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Goalkeeper Alec Smir wills men's soccer to victory in opening round of NCAA Tournament

Senior midfielder Milo Garvanian (22) runs with the ball at the first round of the NCAA tournament against Loyola on Nov. 18 at Dorrance Field.

To say that UNC’s defense carried its lacking offense in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to defeat Loyola Maryland on Thursday night would be a major understatement.

The Tar Heels ultimately won in penalty kicks, 4-2, after failing to score for 110 minutes of regulation and overtime. Meanwhile, North Carolina graduate goalkeeper Alec Smir finished with three saves, along with a key block in the penalty shootout.

“We were unable to move the ball as fast as we wanted,” graduate defender Filippo Zattarin said. “We weren’t able to create superiority in terms of numbers up top, so we just weren’t making enough runs.”

The game started out textbook for the Tar Heels. All season long, the name of the game for UNC has been offensive pressure, as the team has ranked third in the ACC in shots per game. As expected, North Carolina held a 7-1 shot advantage in the first half.

After 45 minutes, neither team had managed to score. No surprise there, either — before Thursday, seven of North Carolina’s 18 games had opened with a scoreless first half. 

But the second half was a different story. Loyola’s defense suffocated UNC, holding the team to zero shots.

“Our match sharpness was poor,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “That’s on me. Whatever I did to prepare the team for this game didn’t hit the mark.”

Additionally, the elevated win-or-go-home stakes only amplified the match’s physicality — Loyola had 21 fouls along with four yellow cards. The chippy Greyhound defense heavily contributed to their second-half dominance.

Despite Loyola outshooting UNC 3-0 in the second half, regulation play ended scoreless. The Greyhounds did, however, demonstrate that quality trumps quantity, as two of those three shots were on goal, forcing saves from Smir.

The game of attrition persisted through double overtime. In the 109th minute, a miscommunication by the Tar Heel defense allowed Loyola forward Daniel Tshiani to streak down an open field, dribbling uncontested. UNC students held their breath in anticipation, expecting the one-on-one situation to swing Loyola’s way.

But the first-team All-ACC goalkeeper had other ideas.

As Tshiani kicked the ball, Smir jumped up, deflecting the ball off his face. The clutch play bought just enough time for UNC defenders to regroup, eliciting a roar from the crowd.

“You can never keep such a defensive record without an amazing goalie,” Zattarin said of Smir, whose nine shutouts are tied for fifth-best in the country.

As the match went into penalty kicks, fans eagerly made their way towards the east half of Dorrance Field, where the match would be decided.

After the first Loyola shot soared high, all Smir needed was one save to amplify pressure on the Greyhounds. And on the next Loyola kick, he delivered.

After blocking Loyola forward Kelan Swales’ shot, Smir’s teammates took it from there. The Tar Heels connected on all of their penalties, with Zattarin hitting the game-winner.

Although Smir had an outstanding performance, he said the team has much room for improvement.

“It feels great right now, but now we gotta shift our focus to New Hampshire,” Smir said. “I think there’s a lot of things we can work on for both sides of the ball.”

Last year, North Carolina advanced all the way to the College Cup, upsetting Stanford and Wake Forest in the process. This year, the Tar Heels will need to find a way to convert their copious, yet often fruitless shot attempts into actual goals if they want to recapture some of last year’s Final Four magic. Their next stop? No. 16 New Hampshire, who is 16-1-2 this season.

“I’m happy that we advanced, but it’s not the best feeling because I don’t think we played great,” Somoano said.

But that ‘we’ didn’t apply to Smir — Somoano kept it simple when crediting the goalkeeper for the victory.

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“We don’t win that game without him.”  

@dthsports |

Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.