2019 did not go according to plan for the North Carolina men’s soccer team.
Despite a No. 6 national ranking by United Soccer Coaches before the season started and a recruiting class considered by TopDrawerSoccer as the best in the nation, UNC struggled to live up to expectations. The team endured three wins and five losses in conference play. They knocked out penalty kicks in the first round of the ACC Tournament and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
Now entering his 10th season at UNC, head coach Carlos Somoano and his squad have something to prove, but they must do it without a few key players. Graduation stole the talents of Jack Skahan and Jelani Pieters — who tied for first on the team with five assists each — Jeremy Kelly with four assists, and the scoring prowess of Mauricio Pineda, who notched the second-most goals on the team with five.
Luckily, 2020 could see a prolific play from forwards Alex Rose and Giovanni Montesdeoca returning for their senior years. Rose was the top scorer for UNC last season with seven goals, while Montesdeoca — who lost his 2019 season to injury — was the top scorer in 2018.
Add that offensive firepower to returning junior goalkeeper Alec Smir — who is pegged by the Preseason ACC Coaches Poll as a player to watch this season — and a strong recruiting class of All-Americans and U.S. Youth National Team representatives. The only unproven area of the roster is playmaking midfielders.
Despite this, this season won’t be a return to normalcy for UNC or any program. UNC's schedule has just six games, and the Tar Heels will only travel outside of North Carolina once this season.
ACC play is split into two regions this season — North and South — with the Tar Heels competing in the five-member South. This includes UNC, Clemson, N.C. State, Duke, and Wake Forest. If UNC can make the top-two in the South region, they will compete in the ACC Championship with the top-two teams from the North region at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. beginning on Nov. 15.
Unfortunately, Somoano’s group isn't favored by the ACC Coaches poll to get out of their region. They’ll have to fight off Clemson, the anticipated team to win the championship, and Wake Forest projected to finish second.
To mount a real championship challenge, the Tar Heels must close out games better than they did last season, especially in conference play. The most notable collapse came against Syracuse, where UNC was 3-1 up with 20 minutes to go, only to concede three goals and lose 4-3. That started a season-defining downward spiral of seven games without a win, including five losses. Until Syracuse, the Tar Heels looked poised to qualify for the NCAA tournament again. Now, the goal is to win the ACC after all NCAA fall championships were canceled.
Last season was especially uncharacteristic for the team’s defense. In 2018, UNC only allowed more than one goal in a game once— a loss to James Madison in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2019, UNC’s opponents scored more than one goal in a match five times. The offense couldn’t make up for it either, as UNC lost four of those five games and tied in one. Most of the backline has returned from last season and should benefit from a year of experience with each other, especially with shot-stopping Smir backing them up.
UNC hasn’t met its lofty expectations since its 2017 run to the NCAA Tournament semifinals. But with something to prove, not much to lose, and the unique circumstances, UNC could surprise many.
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