The North Carolina men’s soccer team knew it needed to generate pressure, and it needed to generate pressure quickly. With only eight minutes left in Friday's semifinals match and a spot in the NCAA Championship on the line, it was all coming down to this.
1-0. Marshall scored the first goal of the game on its first shot earlier in the second period.
UNC senior forward Giovanni Montesdeoca was fed a pass sent straight in front of the cage, but he whiffed on the shot. Marshall defenders cleared the ball from harm only for UNC’s back-line of defenders to send the ball back into the penalty box. Junior defender Milo Garvanian chased it down in the far left corner, but was taken down in an aggressive battle for possession.
Another push for the Tar Heels. Once again, Montesdeoca found himself in the middle of chaos facing the net. With the ball falling directly in front of his feet, he pounded it at center net. But a deflection off a body sent the ball straight upward and out of the fray.
"We still had opportunities," Montesdeoca said postgame. "It's cruel sometimes. You can get one shot and win the game. But also at the same time, we had opportunities that we should have pounced on, and we didn't."
The Tar Heels were awarded a crucial free kick opportunity, but the strike from Garvanian was deflected off a header and out. Just a minute later, UNC received a gift again: a corner kick opportunity after a foul on Marshall’s Vinicius Fernandes. The kick sailed high and was immediately snatched by Marshall keeper Oliver Semmle.
UNC senior forward Santiago Herrera sent a pass out in front. With the ball heading out of bounds, UNC senior forward Alex Rose headed the ball to keep it inbounds just to the left of the goal. UNC sophomore Jonathan Jimenez, in the right place at the right time, tapped the ball past Semmle into the back of the net.
It was a moment of pure elation for the Tar Heels, vying for their third title. But with a whistle, the referee blew off the goal, stating that Rose headed the ball from out of bounds.
“It was out, or it wasn't; we don't know,” UNC head coach Carlos Somoano said postgame. “It was one of those moments where we'd love to have VAR (Video Assistant Referee). I don't know. Looking at the replay on the big screen there, it was pretty close. The ref made his decision and that's what we've got to deal with. I haven't gone back and looked at all the angles. If it wasn't out, then it's just really unlucky and if it was out, then it was out and we didn't deserve to score."
Marshall defenders, with the help of Semmle, made quick work to send the ball the length of the field, choosing to dump the ball and force UNC to chase it.
The clock ticked to 00:00, and the Tar Heels saw their surprising run — topping Charlotte, Stanford and Wake Forest as underdogs — come to an end.
"It only takes one more goal than the opposition to win a game, and if it takes one shot, then we'll take it," Marshall forward Jamil Roberts, who scored the goal, said postgame.
There was a palatable deflation among the Tar Heel bench, but despite the heartbreaking loss, Somoano said there are still things to be happy about — positives his team must focus on.
“It was one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve ever had coaching a team,” he said. “I love coaching these guys. I love being able to do it over two consecutive semesters. I love the fact that when it was tough, the guys found a way to stay positive, found a way to learn, found a way to stay connected when we were inevitably disconnected. That’s what makes it more painful that we don’t get to spend a couple more days together. I’ve loved the journey this year.”