surgeries to get here. But to him and his teammates, not to mention the throng of Tar Heel fans in Durham on Saturday night, it was all worth it.
Bruening’s brace led the No. 3 North Carolina men’s soccer team (9-1, 4-0 ACC) to a 2-1 win over No. 19 Virginia Tech (6-4-2, 1-3-1 ACC) on Saturday, a crucial eighth straight victory that kept the Tar Heels the only undefeated team in ACC play. The night marked his first multi-goal game in over two years, with the last being a four-goal outing on Sept. 23, 2016 against Boston College.
Bruening’s first goal of the night came in the 21st minute thanks to a slick assist from junior forward Jelani Pieters, who beat his defender with a spin move before setting up Bruening for his fourth score of the year.
The Tar Heels seemingly added to their lead just minutes later with a goal from first-year midfielder Milo Garvanian, but the goal was disallowed after a UNC foul.
Head coach Carlos Somoano expressed his dissatisfaction with the referee's call and later apologized for his “temper tantrum” in the first half.
“Did you notice?” Somoano smirked. “The truth is, it’s not the way I should be behaving, and I appreciate the guys bailing me out in the second half because I think my energy wasn’t positive for my team in the first half. My job is to stay focused on what happens with the team, right or wrong.”
After a number of chances, Virginia Tech finally answered with 57 seconds left in the first half to tie the game, 1-1, entering halftime. The Hokies' goal ended a remarkable stretch of over four games and 517 minutes of play without North Carolina allowing a goal, with the last score allowed coming on Sept. 8 against Pitt.
At the half, Virginia Tech held an 8-5 advantage in shots and 3-0 in corner kicks as the Tar Heels' offense looked stymied for parts of the night. North Carolina has been a first-half team for most of this season, enjoying a 46-13 advantage in first-half shots coming into the game.
“I don’t think it was our best game from a soccer standpoint, but we were definitely fighting the best we could,” Bruening said. “I thought it was a very good game for us from that standpoint.”
The majority of the second half was a tense and deadlocked affair. Each team had a number of opportunities inside the box, but none could capitalize until Bruening’s 84th minute score, set up beautifully by sophomore midfielder Raul Aguilera.
After getting past his defender, it was no matter for Bruening to beat the keeper for the winning score — as cool as they come. It was a long time coming after back-to-back ACL surgeries, too.
Bruening was effusive in praise of his teammates for setting him up for the two scores.
“Every goal was assisted this season (except one), so I’m always happy if I can get an assist from my guys,” Bruening said. “They were perfectly set up, and I just had to hold my foot in.”
The best quality of the offense this season has been an ability to create opportunities through good passes. On the night, UNC finished with 13 shots, four on goal, while the Hokies shot 10 times, two on net.
“Our best offense is collective,” Somoano added. “We’re more of a collective team this year than a bunch of one-on-one artists; that’s just not who we are this year.”
When asked about Bruening’s contributions, Somoano kept it simple.
“I'm glad he’s back," Somoano said. “We all are.”
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