For the 8th time in the last 10 years, the UNC men’s soccer team is headed to the national quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, easily the most appearances of any program in the country during that timeframe. This year, the Heels secured their spot with a confident win against unranked SMU, who had upset Georgetown to get to the Sweet 16 and were raring for another upset.
For the entire first half, the run of play was entirely on UNC’s side, as the Heels put up five shots, three on goal, and earned four corner kicks. The Mustangs had zero, zero, and zero in the same categories and seemed content to keep almost every player in a defensive position at the expense of real scoring opportunities. The UNC midfield held possession well and did not give SMU cheap counterattacking chances, and defender Alex Comsia held star striker Nicky Hernandez in check whenever SMU was looking to press upfield a little bit. Despite controlling the game, however, UNC was unable to find the back of the net and the game reached halftime at a scoreless tie.
The second half started with much of the same, and within five minutes, UNC broke through, as Jack Skahan whipped in a cross from 25 yards out that went past everybody into the right side of the net. Now down a goal, SMU needed to start playing more aggressively, and the game was fought in the midfield from minute 52 to minute 67, as neither team was able to get a shot off. SMU finally got their first shot off a free kick in the 67th minute, which went wide of the goal but was enough to jump-start the side. In the 72nd minute, coach Carlos Somoano decided to substitute midfielder David October in for Jelani Pieters, apparently hoping to have more ball control and passing acumen in the game to try and play keep-away from the SMU defense. The UNC midfield did well in this respect, but after two long possessions that ended up with cheap giveaways, the run of play started to shift towards the Mustangs around the 77th minute. Sensing this, Somoano put Pieters back in at the 81:16 mark, likely hoping for the kind of explosive play that Pieters has provided this entire season. Pieters delivered less than a minute later, scoring on a counterattack after a nifty bit of class to get around 3 SMU defenders before firing a shot into the lower right corner to put the game away. The shot was assisted by Cam Lindley for his 12th of the year, setting a new season high for assists in the Carlos Somoano era.
SMU did not go away quietly, creating a couple of opportunities in the box over the last 10 minutes, including a goal scored a minute after Pieters’ that was called back for offside after a discussion among the officials. Four of SMU’s five shots came in the last 8 minutes of the game, but none found their target. James Pyle earned his clean sheet with a diving save in the 89th minute, his only real action of the day, and UNC won the game, 2-0.
UNC will host Fordham University in the Elite Eight at WakeMed Soccer Park with a College Cup bid on the line. Unranked Fordham finds itself in the Elite 8 after upsetting Duke on penalties in a game where Fordham was down 1-0, then 2-1, then 0-1 during the shootout. Fordham has already beaten two ranked ACC teams on their way to the Elite Eight, making this an intriguing matchup. The date and time have yet to be announced.