It’s hard to be in the press box. I’m not complaining. I love what I do and who I work with, but the hardest part of the job is that there isn’t any cheering allowed in the press box, for obvious reasons. So, when the clock counted down to zero to end the match and Carolina managed to punch their ticket to the College Cup I had to fight hard not to cheer. It wasn’t easy, but I managed.
I did cry though. Pride surged through me and the gratitude I felt towards the Carolina men’s soccer program, my idols on the coaching staff, my friends on the team, and everyone else involved, was overwhelming. Being a part of something as great as Carolina soccer for the past three years has been a privilege words cannot adequately describe.
I wasn’t the only one filled with emotions though, and quite obviously, this night was not about me.
“Right now, it’s a little bit hard to process,” said head coach Carlos Somoano. "Most of all, I’m just really proud of our team and couldn’t be happier to be sitting up with these two guys (Zach Wright and Alan Winn) right now."
"It just seems like yesterday they showed up and were talking about some funny stuff four years ago and they’ve just grown so much and I’m proud to see the way they played tonight to get us back to the College Cup," he added.
The intensity with which the only unranked team left in the tournament was playing was both unbelievable and admirable. The Fordham Rams were facing their third ACC opponent in a row in the tournament, No. 3 North Carolina, after defeating No. 11 Virginia and then No. 6 Duke. The Rams have been playing out of their minds to survive and advance and tonight, in their third road game in a row, was no different.
“I’ll tell you what, Fordham is a heck of a good team,” said head coach Carlos Somoano. “I think some people like to make it out that they’re a good story, to be here, but they’re more than a good story. They’re a good team. They deserved to be here tonight and they put a great effort in and it makes me all the more proud to beat a team of that nature.”
Although Fordham had a bit of a Cinderella season that was cut short by Carolina, the Rams made it to the Elite Eight matchup as a result of their talent, and Somoano wanted to make sure credit was given where credit was deserved.
With their hearts on the line, each team was holding firm lines defensively, so it was easy to see why the teams headed in the locker room for halftime knotted at nil-nil. Fordham, at times, seemed as if all eleven of their men were playing defense while the Heels weren’t letting much of anything slip behind their back line, either.
In fact, Fordham only managed two shots on target in the first half compared to the five they took in the second half, which matched Carolina’s five shots in the first half while the Heels increased their pressure with nine shots taken in the second half.
It wasn’t until the 60th minute that the Heels managed to break the stalemate and get themselves on the board first. Jack Skahan sent a cross to Zach Wright who, with a limited angle, blasted the ball off his foot to where it hit the far-right post and ricocheted into the back of the net. The goal would be Wright’s fourth of the season and Shakan’s third assist.
There wasn’t much time for celebration for the Heels and their fans in the stands though, as just one minute and twenty-one seconds later Fordham was awarded a free kick only 20 yards out. Jannik Loebe was able to get a goal back for the Rams when his free kick was deflected off a Tar Heel defender and past keeper James Pyle to knot the teams again.
The breaker came in the 79th minute. It felt as if everyone in the crowd was holding their breath, Fordham fans with hope that the ball wouldn’t go in, Carolina fans with hopes that it would.
Cam Lindley found an open Wright, who crossed the ball into the box for Alan Winn, earning each of them an eleven on the season’s stat sheet: eleven goals for Winn and eleven assists for Wright. Lindley, meanwhile, managed to notch his thirteenth assist, more in a single season than any player since 2002.
“Zach was going down the line,” Winn said. “I saw Jelani [Pieters] get tripped up by one of their guys and Zach made a beautiful cross in and coach has stressed enough to always get in the box, always get the second balls or crossed balls, and like I said Zach made a beautiful cross and I was just there to tap it in.”
“I got a ball out wide and coach is always stressing that we get after our man, no hesitation, and I got after him and then I did a little stop-go and then put it in,” added Wright. “[Somoano] says a cross is a pass, so I passed it to Alan.”
At this point, Winn smiled and nudged his teammate beside him. “It was a good pass,” he muttered before they both let out a laugh.
It was a good pass.
The Heels’ victory sends them to their eighth College Cup in program history and their sixth in ten years, more than any other team.
When asked to compare this 2017 squad to the other six Carlos Somoano has been to the College Cup with, the head coach searched for a way to express just what it is that’s special about this group of guys.
“This team has been one of my most enjoyable teams to coach, but I’ll be honest, it’s not that easy to coach. It’s a lot to keep track of as a coach, but that’s part of the beauty of this team,” said Somoano.
“They’ve got a lot of personality and kind of, march to the beat of their own drum, which makes it a challenge for me, keeping them focused and concentrated. It’s probably been my biggest job, to keep them on track. But that’s what you’ve got to love about them," said Somoano. "They play to win, as all the other teams did, but they play with kind of their own spirit and for me to try and describe that to you as comparing them to other teams—there’s no way. It’s like trying to compare your kids. They’re just different.”
Different, but still good.
It will be a battle of No. 2 vs. No. 3 when the Hoosiers of Indiana face off against Carolina on Friday, December 8th in Philadelphia in their semi-final match.