Mauricio Pineda maneuvered inside the box, keeping his eye on the ball just outside of the 18-yard-line on the right side of the field.
While his team pressured, the captain dropped back. Jack Skahan grounded a pass that bounced across multiple cleats before it nestled at Pineda’s feet.
The senior midfielder drove the ball to the bottom left corner of the net, scoring North Carolina’s first goal of the season last Friday against Creighton. As other players lifted a fist or patted him on the back, Pineda kept the celebration to a minimum with a small fist pump.
That’s not a surprise to his teammates. Pineda is also on the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List, the most prestigious individual award in college soccer. But you wouldn’t know it.
“There's a quiet confidence about him when he plays,” former teammate Cameron Lindley said. “He never will speak about it. He'll never talk about himself.
If you watched Pineda in his first soccer game, you wouldn’t have expected him to go on to play for the U.S. National Team, the Chicago Fire and its academy team, or be a captain for No. 20 UNC.
“He's so composed and strong on the field that you would never think he was this little crybaby when he was little,” Cindy, Mauricio’s older sister, said. “But he was so shy, so timid. He would get so nervous before anything, not just a big game or a final.
As a toddler, Mauricio first experience with soccer came when he subbed into one of his older brother’s games. He was quickly overwhelmed by the larger players and all of the commotion.
“I looked at the ref, and he was blowing his whistle,” Mauricio said. “I just like panicked and started crying and just ran off… I think it just went uphill from there. Couldn't get worse than that.”
At age five, he scored over a hundred goals in one season, his older brother Victor said, and has had clean shooting form since then.
He trained constantly, earning a spot on the Chicago Fire Academy team around age 10, later playing alongside Lindley.
The duo met when they were 12 years old. They've stuck together ever since, even after Lindley left UNC to sign with Orlando City in 2018. It was mainly because of Lindley that Pineda committed to the Tar Heels after he and his parents decided Pineda should pursue school instead of immediately going pro.
“I remember one time we were in Europe together, and he literally called one of the coaches and was like, ‘Oh, I think Mauricio is interested in Carolina because we're just talking about it,’” Pineda said. “And that was like really casual at the time. But eventually, I did start talking to my coaches here, and I honestly just trusted him because he would tell me that this was the best place.”
Without touring the University, Pineda committed to play at UNC during the fall of his senior year. Although he was shy at first, Pineda started to open up as he became more familiar with the team.
“For a lot of people that don't know me, they think that I'm shy when they first meet me because I'm kind of quiet when I first meet new people,” Pineda said. “But I would definitely just say try to get to know me a little better. Give me some time.”
‘His own thing’
A piece of advice from Pineda’s friends and family: if you go grocery shopping with him, be prepared for no dull moments. He may come off as a shy person when you first meet him, but he’s not afraid to march to the beat to his own drum.
“If I'm in the grocery store and I'm not with him around there, he'll try to find me, and he'll just like scream out, 'Tyler, where are you?' Like, that's not my name,” said Taylor Otto, a UNC women’s soccer player and Pineda’s girlfriend.
Even something as simple as walking to the car or going shopping can turn into a joke with Pineda. Half of the time it’s hard to tell if he’s joking or serious, first-year defender Blake Malone said. He’ll randomly start dancing, or crack a dad joke or two. Pineda knows the right time to lighten up the mood.
“He does his own thing and enjoys every minute of it,” redshirt junior Matt Constant said.
That attitude carries over on the field, too.
“He's pretty carefree in the fact he doesn't care what people think,” Constant said. “He might do something in training that people don't agree with, but if it gets the job done, he doesn't care.”
Outside of making the people in his life smile and laugh, Pineda loves his video games. No, not Fortnite. It’s all FIFA for him.
Brandan Hammonds, Pineda’s oldest friend from home, said Pineda takes the game very seriously. He follows each of the rules and utilizes the positions rather than just trying to score. Pineda’s brother, Victor, said everything in their lives revolved around soccer.
“As a kid and growing up with him, it was all soccer,” Victor said. “If we weren't training, we were playing games. If we weren't playing games, we were watching games. If we weren't watching games, we're playing FIFA.
“It was nonstop soccer ever since he could start walking.”
Even when swarmed by defender after defender, the 6-foot-1 Pineda usually finds a way out of a cluster with the ball still at his feet.
“He possesses it, and you could say treasures that when he has it,” Constant said. “He takes pride in having the ball at his feet.”
Watching Pineda get surrounded by defenders used to “worry” his teammates and girlfriend, but now, they can’t help but admire the skill.
“He is such a big guy, and he's not like super fast,” Lindley said. “But when he starts to dribble, you're not taking that ball from him.”
While Pineda is a strong player — he initially played defense with the Fire — UNC head coach Carlos Somoano mostly recruited him because of his team-first mentality. He knew that Pineda would help make the Tar Heels better, and he was almost immediately proven correct.
When the Tar Heels went to the College Cup in 2016, the game came down to a penalty kick, one that alum Alex Comsia missed. As everyone filed into the locker room, Comsia stayed on the bench, holding his head between his hands. Pineda, a first-year at the time, was the one to pick Comsia up and guide him to the locker room.
Pineda still goes out of his way for his friends — because while he may be shy at first, once he knows you, Lindley said, he’ll do anything for you.
“If you had a bad day, he'll come up to you individually and say, 'You really need to pick it up, and we're here for you. We're here as a team,'” Malone said. “…Even if he's not there with you, you know that you can depend on him, call him up instantly, he'll always be there for you… He’s a brother.”
Between his work ethic and his caring nature, it’s no wonder why Somoano chose Pineda as a team captain.
“He's making the right play without saying anything,” Lindley said. “When guys looked at him, you can just kind of tell that Mauricio is still grinding, and he's still working really hard. He's going to get something done for us.
“That's what you need the captain, someone that's consistent and gives everything to the team.”
For Somoano, Pineda’s natural instinct makes him a winner.
“You never have to ask him to try harder, invest more or play to win or play for his teammates,” Somoano said. “All those things that you spend a lot of time trying to convince your team to do he does just by the nature of who he is.”
In the beginning, Somoano was always on Pineda, but as the first-year started to understand college soccer more in 2016, the coach laid off. But Pineda didn’t want that.
“I remember going to him and saying, ‘Stay on me. Don’t stop,’” Pineda said. “I know I’m not perfect… Keep helping me improve because I’m always trying to get better any way I can.”
Somoano knows that, and trusts his captain even though he’s not as vocal as past leaders, Constant said. Pineda keeps his head down and gets to work, setting an example for the team along the way. Some say he’s the best player on the team, but Pineda is quick to dismiss that claim. Somoano, however, lists him as one of the top players to come through this program.
For Pineda, the head coach believes, "The best is still yet to come.”