473 minutes. That’s how much game time has elapsed since Carlos Somoano’s third-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels have let in a goal. That goal came on September 8th, in the double-OT thriller against Pittsburgh. Since then? Nada. Zip. Zilch. And it’s not merely the fact that the Tar Heels aren’t conceding goals that is impressive; it’s that that aren’t even really conceding chances.
Tuesday’s game against 14th-ranked UNC-Wilmington was yet another solid example of Carolina’s ability to stonewall opponents right out of their offense. The Tar Heels allowed one shot on goal in the entire first half and it came on a free kick, not from open play. On the other end of the field, a goal from Jack Skahan, who had just come back from injury last week, gave UNC the lead in the 33rd minute. Like they’ve done time and again this year, the Tar Heels didn’t relinquish the lead. UNCW didn’t even get another shot on goal until the 62nd minute, which was saved.
UNCW managed a total of 6 shots all game. This is not a big number, and yet it is the most that Carolina has allowed in regulation since its opening game against ETSU. They allowed 7 in Double-OT against Pittsburgh. Against #8 Notre Dame, they allowed just three shots in 106 minutes of play. Three shots. Against a top-10 team playing on its home field. Ridiculous. Even in Carolina’s 1-0 defeat to #2 Indiana, the Heels outshot the Hoosiers 11 to 3.
In recent seasons, Carlos Somoano’s teams have been noted for their explosive offenses, particularly last year’s College Cup side. But he has produced some strong defensive units as well, particularly his teams in 2012 and 2015. Those teams also had extended shutout streaks. But they didn’t choke out opponents quite in the way that this year’s team has been doing. Those teams allowed opponents 7.2 and 7.6 shots per game respectively. The 2018 Tar Heels, on the other hand, are at 4.3 attempts per game. In nine games, they’ve conceded just three goals, and never more than one in a single matchup. Let me reiterate: It’s not just that opposing teams aren’t finding the net against Carolina. So far this season, they’re not even sniffing it.
As was discussed last week, UNC employs a back three of Alex Comsia, John Nelson, and Mark Salas. They, along with goalkeeper James Pyle, are Carolina’s leaders in minutes played. And they make for a fascinating combination.
Any fan of Carolina soccer already knows all about Alex Comsia: The veteran mainstay of the defense, the model student, the terrific leader who now captains a side trying to return to the College Cup for the third consecutive season. Comsia started off the season with sky-high expectations and so far has lived up to them, recently earning ACC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
John Nelson and Mark Salas are still only sophomores but can still justifiably be called veterans in their own right. Nelson, the #1 overall prep prospect coming out of high school, started all 22 games last year as a freshman and has looked even better in 2018. Salas, whose older brother Martin also plays on the team, appeared in 20 games last year, starting 16, as he gained more and more responsibility as the season went on. The two of them flanking Comsia formed a strong unit last year, but they look borderline impenetrable so far this year. Junior Mauricio Pineda also deserves credit for his play as a holding midfielder, which has provided cover for the three-man unit.
Carolina may not have the explosive offense of last season, but they still have plenty of weapons that can hurt you on the attacking side of the ball. And with that backline playing lights out, it’s not hard to see the Tar Heels completing some unfinished business come playoff time.
The Tar Heels will look to continue their shutout streak against #19 Virginia Tech on Saturday in Durham.