The North Carolina men’s soccer team traveled to Durham on Friday night to square off against its fierce rival, the Duke Blue Devils, in the team's season opener.
In their first competitive match in almost a year, the Tar Heels used hard-nosed defending to earn a win. Capitalizing off of two set pieces and holding firm in the back, the Tar Heels were able to come out of Durham with a hard-won 2-0 victory.
Before the trip to Duke, UNC had only one scrimmage prior to launching right into conference play. Starting the season without nonconference matches and more preseason scrimmages, head coach Carlos Somoano was forced to take a different approach than normal against Duke. By the end of the game, the Tar Heels made a grand total of 18 substitutions.
"We had to keep our legs fresh tonight, but luckily we have a lot of depth," Somoano said. "You only get match-fit from playing matches; the more we play the more match-fit we will get."
Throughout the game, neither team could get much going on the offensive end — but what the game lacked in beauty, it made up for in hard tackles. By the time the final whistle blew, the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels combined for just seven shots on goal and 25 fouls.
The combination of the pent-up energy of waiting to play for several months and the rivalry aspect gave this game its fiery and competitive nature.
“Everyone had a little extra in them tonight just because it was the first game and because it was against Duke," junior goalkeeper Alec Smir said. "Duke versus UNC is such a big rivalry, so obviously, everyone was excited about that.”
Most of the offensive chances for both teams, including the two goals from the Tar Heels, came from set pieces. A powerful header by senior defender Matt Constant off of a set piece cross from junior Milo Garvanian gave the Tar Heels the early lead, and a deflection from a Santiago Herrera free kick put the Tar Heels up 2-0 in the second half.
“We focused a lot on set pieces throughout the week because we know that they are such an important part of the game,” Smir said.
While set pieces were a big positive offensively for the Tar Heels, defending set pieces proved to be a problem for the team. Duke’s two best chances of the night were created off of set pieces, forcing Smir to come up with big saves on both occasions to preserve the lead.
“I’m excited I made those saves, but also we need to go back and make sure we have that a bit tighter defensively,” Smir said.
Heading into next week's matchup with No. 3 Clemson, who netted three goals against South Carolina in its season opener, the Tar Heels are looking to keep a strong back line and bring that sense of urgency in the defense when they face the Tigers.
"Everyone’s really fighting and grinding to make sure we don’t get scored on," Smir said. "We all know how important it is to keep a shutout, we are all working hard to achieve that."
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