Alec Smir sat on the ground, his head in his hands as the Syracuse men’s soccer team ran toward the player in front of him.
Jelani Pieters laid on the ground, his hands resting on his forehead. Mauricio Pineda turned his back to the crowd and Santiago Herrera looked lost. Matt Constant and Alex Rose jogged over to Smir, suppressing whatever they were feeling in the moment to focus on their teammates.
This isn’t how North Carolina expected it to end.
The Tar Heels (7-7-4, 3-5-0 ACC) tied 0-0 with Syracuse (7-5-5, 2-4-2 ACC), which still keeps them as an option for the NCAA Tournament. But after two overtime sudden death periods, UNC fell 5-3 in penalty kicks.
The Orange will advance to the next round of the ACC Tournament, while UNC await the results of the NCAA Tournament selection announcement on Nov. 18.
“It’s funny because it sums up our season a bit,” senior midfielder Jack Skahan said. “... We just didn’t get it done tonight.”
The first half was prominently dominated by the midfield, although Syracuse got off seven shots while UNC only had three, two from first-year defender Blake Malone.
“The game is decided in the box,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “You got to be able to stop goals and score goals. We weren’t great at either.”
But when the two teams came out for the second half, the game changed.
“We turned it on a lot better,” Skahan said.
In a one minute stretch early in the second half, Pineda and Pieters both put up shots — the only two UNC shots on goal in regulation. But a decisive moment came in the 85th minute, in a play that would’ve changed everything.
As the Tar Heels continued to press hard on the Syracuse defense, senior midfielder Jeremy Kelly headed the ball into the goal off a lifted pass from the sideline. But as UNC celebrated and fans cheered, the sideline referee raised his yellow flag in the air while the field referee blew his whistle.
“Look, that’s a goal Jeremy scored,” Skahan said. “... I thought that was it. I thought we won, and then it got called back.”
Somoano said he wasn’t in the best position to make the call. Later, though, he added, “Unfortunately, they have this giant TV here that confirmed that it was not offsides.”
Because the call was about offsides and not whether the goal went in, the play could not be reviewed.
“It doesn’t lie, but the VAR, apparently you can’t use it for that,” Somoano said. “I don’t know why we have it if you can’t use it for those scenarios. FIFA, you can use it for that, but we can’t use it for that in college, so it is what it is.”
Regulation turned into sudden death overtime. Then, double overtime. For the first time since the 2016 College Cup, UNC was faced with live penalty kicks.
Skahan’s hamstrings started to cramp near the end of double overtime, but he stepped out onto the pitch to participate in penalty kicks. Herrera missed, while Pineda, Skahan and Kelly all made their shots. The Orange made all of their attempts to advance.
Now, UNC will wait for the NCAA Tournament announcement to determine its postseason fate.
“Believe it or not, I think we got a hell of a lot better,” Somoano said. “I think a lot of guys learned a ton of lessons, even if they weren’t the feelings that we wanted to have. Maybe you don’t feel good right now, but I’m telling you we have a lot to learn…
“Every day isn’t sunny and 70. You got to learn from the failures too, and sometimes that’s what you learn the most.”
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