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Lone goal propels UNC men's soccer to first ACC Tournament semifinal since 2018

UNC senior midfielder Ahmad Al-Qaq (34) runs during the men’s soccer game versus Duke on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. The Tar Heels won 2-1.

WINSTON-SALEM — Kneeling on the pitch, Ahmad Al-Qaq bent down and gave the grass of Spry Soccer Stadium a kiss.

As a practicing Muslim, it was a spiritual moment for Al-Qaq — something he does after every goal he scores. On Sunday, this goal was “no doubt” the biggest one of his North Carolina career.

In UNC men’s soccer’s 1-0 victory over No. 2 seed Wake Forest in the ACC quarterfinals, his goal was the decider, sending the Tar Heels to the ACC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2018.

The game represented the transformation Al-Qaq has had over his long career at UNC.

“You’re talking about a big jump,” head coach Carlos Somoano said. “This is never how it works.”

Al-Qaq has been the rock off the bench this year, coming in to affect the game with his fresh legs. On Sunday, he entered the game earlier than he normally does — just seven minutes into the contest.

He subbed in for graduate forward Martin Vician because Somoano said the team wasn’t playing to the game plan, which was “to go out there and get into [Wake Forest], impress them and harass them.”

“I mean, we went over it, this is how we’re supposed to play,” Somoano said. “And then when you step on and the whistle kicks in, we’re like, ‘what the heck are we doing?'”

Al-Qaq would make his presence felt just under nine minutes later. Capitalizing off a turnover in the 16th minute, he faked the defender to the right, dribbled the ball to his left and rocketed in a goal from outside the box.

It was just his third career goal, all of which have come this season.

“After [the goal], I was like, ‘can we maintain this 1-0 lead?’ — that’s really all that was on my mind,” Al-Qaq said, later adding that he was “so happy that the goal actually meant something at the end of the day.”

The goal displayed the offensive skill that makes Al-Qaq unique amongst this squad. In Somoano's words, Al-Qaq has the ability to “buckle your knee.” Put differently, he excels in one-on-one scenarios, unbalancing defenders and creating space to boot a shot at net.

In a game that saw the Demon Deacons outshoot the Tar Heels 11-5 and double their time of possession, Al-Qaq’s goal allowed UNC to play its game.

“The way we play, we try to play hard from the beginning,” graduate forward David Bercedo said. “If we score early, we have a lot of chances to win.”

Al-Qaq’s journey to this moment began just 30 minutes from Spry Stadium in his hometown of Oak Ridge. He played for the ​​NC Fusion Academy club team before arriving at Chapel Hill in 2020. Despite getting zero playing time in his first two years, he leaned on all the work he had put in prior to coming to North Carolina.

He said he stayed motivated after watching his team go to the College Cup in 2020, and he wanted to replicate that moment. On Sunday — after three years of hard work — he finally got a taste of that postseason glory in the ACC quarterfinals.

“I think coach Somoano just taught me a lot," Al-Qaq said. "And each year I just kept improving and taking in the information like a sponge."

Al-Qaq  said he still doesn’t know if this year will be his last, but he hopes to produce more moments like these in the coming months. He will continue to be an important piece off the bench for Somoano’s team as it looks to win the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2011.

“It's been a long process for him,” Somoano said, dragging out the ‘o’ in ‘long’ for emphasis. “He's been accumulating over time, and I think what people see is, ‘what clicked this year?’ There's nothing that clicked this year. This is, day after day after day, hard work and commitment.”


@dthsports |

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