CARY — What could’ve been a fairy tale ending finished in heartbreak and silence.
As Louisville players stormed the field at the final whistle, the North Carolina players froze. Some hung their heads low. Others walked to the bench. A few Tar Heel players rested in a squat while a couple looked up to the sky, wondering where it all went wrong.
Maybe it was the early goal by Louisville’s Cherif Dieye that the Tar Heels couldn’t recover from. Maybe it was the series of fouls that happened whenever UNC had possession of the ball. Maybe it was the lack of energy that head coach Carlos Somoano has mentioned after several games throughout the season.
Whatever the reason may be, the team felt the deep pain of the loss.
The No. 4 North Carolina men’s soccer team (14-3-1, 6-1 ACC) fell, 1-0, in the ACC Championship game on Sunday afternoon to No. 10 Louisville (11-4-3, 4-2-2 ACC). After the Cardinals captured their first ACC Championship since entering the league in 2014, UNC players were not made available for media interviews.
Even as senior defender Alex Comsia, senior midfielder Nils Bruening and sophomore defender John Nelson were named to the All-Tournament team at the end of the match, there were few smiles and faint claps. Silence had fallen on the field as the weight of the game settled into the players.
As the Tar Heels walked to the locker room, Comsia followed slower than the rest. The ACC Defender of the Year’s head hung low, not moving or responding when teammates patted him on the back for being named to the All-Tournament team. It didn’t matter in light of the championship loss.
After Dieye’s early goal, the Tar Heels never quite bounced back. Naturally, the game was physical, but after halftime, the aggressive play was taken to another level. By the end of the match, Louisville had more fouls than UNC by 20-10.
“To be quite honest, I think more yellow cards could’ve been given out,” Somoano said.
Play after play, the Tar Heels were fouled. On some plays, the referee was quick with the whistle and others he let them play it out. During the second half alone, Louisville had nine fouls and four yellow cards.
When it comes to an aggressive game littered with fouls and yellow cards, it puts more weight on the coaches and referees to determine how to move forward. That single decision can make or break a season.
“You’re trying not to go card crazy or foul crazy, because you don’t want to send one of our teams into the NCAA tournament with a red card,” Somoano said. “So, it’s a little bit of that. But, at the same time, I don’t want to go in the NCAA tournament with an injury because they’re doing it. It’s a fine balance.”
For UNC, they opted to preserve their players and take the free kicks, even if they turned into wasted possessions.
“There were so many that were just wasted,” Somoano said. “We didn’t even get them off properly … I think there was even one on the right where Jack (Skahan) kicked the corner flag or something.”
Between a lack of aggression in the first half and the foul-riddled second half, UNC couldn’t catch a break. Despite playing in the ACC Championship game for the first time since 2012 and having one of the most decorated teams in the ACC, Sunday afternoon ended in heartbreak.
Even with a painful loss, the offensive All-ACC players had a statement afternoon. Third-team junior forward Skahan recorded five shots, three of which were on goal. First-team Bruening recorded two shots while first-team junior midfielder Mauricio Pineda had one, though none found the back of the net.
"I've got to give huge credit to my back four and the guys in front of me as well," Louisville goalie Jake Gelnovatch said. "They did such a great job eliminating their weapons and their attack, so I give huge credit to them."
The fouls prevented the Tar Heels from capitalizing.
The All-ACC defense struggled. It was Nelson, a second-team selection, who was the last line of defense before Dieye’s goal in the 28th minute. First-team redshirt senior goalkeeper James Pyle made diving saves all game, but one shot slipped past him. First-team Comsia played with all he had, but the 1-0 loss overshadowed his play.
At the end of the day, the UNC players needed to get out of their heads and not worry about overthinking. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, mentality and being aggressive early in the game need to be their primary focus.
“Sometimes it’s okay to feel the game out,” Somoano said. “And other times, you just want to throw caution to the wind and play way more aggressive from the get-go.”
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