When asked on Sunday evening what steps forward he thought his team had taken from its last game, UNC men’s soccer coach Carlos Somoano took several seconds to gather his thoughts.
He was quite candid that his team doesn’t have it all figured out right now.
“There are a thousand things we can be better at still,” he said. “I mean, we’ve been practicing for three weeks. To be at a point where we have this whole thing figured out, that’s not realistic.”
Somoano thinks North Carolina lacked a bit of “energy and intensity” on the defensive end. He said his team was missing an extra bit of “edge” and looked somewhat “physically labored”.
Despite these qualms from UNC’s 1-0 win over South Florida, Somoano was quick to point to the coordination of North Carolina’s back line. Anchored by the duo of sophomore defender Matt Edwards and junior center back Riley Thomas, the defense applied consistent pressure throughout the game to allow UNC to control much of the possession and tempo.
In a testament to the Tar Heels' efforts, USF didn't get a single shot off until the 30th minute when sophomore winger Jeffrey Copper broke away from the UNC defense. Redshirt first-year goalkeeper Andrew Cordes came off his line to defend Cooper, knocking the bottom-center shot away from the goal. UNC would go on to outshoot USF 18-8, only converting on graduate midfielder Milo Garvanian's penalty kick just over 12 minutes into the game.
The Tar Heels were able to effectively neutralize USF’s game plan, which for the majority of the first half centered on pushing the ball up the right flank. USF continued to bully the right side of the field but struggled against UNC's defensive coverage.
In particular, Edwards’ ability to both stay in front of and track down South Florida’s forwards to apply pressure was critical in several stops early on in the game.
“We just stuck together pretty well,” Edwards said. “I know especially with my left center back, we made sure we held our own on the left side and made sure that together we were strong and really stayed together as a team.”
At the center back position, Thomas took center stage when USF shifted focus late in the first period. After finding limited success in the right flank, the Bulls began bringing the ball up the middle to attack UNC's spine.
With just under five minutes to go in the first half, first-year Jemone Barclay broke through the back line and almost had a clear shot on goal after Edwards failed to intercept a pass. Thomas raced back, meeting Barclay just inside the penalty area. Playing the angle perfectly, the Atlanta native slid to complete a clean tackle, stripping the ball from Barclay to preserve UNC’s 1-0 lead.
Edwards said his confidence in teammates like Thomas allowed him to stay aggressive throughout the game.
“I know I messed up on that play,” Edwards said. “So it was great that he had my back in that instance, and that’s what you want from your teammates.”
According to Thomas, Sunday's defensive performance was an indicator of the work the unit put in throughout the week in practice to sharpen up. Somoano echoed this response and said that the young group has been working on its coordination and "getting to learn each other."
"We know that we’re going to start to get into the thick of it with games and teams are going to get better and better," Thomas said. "We really need to get on the same page, and I feel like we took a step forward tonight.”
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