Sometimes in sports, the ball literally doesn’t bounce your way.
That was the case numerous times for the North Carolina men’s soccer team in its NCAA Tournament second round loss to New Hampshire on Sunday.
Such a trend could've been credited to a number of factors, but none loomed larger than the physical “home field advantage” possessed by the Wildcats.
Wildcat Stadium is the football stadium for the University of New Hampshire, but also hosts the school’s soccer games. On the cold and hard artificial turf, the Tar Heels struggled with ball placement and touches.
“A big challenge for us was coming up and playing on an awkward turf,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “We were (also) trying to find the out of bounds lines.”
Such struggles were evident early, as the Wildcats seemed more comfortable and assertive during the early goings of the game. The early pressure paid off for New Hampshire, when defender Bridger Hansen got the Wildcats on the board with a bicycle kick goal.
However, the Tar Heels responded when the ball finally bounced their way. Junior forward Jonathan Jimenez sent a low, dribbling cross that squeaked by the Wildcat defense into the open foot of sophomore midfielder Tim Schels who found the back of the net to equalize the match.
The momentum swing opened up the door for more Tar Heel opportunities.
Junior midfielder Victor Olofsson had a point-blank chance, yet an awkward bounce caused the shot to sky over the crossbar.
This proved to be the end of the Tar Heels push, as New Hampshire ended the first half scoring three goals in a span of just eight minutes.
The fourth goal of the half followed the same trend seen throughout the early stages of the game.
Sophomore defender Riley Thomas misread a pass, and the ball bounced over his foot, leaving New Hampshire’s Johann von Knebel with a breakaway opportunity to all but seal the Tar Heels’ fate.
“The one (goal) at the end of the first half really was an expensive goal,” Somoano said. “That one was probably the dagger.”
Despite the large deficit, the Tar Heels never lost hope.
“We always felt that we were in the game,” fifth-year forward Santiago Herrera said. “It wasn’t different after any of the goals. We always believed and worked hard.”
The halftime message from Somoano was clear: score an early goal. If the Tar Heels were able to do such, the team would still have a chance.
This message seemed to resonate well within the Tar Heels, as they opened up the second half with two free kick opportunities. The first of the two appeared promising, but another awkward bounce allowed New Hampshire goalkeeper Jassem Koleilat to kick the ball away from the net.
Following the early free kicks, the New Hampshire defense settled in, preventing the Tar Heels from any legitimate scoring opportunities. Eventually, the Wildcats completed their 4-1 rout of the Tar Heels, ending UNC’s season.
Although a second round exit may appear disappointing for a team ranked fourth in the preseason poll, Somoano points to his team's effort and fight as defining characteristics for their season.
“We battled through a lot this year,” Somoano said. “I’m really proud of the guys for making it work, and making it a good season in spite of the challenges we faced.”
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