The Carolina Blue stands at Dorrance Field might not have been filled with much in the way of exuberant fanfare on Tuesday — a nonconference match with Wofford won't sell out many stadiums. And a 1-0 victory doesn't, on its face, spell out a dominant performance for the North Carolina men’s soccer team.
But make no mistake, on that quiet Tuesday night, the Tar Heels displayed the sort of performance that will be required of them as they head into the rest of the season’s storm.
With four regular-season matches remaining before UNC enters the ACC Tournament gauntlet, North Carolina will face three in-conference opponents — Louisville, No. 5 Virginia Tech and Notre Dame — and battle No. 14 Loyola Marymount.
“They’re big opportunities, this is what we all signed up for,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “So it’s really exciting. The game that we get to go to Louisville and play right now down the stretch, a big moment in the season. That’s what you hope for.”
With all of the remaining in-conference opponents on the Tar Heels’ schedule ranking above them in the ACC standings, there are no guaranteed results the rest of the way.
But what will the Tar Heels need to rely on to get those results and fight back toward a second consecutive College Cup appearance?
Well, if Tuesday was any indication, it starts with forwards winning possession in dangerous positions, and graduate goalkeeper Alec Smir displaying his elite talent that earned him an All-ACC second-team selection last year.
First, there was the seventh-minute stop from Smir — who wore the captain’s armband — on a dangerous Wofford breakaway. The Terriers dribbled straight through the Tar Heels’ pressing midfield and sent an incisive pass to Wofford’s Brandon Oddy, who streaked past UNC’s center backs and faced nothing but Smir and the goal.
Smir moved toward the top of the box and spread out wide just as Oddy looked to rocket one past his left — taking up just enough space to send the ball out of play.
“Obviously as a goalkeeper, you’re in a unique position behind the team and you always have an opportunity to lead,” Smir said. “Now, with new guys and younger guys, I'm just trying to help them along and lead them in any way I can and any way to help the team."
One of the new faces on the field for North Carolina is first-year forward Tega Ikoba — an imposing striker with a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and a knack for poaching goals. While Smir was the difference between UNC falling into an early hole, Ikoba was responsible for giving the Tar Heels the necessary spark to take the victory.
Ikoba was a threat all night — despite being on the sideline for portions of both halves — creating chances with smooth, intelligent off-ball movement and taking advantage of the Tar Heels’ successful high press.
The first-year finished with four shots on goal in 67 minutes, including a diving header from point-blank range in the 24th minute that gave UNC its lone goal of the contest.
“I think that (the high press) just helped us win the ball in very productive positions and allowed us to go directly at the goal and bypass a lot of the opposition,” Ikoba said.
With a difficult backstretch looming, Somoano said UNC is focused on finding areas of improvement, even with them being hard to come by two months into the campaign.
“There’s nothing we’ve perfected,” he said. “We’re gonna dig down and look for every little margin we can get. And if we can get every player to find just a small improvement. it all adds up.”
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