CAROLINA: Fit To Be Tied
By Turner Walston
Carolina's men's soccer team played seven games in the month of September and came away with a single win in regulation.
It's not that Tar Heels fared poorly; they were the nation's top-ranked team in at least one poll entering the final week of the month. Carolina has played an unusually high amount of overtime games, having drawn with all four ACC opponents they've faced so far in 2013.
The Tar Heels are no strangers to extra time. They have played five overtime matches in two postseasons under Carlos Somoano, and the 2010 Tar Heels advanced to the College Cup by winning three straight games on penalty kicks. But this year's team now finds itself sitting at ninth in the ACC standings without a single conference loss.
Carolina is not without a loss on the season, however, as they fell 1-0 to William & Mary at home last Tuesday. The Tribe got on the board in the 73rd minute as confusion reigned on the Tar Heel sideline. Defender Boyd (O.C.) Okwuonu was sent off the field with blood on his jersey. Miscommunication between Somoano and the referee meant that the Tar Heels played a man down while Okwuonu was being treated.
"[The referee] asked us if we wanted a sub, and I said, ‘Yes, absolutely,'" Somoano said. He called for Cooper Vandermas-Peeler to enter the game and reorganized the defense in the interim. "They didn't give us a chance (to substitute), and that's just not right," Somoano said. "And so, they scored when we had a man down." William & Mary's Jackson Eskay deflected the ball across the goal line off a header from Chris Albiston.
The Tribe then did what many teams have done against Carolina this season: packed the box to make offensive chances extremely difficult. William & Mary also possessed the ball well to limit Tar Heel touches. Carolina had two shots on goal in the final ten minutes, but both were saved by goalkeeper Mac Phillips.
Coming in to the William & Mary game, it seemed as if the Tar Heels were playing with danger a bit, having so often played to a draw in regulation. "If you don't put the ball in the back of the net, eventually the ball will find a way in your net, so we've just got to start finishing," forward Tyler Engel said.
Certainly, injuries have taken a toll on the Tar Heel attack. Forwards Andy Craven and Rob Lovejoy were lost for the season before it began. Carolina is led offensively by Engel and Raby George, who have three goals apiece. But no other Tar Heel has more than a single goal to his name. Josh Rice leads the team with 26 shots but scored his first goal on Saturday at Wake Forest in another tie. "We're creating chances," Engel said. "I guess we're just not finishing them right now."
Somoano said the team has players that can create in the opponent's end of the field, but they have to find a way to mix it up in the box. Rice does his best work when the ball is passed up the right flank, and Engel creates off the dribble. "We need somebody who's willing to go in there and lift those balls out," Somoano said. "Someone's got to do it, right?"
And so late in tied matches, Carolina is finding that teams not as talented as they are are willing to pack it in on defense and play for a draw. "That happens a lot with teams that like to pack it in and put all 11 players behind the ball," Rice said. "It's kind of changed the game a bit from an offensive perspective. You have to play out wide if they're tucked in tight. You've really got to shoot for the wings."
If there's anything to be taken away from the abundance of overtime games and draws, it's that the Tar Heels are match fit. The team averages nearly 101 minutes per game, 11 better than if they had won all games in regulation. Soccer is a fickle game, and the Tar Heels know that in the postseason, their fates could very well be decided in extra time.
They know that the sense of urgency will be ramped up come tournament time.
"There's definitely more of a drive when you know that the game's going to end, and one team's going to win," Rice said. "In terms of fatigue and minutes played, it definitely does prepare you for that extra adrenaline, for sure."
With seven of their nine remaining regular season matches played in conference, Carolina will have a chance to improve their ACC standing. Duke (also winless in conference play) comes to Fetzer Field on Friday, and fourth-place Clemson visits next Tuesday.