The air was cold, the trees were bent with the force of the wind but the atmosphere at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary was anything but bleak. Despite the numb fingers and toes, the crowd that came out to support the Carolina men’s soccer team was excited. You could almost feel the anticipation, the hope for a positive result in the air as if by reaching out you could grasp the feeling in your hand.
It was a feeling shared by fans, family, and even former Carolina team members that traveled across the country to see their team play.
On a night filled with upsets that saw No. 12 Notre Dame fall to an unranked Wisconsin and No. 11 Virginia fall to an unranked Fordham, it would have been easy to think the worst would happen for Carolina as one of the four ACC teams remaining in the competition out of the original six.
After falling to Wilmington 0-1 back in September, the Heels didn’t think back to that game other than to use it as an opportunity to fix things. There was no regret, no feeling of redemption beating this Wilmington team. Head coach Carlos Somoano made it clear he wants everyone to know that it wasn’t about besting a team that had beaten them earlier in the season, it was about working hard to beat a good team, and sticking to Carolina’s core values.
“They beat us in the first game,” said Somoano. “Period. They were better. And today we were better. There are no times when we’re playing a team where we're saying, 'Oh there’s revenge on the mind.’ It’s not about that external motivation."
"We want to be the best because we want to be the best. What I will say is that I hear a lot about how talented we are and you get the expectation that we’re supposed to beat Wilmington. That’s a good team out there. Why are we supposed to beat Wilmington? They’re a great team and a great program.”
As a result of a compact midfield, the Seahawks and the Heels started the second half of the game knotted 0-0. It wasn’t until the 53rd minute that the Tar Heels broke through a tight defensive line and drove forward to net a goal.
The goal came from redshirt sophomore Jelani Pieters. A ball played to forward Zach Wright up from defender Mark Salas was what got the play started. Wright, along the right sideline, beat his defender and crossed the ball into the box where, just like in practice, Pieters was making a run at the near post and was able to touch the ball past the Wilmington keeper.
“We worked a lot in practice on getting crosses in and making it into the box, so as soon as I saw Zach I knew. I tried to get into the spot,” recalled Pieters. “It’s just something that we’ve done week in and week out in practice so it felt really natural. It was like another play in practice.”
Practice really does make perfect.
There wasn’t a long wait for goal number two of the night, either. Just under four minutes later the Heels successfully broke through again. Forward Alan Winn saw the opening and saw his teammate making a run. Mauricio Pineda was the player heading forward up the pitch. When the ball hit Pineda’s feet he only took a few dribbles and from just past the top of the box took a shot that went flying into the upper right corner of the net.
“Carlos talks about me picking and choosing times to get up the field and I think that was a great build-up play by the whole team,” said Pineda. “Credit to all my teammates. Luckily, I got into position to take a shot and I did--and I’ve had a lot of shots this season but not as much success--but it was definitely worth the wait for now. I’m just glad it got in the back of the net.”
The Carolina fans and team members would be glad about that fact too. Pineda’s goal created a cushion for the Heels when in the 74th minute a free kick led to a goal by Wilmington’s Julio Moncada.
Tar Heel keeper James Pyle, back from injury has seamlessly stepped into his role as the defensive anchor once more. “The only thing that went through my mind [when they started pushing forward] was, ‘Alright, they’re attacking us now. That means there’s more space behind for Zach and Alan to counter.’ After they scored, we still had the lead.
"I wasn’t worried about anything. I knew our guys, and since we practiced with an intensity the whole week and we had each other’s back, it never really crossed my mind that we would lose."
Carolina is now headed to its ninth Sweet Sixteen in ten years, more than any other program.
“Nine out of the last ten years we’ve been to the final sixteen, we’ve gone to this round and that’s not because we just did it,” said Carlos Somoano. “It’s not easy. People think it’s easy. We work hard. Our administration works hard. Out university works hard to give us an athletic department where we can be successful.
Our coaches work their butts off and our players work their tails off every day in training to get here and to do that. I think they deserve that credit for their hard work, not just because we should be entitled to win games because we never are. … When we work hard and we commit to the things that we believe in, we’ve got a good chance to win and if we don’t do that? It’s anybody’s game.”
Last night though? It was Carolina’s game. The Heels played hard, committed to themselves and their teammates and everyone who works hard to support them, and fought it out on a bitterly cold night.
Every year during the soccer season when it starts to get cold I think I might learn to resent those cold nights and frosty toes, but I never do.
Being a soccer fan is all about dedication, and if the Carolina men’s soccer team can play with that dedication to the game flowing through them the least I can do is suffer some stiff fingers and a runny nose to support them with my whole being.
Soccer is a game where anything can happen, where everything else falls away, where magic happens. At the end of the night, the only things that mattered were the feelings of community and pride that I took away.
You’ve got one more guaranteed chance to see Heels in action at home this season, next Saturday, November 25 at 6 pm at WakeMed soccer park.
Go. Feel that magic in the air.