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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

UNC men's soccer takes No. 1 seed in NCAA tourney; how good are they?

Posted by on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 at 9:03 AM

UNCs defense repels another Boston College attack on Nov. 13, 2011
  • David Fellerath
  • UNC's defense repels another Boston College attack on Nov. 13, 2011
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—The UNC men's team doesn't always play attractive soccer, but they're very difficult to beat. It's essentially a team of bruisers, of tightly coiled holding midfielders. But the third-ranked Tar Heels are a tough nut to crack. And lethal.

On Sunday, the Eagles of Boston College were unable to find a solution, falling 3-1 as UNC forward Ben Speas scored two goals—including a controversial one—and assisted on a third en route to being named tournament MVP.

On Monday, the Tar Heels received the top seed in the NCAA men's soccer tourney. In the 48-team field, they received a first-round bye and will play the winner of the contest between Elon and Coastal Carolina, on Sunday, Nov. 20 in Chapel Hill.

But before we dismiss UNC's opening game as a walkover in the works, let's pause to note that Coastal Carolina is 17-3, with no draws. They're the nation's highest scoring team, putting 3.0 balls in the net every time out (a stat helped along by an early-season, 10-1 thrashing of the hapless Spiders of Richmond). The Chanticleers also have the nation's leading scorer in the heretofore unheralded Ashton Bennett, a Jamaican who has netted 21 goals.

But the quality of Coastal Carolina's opposition in the Big South is suspect. They squeaked past Elon earlier this season, and their regular season losses came to UNC-Charlotte and Appalachian State. They also dropped a preseason exhibition game to UNC (but evidently before Bennett was cleared to play, pending visa issues). And last weekend, they crashed out in the semifinals of the Big South tournament, losing to that renowned soccer power, Liberty University (who are, in fact, in this year's NCAA tourney, as is UNC-Charlotte).

Still, if Coastal Carolina survives their opening game versus Elon, Sunday's contest in Chapel Hill will feature the first and third most prolific attacks in the nation. There will be goals.

If Coastal Carolina has Bennett, UNC plays a formidable array of talent in a 4-3-3. It's an attacking formation, but their defense, the nation's 11th best, keys a deadly counterattack. Sunday's game against Boston College was a case in point: Despite strong spells of possession in midfield for the Eagles, UNC's defense was strong and their counterattacking was explosive.

According to Boston College's veteran coach Ed Kelly (his former protegees include Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies), UNC's strength is in the middle, starting with the midfield trio of senior Kirk Urso and, especially, junior Enzo Martinez and freshman Mikey Lopez.

"They're very good in the midfield. They don't do a tremendous amount of coming up with the fullbacks. Two guys stay home in the center, they're very good in the air and [Martinez] really slows things down and creates a rhythm for them. And Billy [Schuler], when he's healthy, he becomes the problem. When you have those two guys [Schuler and Martinez] playing for you, Billy does a tremendous job of connecting. And Lopez is excellent. Exceptional player. He's a freshman? He's got a future, he's very good with the ball. Him and Enzo, they complement each other really well—and Kirk does a very workmanlike job in there, a big strong kid—but those two [Martinez and Lopez] are special."

If the midfielders stay home, UNC has plenty of quality in their forwards. Junior striker Schuler is a strong, effective target man (14 goals), and speedy sophomore winger Rob Lovejoy is a constant menace down the right flank, although he's an erratic crosser. On the left, Ben Speas, a junior transfer from mighty Akron, plays like an attack-minded central midfielder, roaming at will in search of space and the ball.

The first goal was illustrative of UNC's attack: Lovejoy drove the ball down the right before slipping it to Speas, who had come across the field and entered the box. Speas drove the ball to the right byline and lifted a cross to the far post to the head of Carlos McCrary, who was playing in place of the ailing Schuler. McCrary, a big boy himself, hammer-headed it downward into the goal.

(The highlights are on this page, by the way, but rather maddeningly, there's no direct linking or embedding. Gotta protect that important copyright, one reckons.)

