After a season shortened by COVID-19, the North Carolina men’s soccer team’s year came to an abrupt end on Sunday afternoon after a last-minute overtime goal by Notre Dame put the Fighting Irish on top, 1-0, in the ACC Quarterfinal.
Although the Tar Heels are done for the time being, they will compete again in the spring, this time with an NCAA Tournament appearance on the line. In September, the NCAA approved a plan to move the Men’s College Cup to May with regular season play taking place from Feb. 3 to April 17.
The Tar Heels added a total of 18 new players to this season’s roster — 16 first-years and two graduate transfers — that were tasked with learning to play together and contribute meaningful minutes in a season that left little room for error with just six regular season games taking place before the ACC Tournament.
The newcomers on the team had flashes of greatness throughout the season, like when Filippo Zattarin, a graduate transfer from Saint Mary’s, was named National Player of the Week after heading in a buzzer beating goal to put the Tar Heels on top against then-No. 3 Clemson.
Another shining moment for a newcomer came when first-year Akeim Clarke assisted Taff Wadda for a goal to put the nail in the coffin in UNC’s second win over Duke.
A fresh face was once again heavily featured against Notre Dame in Joe Pickering, a graduate transfer from East Tennessee State. Pickering led UNC in shots on goal, while also making valuable defensive plays. The fall season came to an end much sooner than Pickering would have hoped, but after the match he said getting the opportunity to compete in his final collegiate seasons in Chapel Hill has been meaningful.
“Obviously time is running out now for me as I’m getting on a bit, so to have a season was special because there’s a lot of doubts coming in,” Pickering said. “To play in a place like this every week, the facilities here, the team, the kind of support staff we have, it’s just been a huge honor, and it’s something I look forward to doing again in the spring.”
Head coach Carlos Somoano spoke highly of the team’s graduate transfers following the match.
“They brought a certain level of experience and maturity,” he said. “You’re talking about asking a coach, it’s a little bit easier to communicate with them. You know, sometimes with young guys you feel like you’re saying something and you're not sure what they’re hearing.”
Tim Schels, a first-year midfielder, was one of the “young guys” that was a consistent starter during the season. Despite the abnormal circumstances, he said he enjoyed his first year with the team.
“We had a lot of time during the summer to just grow together, and, like, we had a lot of Zoom calls where we tried to get on the same page,” he said. “We were actually not just teammates, we were friends, and I think that was a big part of the season which helped us a lot.”
UNC walked off of Dorrance Field on Sunday feeling unsatisfied, but the Tar Heels said they are driven by the silver lining of having a second chance to prove themselves in the spring. With the fall slate of games out of the way, Pickering said the fresh-faced Tar Heels have enough in-game experience together to be a real threat come the spring.
“I think having a season, it was a shortened season, but still I think the kind of experience from getting together and playing together is going to give us a massive advantage in the spring, when we play against teams that haven’t had that kind of training,” Pickering said.
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