After a whirlwind of an offseason, the crisp air and fading sunset at Dorrance Field on Sunday night painted a picture of normalcy for the North Carolina men’s soccer team. At long last, the Tar Heels were back in action against the Wolfpack.
But before the new campaign could begin, both teams needed to tackle an issue that was bigger than sports. As the UNC and N.C. State players lined up to take the field after the national anthem, each player, coach and referee collectively took a knee to promote racial unity.
UNC head coach Carlos Somoano said the team was inspired after speaking with former Tar Heel Jalil Anibaba, who is currently a member of the coalition board for the Major League Soccer Black Players for Change organization.
“We had a Zoom call with him, and he shared a lot of stories about what the MLS is doing, and we wanted to feed off that and show unity, not only for social justice, but for the soccer community as well,” Somoano said.
Following the demonstration, the opening whistle blew, and the season was underway. For the first 20 minutes, aside from players communicating with one another, the stadium was silent. To energize the atmosphere on the pitch, the speakers echoed artificial crowd noise for the remainder of the game.
“Honestly, I couldn’t even hear the crowd noise on the field because I was so zoned in, just trying to get to my spots,” senior forward Giovanni Montesdeoca said. “It didn’t bother me at all.”
After both teams entered halftime scoreless, the Tar Heels ramped up the intensity in the second half, tightening up their attacking press that forced the Wolfpack defenders to react quickly.
In the 58th minute, the pressure led to a Wolfpack giveaway, which allowed sophomore forward Jonathan Jimenez to find Montesdeoca making a run into the box. After his blast found the back of the net, the Tar Heels led 1-0.
Six minutes later, the North Carolina lead was challenged when a cross made its way to N.C. State forward Pau Palacin, who hit the crossbar on his equalizing effort. The UNC defense stifled N.C. State to only one more shot attempt for the remaining 30 minutes, securing the 1-0 victory.
After missing the entire 2019 season due to injury, Montesdeoca’s game-winner was a token for trekking through the long road back to competition.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “It’s been a good journey and to come back and be with the guys, it’s unbelievable.”
With this being the team’s only scrimmage of the season, Somoano focused on getting as many people on the field as possible, especially during the scheduled informal overtime period. That meant starting several players who didn't play heavy minutes last year, and having star senior forward Alex Rose come off the bench for the scrimmage.
As the uncertainty of COVID-19 still looms over the college sports landscape, the Tar Heels' coach wants everyone to be ready when their name is called.
“Every day, it seems like we’re dealing with something new, so I think we’re going to need a lot of players prepared to play,” he said.
One roadblock emerged last week when UNC’s season opener, originally scheduled for Sept. 25 at Clemson, was postponed after some members of the Clemson team tested positive for COVID-19.
Now, with two weeks until UNC faces off against Duke on Oct. 2, Somoano is embracing the positives of an extended preseason.
“Having a two-week preseason – the way they usually do it – is not a great experience for a soccer team, so in some weird way, having the extra time this year is a silver lining I could have never imagined," he said.
Even going as far back as the 2019 season, the Tar Heels have been on a path far from the norm when they missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2007. After leading the team in scoring last year, Rose hopes he can help the team reach its renewed expectations during this unparalleled season.
“My goal is to win it all," Rose said. "That’s one of the reasons I came here, and with us being unfortunate the last three years, I really hope we can pull it off this time."
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