Coming into last season, the expectation for the North Carolina men’s soccer team was clear — compete for a national championship.
The Tar Heels were fresh off a trip to the NCAA Tournament semifinals and returned nine starters from their 2020 squad. With its plethora of experience and talent, UNC was tabbed the No. 4 team in the nation in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll.
Yet, costly injuries and struggles in ACC play contributed to North Carolina finishing the season unranked. The Tar Heels' second-round exit in the NCAA tournament marked an underwhelming finish for a team once presumed to be one of the nation’s best.
This season, the team is looking to bounce back and return to the level of play seen in years past. Here’s a look at some of the preseason headlines as the Tar Heels look to regroup following last year’s disappointment.
Replenishing the defense
The Tar Heels were anchored by their back line in 2021, which surrendered only 1.05 goals per game — the third lowest in the ACC.
The group was spearheaded by graduate defenders Joe Pickering and Filippo Zattarin and also featured First-Team All-ACC selection Alec Smir. However, all three players have exhausted their college eligibility, raising concerns over who will replace their production.
To make up for those departures, head coach Carlos Somoano hit the transfer portal and lured two new graduate defenders to Chapel Hill — James Person and Til Zinnhardt.
Person, a graduate from Saint Mary’s, brings heaps of experience to UNC. He started in all but two matches during his four seasons with the Gaels, with the exception of the 2020 season which he missed due to injury. Arriving from Tulsa, Zinnhardt comes to North Carolina fresh off being named to the United Soccer Coaches All-East Region’s first team.
With these arrivals, and the maturation of multi-year Tar Heels like junior Riley Thomas and sophomore Matt Edwards, North Carolina could be on its way to boasting another strong defensive unit.
Finding an offensive spark
While the defense will feature a number of new faces, the Tar Heels are returning most of their offensive weapons.
Three of the top five goal scorers last season — junior Ernest Bawa, senior Cameron Fisher and graduate Milo Garvanian — will look to take North Carolina’s offense to the next level. That trio found the back of the net 12 times last season, led by Fisher's five goals.
However, UNC's offense suffered a major hit when leading scorer Tega Ikoba signed a homegrown contract with the Portland Timbers. The ACC All-Freshman honoree became the seventh Tar Heel since 2008 to sign an MLS homegrown contract, and his abrupt departure left a gaping hole in UNC’s attacking front.
But Somoano found another key transfer to help fill the void left by his star first-year. Graduate midfielder Sebastian Schacht, who started every game for Saint Mary’s last season and was named to the All-WCC First Team, will likely play a significant role from day one.
With the addition of Schacht and North Carolina’s returning core, offensive talent isn't a question for the Tar Heels. Rather, discovering a go-to goalscorer will determine if UNC can elevate its attack to greater heights.
Rebounding from disappointment
Unlike last year, North Carolina has little spotlight or expectations headed into this season. With its No. 24 ranking in United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, the Tar Heels are ranked below five conference opponents.
With less pressure, UNC has an opportunity to rebuild and return to college soccer’s greatest stage. And with the combination of talented transfers and polished veterans rostered by this year’s squad, the Tar Heels may have what it takes.
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