When the No. 5 North Carolina women’s soccer team takes the field against No. 13 Pittsburgh on Thursday, the pressure is on for both teams to prove their competitiveness in the ACC.
After blowing a halftime lead and falling to Virginia Tech on the road last weekend, the Tar Heels are looking for the drive to give them the upper hand over the Panthers — a team coming off five consecutive wins.
UNC picked up a 1-0 win when these two teams played last year, and the Tar Heels have never lost to the Panthers since Pittsburgh began ACC play in 2013. However, this year's matchup may be more challenging than usual, as Pittsburgh is a competitive team that recently beat Virginia Tech 4-1 and boasts an 11-1 record.
Although the Tar Heels boast remarkable depth and are led by several players — including junior Avery Patterson, who scored a team-high seven goals — Ally Sentnor has been the standout player in recent weeks. The redshirt first-year forward has already scored three goals this season, and after playing restricted minutes early in the season following an ACL tear last fall, she has become a full-time starter for head coach Anson Dorrance.
Since joining the starting lineup, Sentnor has played aggressively at the start of matches. Against the Hokies, Sentnor attempted two shots in the first 60 seconds, and although neither attempt was successful, she was able to apply pressure to the defense, which could pose challenges on Thursday if she plays in a similar style.
While contributions from Sentnor and fellow first-years Tori DellaPeruta and Tessa Dellarose have given the Tar Heels a lift in production, the Panthers' leading scorers are all seniors.
Forwards Leah Pais, Amanda West and midfielder Landy Mertz have been hard to contain this season. Of the team's 40 goals thus far, this trio has scored 19 of them and is spearheading the team's offensive efforts in its current winning streak.
Pais has been a dynamic weapon in terms of scoring, as she has found the back of the net in five of the team's last seven games. While West will likely miss the rest of the season with a leg injury, Mertz has been especially productive this season, as her six goals have already surpassed the total from her previous two seasons combined.
North Carolina’s defense will need to prepare to take on a dynamic Pittsburgh offense that has easily torn through opposing units. Despite opening the year with six shutouts, the Tar Heels' defense has faced plenty of adversity in recent weeks. Senior Maycee Bell tore her meniscus in the first game of the season, and just a few weeks later, the unit was dealt another blow when first-year Kayleigh Herr went down with a knee injury in a loss to UCLA.
With these players on the sideline, North Carolina has struggled to rebuild its historically strong defense, which has now uncharacteristically allowed multiple goals in three different contests.
Although the team has already dropped several games this season, UNC will look to improve its form in this highly-anticipated matchup on Thursday night. The final result will not only go a long way in determining current ACC standings but could also provide an opportunity for both squads to make a national statement as the postseason play draws closer.
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