As the North Carolina men’s soccer team huddled up following its 2-2 draw to No. 18 Virginia, head coach Carlos Somoano and junior midfielder Tim Schels lingered away from the group.
Somoano, UNC's leading voice, and Schels, the team captain of the Tar Heels, appeared to be involved in a passionate conversation.
Schels said they were reflecting the minor mistakes that allowed the Cavaliers to erase a two-goal deficit in under three minutes.
“We probably could’ve handled (having the lead) better or defended it better as a team,” Schels said. “There were a few disappointing situations where we let them come back into the game.”
The stakes were high coming into North Carolina’s final regular season game.
A victory would have secured the marquee win UNC had been searching for the entire season. Somoano said the Tar Heels currently sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and the need to earn three points from every contest has only grown greater.
From the first kick, Somoano’s call could be seen in North Carolina’s aggressive attack. In the 10th minute, first-year midfielder Sam Williams connected with junior forward Akeim Clarke, who found the back of the net with one touch. The early goal marked the third-straight game in which UNC was on the scoreboard first — a trend Somoano said is a product of a number of factors.
“It’s a combination of getting better over the course of the year and confidence,” he said. “They’re getting used to each other and learning each other.”
Moments later, Clarke appeared for another scoring play.
After intercepting a Virginia pass, he found junior forward Ernest Bawa streaking down the far side of the pitch. From there, Bawa worked his way toward the Cavalier’s goal box, where his strike was punched out of play.
Though Bawa’s boot proved to be the final scoring chance of the half, North Carolina’s attack picked up the paced to begin the second period.
Less than a minute into the second frame, senior Cameron Fisher sent a shot that split the legs of a UVA defender and trickled into the cage. As the Tar Heels took a two-goal lead, North Carolina’s entire bench mobbed the Palo Alto, Calif. native in celebration.
After finding the back for the net five times a season ago, Fisher had struggled to find his footing within the offense this year. Breaking through on senior night seemed to make the wait well worth it.
“Obviously its bittersweet but it was an awesome night,” Fisher said. My whole family was here, I know a lot of other people’s families were here.”
Now leading by a pair of goals, it looked as though UNC’s season-defining win was in hand. But with the cushion, UNC seemed to get too comfortable, triggering a shift in the team's defensive play.
Ball pressure became less suffocating, and challenging tackles turned nearly extinct. With each inch let off by the Tar Heels came a response by the Cavaliers.
In the 55th minute, sophomore forward Michael Tsicoulias split UNC’s center backs on his way to scoring the Cavaliers’ first goal of the night. Three minutes later, Virginia earned a penalty shot attempt, which junior midfielder Daniel Mangarov sent home to tie game.
“Maturity — it's just bottom line maturity,” Somoano said. “We got the second goal and it felt like, ‘Ok, we’ve got a two-goal lead we can just kind of relax.’ And that’s just such a bad way to go about it.”
Despite the tie, the Tar Heels earned a home-bid in the first round of the ACC Tournament, which starts on Wednesday. Yet, with North Carolina’s status in the NCAA tournament remaining unchanged, UNC understands let-downs like the one against Virginia must be extinguished.
“It’s mandatory; we have to win,” Fisher said. At this point it’s win or go home and the pressure’s on, and we’ve got to live up to the pressure.”
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