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Sunday January 29th

Preview: UNC men's soccer gears up to host High Point in NCAA tournament opener

UNC junior forward Akeim Clarke (25) dribbles during the men's soccer game against Clemson at Dorrance Field on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.
Buy Photos UNC junior forward Akeim Clarke (25) dribbles during the men's soccer game against Clemson at Dorrance Field on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.

Despite falling to Syracuse in the ACC Championship quarterfinals, the North Carolina men’s soccer team earned an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. 

UNC's quest for a third national title in men's soccer will begin at noon on Thursday at Dorrance Field when the Tar Heels host High Point. The Panthers are fresh off a Big South conference title and will look to spoil North Carolina’s 29th NCAA postseason appearance.

Here are three keys for the Tar Heels to knock off the Panthers and advance to the second round.

Capitalize on opportunities

Simply put, North Carolina’s attack has been lackluster this season. 

The Tar Heels rank second worst in the ACC in goals scored, having only scored more than one goal a game five times this season. UNC even had a monthlong cold stretch during which it found the back of the net just four times.

However, since the end of October, North Carolina’s offense has found its spark plug in Ernest Bawa. The junior forward has scored two of the Tar Heels' six total goals in the last four games. Even in North Carolina’s shutout defeat against Syracuse — the eventual ACC champions — the Tar Heels tallied three more shots on goal than the Orange.

Throughout the year, many Tar Heels have voiced a lack of "courage" inside the box as one of the biggest reasons for North Carolina’s offensive deficiencies. Whether it's Bawa utilizing his speed on the outside or junior forward Akeim Clarke attacking the heart of the Panthers’ backline, North Carolina will need to cash in any opportune strikes to help its chances of moving on.

Defend for the full 90 minutes

Throughout the year, head coach Carlos Somoano has stated that North Carolina can contend with anyone in the country thanks to the team’s ability to defend.

The Tar Heels’ defense has anchored much of the team's success this season. Anchored by graduate Til Zinnhardt and junior Riley Thomas, North Carolina’s experienced corps ranks in the top 20 nationally in goals allowed per contest.

But as North Carolina’s offense has shown recent signs of growth, its defensive performances have taken a dip. Against now-No. 4 Virginia, the Tar Heels held a two-goal lead midway through the second half before surrendering two goals in a three-minute span.

Late in the ACC quarterfinals, the Tar Heels looked to be vying for an upset win against Syracuse, but a mental lapse following a UNC set piece allowed the Orange to net their lone goal in the 85th minute.

These costly hiccups have become more common recently, and with each game now a win-or-go-home situation for the Tar Heels, North Carolina’s defense will need to revert back to the stout play it showed earlier this year. 

Slow down Noah Holmes

Atop North Carolina’s defensive game plan will be limiting Hight Point's graduate forward Noah Holmes. 

The transfer from Liberty leads High Point in goals this season with 10 and has converted his shot attempts at a staggering 35 percent clip. For comparison, North Carolina's leading scorer has found the back of the net four times and is striking at a 16 percent rate.

Recently, the Cary native has ramped up his play — accounting for the Panthers’ two goals in their win over Campbell in the Big South title game.

Much of Holmes’ success comes off loose balls inside the box; his scrappy play in the attacking third will target the core of North Carolina’s defense. High Point thrives off calculated crosses, many of which have been finished off by its leading scorer this year.

Look for the play of Thomas and Zinnhardt to be highlighted Thursday, as High Point and Holmes will likely look to challenge the Tar Heels’ two center backs.  

@evanr0gers

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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