A simple foul once again sealed the fate of the North Carolina men’s soccer team on Tuesday.
As an Appalachian State player hit the ground in the box, the referee blew his whistle and signaled for a penalty kick. Players lined up all around the box, while UNC goalkeeper Alec Smir shifted from foot to foot before diving to the right.
App State's Alex Hernandez drilled the ball into the left corner, creating a gap that UNC wasn't able to overcome.
The Tar Heels (7-6-3, 3-4-0) fell 1-0 to the Mountaineers (10-4-1, 2-1-0) in their final regular season home game, marking their first loss to App State since 1980.
“It’s a tough one to swallow for us,” junior defender Matt Constant said. “A couple errors here and there that we should’ve polished on. Probably could’ve finished a couple more chances. But overall, I think the team fought hard. Just didn’t end up in our favor.”
As for head coach Carlos Somoano’s thoughts on the match, he didn’t have much to say.
“Just disappointed,” Somoano said. “Wish we could’ve gotten something out of it. Tried.”
The Tuesday night matchup was truly a defensive game, similar to how it's been most of the season for the Tar Heels. They kept App State to five shots, two of which were on goal. The defensive line, which included Constant in the starting lineup for the first time since Oct. 1 against UNCW, held the Mountaineers, while UNC’s hot-and-cold offense failed to produce.
Earlier this season, North Carolina scored multiple goals in six straight games, the longest such streak since 2017. But in the span of the last four games, the Tar Heels have only scored once, with none coming against conference opponents.
On Tuesday night, they totaled 10 shots, only one of which was on goal. The penalty kick in the 72nd minute sealed their fate.
“We battled hard,” Constant said. “Tough PK call, whether it was correct or not. Obviously, it’s irrelevant now … I think we did pretty well, but obviously, didn’t come out with the victory.”
Now sitting at 7-6-3 on the season, there’s a strong possibility that North Carolina could miss the NCAA Tournament.
To close out its regular season, UNC will travel to take on No. 4 Virginia (13-1-1, 5-1-1) in Charlottesville. After that, the team will wait to see where the cards fall for the ACC Tournament and hope to manufacture a deep run.
But this was never supposed to come down to that.
North Carolina was dubbed the preseason favorite, sporting the top recruiting class for 2019 as well as several remaining seniors from the top recruiting class of 2016. The team was also voted to win the Coastal Division title, for which Virginia is currently in the lead.
This was the fourth consecutive preseason the Tar Heels were predicted to win the conference title. Now, they’ll likely land in the eighth or ninth seed, depending on how the final conference games finish out across the ACC this week.
As for the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels will need a Cinderella run. But they know that.
“It’s win or go home now,” Constant said. “We need a victory against Virginia and run the table the rest of the time. I’m looking forward to it. I think guys are going to turn it up.”
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