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UNC Men’s Soccer: Margins

Sometimes, the beautiful game balances on the head of a pin.

2018 ACC Men’s Soccer Championship Photo by Peyton Williams/Getty Images

I freely admit that I am a late arrival to soccer fandom. I played parks and rec soccer as a child, but as soon as I was old enough my interests switched to the sports that I was able to watch regularly. I had heroes in other sports—I pretended to be Joseph Forte when I shot baskets in the driveway, and I did my best impression of Sam Aiken when playing catch with my dad in the back yard (or sometimes I’d save myself the time and pretend to just be Julius Peppers in any sport). It’s unsurprising, then, that the only soccer player I could name as a child was David Beckham, simply because of a movie that I never even watched that had his name in the title. Soccer was not on my radar in any meaningful sense. I thought it was boring; these long, uninterrupted periods of seemingly pointless play, then to have one team suddenly break free only to fire a shot harmlesssly over the net to bring us back to exactly where we were. Any game that could end in a scoreless tie, I thought, was simply not for me.

How wrong I was. I couldn’t (or didn’t care to) look closely enough to see what was really happening; that each of those passes or runs were probing the opposing team, not a team sitting around waiting for someone else to force the issue so much as a volcano bubbling just beneath the surface, primed to erupt as soon as a weakness is found.

Sometimes, it only takes one. A solitary lapse in judgment by a defender, just a single mistake or misstep, can be the difference between continuing the season or heading home. The Carolina men’s soccer team capitalized on that Eminem-esque one opportunity, stunning the fourth-seeded Stanford Cardinal in the NCAA Tournament, 1-0. Joe Pickering chose an appropriate time to score his first goal of the season, finding the back of the net from the front of the goal area with only 14 minutes gone in the first period, after which the Carolina defense was able to stifle the talented Stanford attack for the remaining 76 minutes.

This match, with a trip to the quarterfinals on the line, was about as close as a game can be. The official box score puts the possession evenly split at 50% each, each team managed precisely four shots, and neither goalie made a save (Carolina keeper Alec Smir was never really tested, while I can think of one save that the Cardinal keeper Andrew Thomas would’ve really liked to make). The Tar Heels outshot Stanford 3-1 in the first half, only to turn around and be outshot 1-3 in the second. On paper, it’s hard to find any margin for error.

The only obvious difference was the final score and, in the end, that’s the only difference that matters. The Carolina men’s soccer team advances to the quarterfinals and gets another chance to play this wonderful game; that’s a beautiful thing.