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The Daily Tar Heel

After postseason run, UNC men's soccer falls in Elite Eight to Oregon State

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UNC sophomore defender Charlie Harper (18) lays on the field after his team's defeat in the quarterfinal game of the NCAA men’s division one soccer tournament against Oregon State on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at Dorrance Field. UNC loses 0-1.

Forty-five minutes after the final whistle, Ernest Bawa sat alone in the six-yard box on the right end of Dorrance Field.

Legs crossed and jersey draped around his shoulders, the senior midfielder soaked in the moment after his final game as a Tar Heel. Following a loss in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, he and the rest of his fellow Tar Heels were left with thoughts of what could have been.

UNC’s season came to an end Saturday, falling to Oregon State, 1-0. After a postseason run that saw the Tar Heels reach the ACC Championship and earn the third overall seed in the NCAA tournament, offensive struggles that had plagued the team during the regular season reemerged to crush the team’s hope of reaching the College Cup for the first time since 2020.

Throughout the regular season, the Tar Heels struggled with coming out flat in the first halves of games. In the postseason, though, getting out to an early lead was one of UNC’s keys to success, scoring a total of seven first-half goals throughout the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

On Saturday, this was not the case. UNC was dominated in the first half, out-possessed 66 percent to 34 percent. North Carolina only produced two shots, neither of which were on goal. Head coach Carlos Somoano said the lackluster opening frame was a product of UNC’s slow-paced play.

“Oregon State had the game going at a good tempo,” Somoano said. “And we did not adjust.”

The inability to control possession would come back to bite the Tar Heels in the 36th minute. Driving on the left side of the 18-yard box, Beaver forward Vicente Castro passed the ball around UNC senior defender Riley Thomas. Oregon State's Dante Williams received the pass and booted the ball into the top right corner of the goal.

Despite an all-out effort to find the tying goal in the second half, which Somoano described as “some of the best soccer we’ve played all year,” the Tar Heels were unable to do so.

Somoano compared Saturday’s contest to a game against Syracuse back on Oct. 6, which the Orange won 1-0 off a first-half goal. After that game, junior midfielder Andrew Czech echoed Somoano’s words from Saturday.

“I think our running intensity just wasn't there,” Czech said back in October. “They outran us in the first half and it's as simple as that.”

On top of the lackluster first half, Saturday’s loss represented another issue that plagued the team in the regular season — a lack of offensive production. All four losses this year for UNC have been by a score of 1-0. For a team that ranks second in the ACC in goals against average but eighth in goals per game, it's safe to say that the team's ceiling hinged on its offensive production.

When sophomore defender Charlie Harper said after a 4-1 first round win in the ACC tournament that, “Come postseason, we're a different team,” he appeared to be correct. In their six postseason games before Saturday, the Tar Heels scored 13 goals. In comparison, UNC scored 13 goals total in its final 11 regular season games.

On Saturday, though, the offense stalled, and one defensive misstep was the difference between a victory and a defeat.

“If you're out there, and you start to get a little bit behind, you start to second guess what you're doing,” Somoano said, later adding, “It's a real trap. It's a deadly trap.”

As Somoano reflects on the year his squad had, he said he will miss the group's spirit and character the most.

Despite the disappointing end to the year, Somoano said he is proud of the resiliency that the team showed in the second half of the last two games and of all the improvement that UNC has shown over the season. 

“I think, tragically, that's one of those games where it's like, oh, man, you could take so much from that and just take us to another level,” Somoano said. “Because you need some of those moments to grow and push yourself. But unfortunately, we don't get that opportunity.”

@brendan_lunga18

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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