That was in the 38th minute, just six minutes after McCrary came on for an ineffective Martin Murphy (both players were filling in at the number 9 spot for Schuler, who is being played sparingly as he recovers from a thigh strain). Just five minutes later, UNC were gifted a goal when Speas sent a 40-yard free kick into the six-yard box. Boston College's keeper Justin Luthy went into the air, flapped at the wind and the ball sailed through and into the goal. There was considerable contact from Lovejoy and perhaps Martinez on the play; the outraged Eagles appealed for a foul but didn't get it. (They may have been hard done by, but Luthy's play was shaky in the two games I saw this weekend—on Friday night, his fumble of a routine corner led to a goal for Duke.)

In the second half, Boston College switched from the 4-2-3-1 that they'd begun the game with in favor of a 4-4-2. In the sense, it worked: They outshot the Heels 7-3 in the period. But the only goal came in the 62nd minute from a dead-ball kick from standout midfielder Kyle Bekker—and a beauty it was. (See the photo—I caught it from the stands with a little palm-sized camera.) Bekker's shot cleared the wall and slammed into the far post, bouncing back into the net. No chance for UNC keeper Scott Goodwin.

Kyle Bekker (far left) pulled a goal back for Boston College with this free kick. The ball can be seen just to the right of UNC goalkeeper Scott Goodwins head.
  • David Fellerath
  • Kyle Bekker (far left) pulled a goal back for Boston College with this free kick. The ball can be seen just to the right of UNC goalkeeper Scott Goodwin's head.

Unfortunately for the jubilant Eagles, the 2-1 deficit lasted only three minutes. UNC coach Carlos Somoano decided to break the emergency glass box holding Billy Schuler, sending in the junior along with Speas, who had been resting for a few minutes. Less than a minute later, Schuler was rampaging down the right. He crossed to Speas running to the far post. 3-1.

Boston College mustered a few more chances, but UNC's Goodwin smothered them. Otherwise, the BC midfield, increasingly worn down by UNC's muscular defense, started spraying routine passes out of bounds.

The 3-1 scoreline was a bit harsh for Boston College, which is ranked 13th in the NSCAA national coaches poll, and seventh according to the NCAA's RPI index. Not bad, but it's a measure of the ACC's dominance in soccer that Boston College finished the ACC regular season in a tie for sixth place with Clemson. (The ACC is a nine-team league in men's soccer: Miami, Florida State and Georgia Tech don't participate.)

Carlos Somoano, Ben Speas and Enzo Martinez after the victory over Boston College
  • David Fellerath
  • Carlos Somoano, Ben Speas and Enzo Martinez after the victory over Boston College

UNC's coach, Carlos Somoano, is in his first year as head coach. He's in his early 40s, quiet, self-effacing and perhaps still a little uncomfortable in the presence of a half-dozen reporters. Perhaps his caution is the result of the reaction to uncharitable comments he made about this Davidson player's world-class strike that defeated the Tar Heels on Oct. 17. (Note to UNC athletic department and ESPNU: See how much more fun and useful it is to make highlights freely available on YouTube?)

Last spring, Somoano stepped to the helm of the Tar Heels after being an assistant to longtime head coach Elmar Bolowich since 2002. Last winter, Bolowich made the surprising decision to walk away from his powerful program to take the coaching job at Creighton University. But the decision turned out to be entirely understandable: Despite the fact that UNC soccer has been far more successful than the football team, and more or less the equal of the basketball and baseball teams, men's soccer is always going to be overshadowed in Chapel Hill, by those sports and also the women's soccer team. (Creighton is ranked second in the nation in the coaches poll, and first on the RPI index.)

In UNC's press guide, Somoano is credited with recruiting UNC's top stars of the last decade, including Zach Loyd, Dax McCarty and Jamie Watson, and he deserves credit for pulling in the players on the current team (including Speas, who transferred over the summer after failing to find sufficient happiness in Akron).

It's an impressive array of talent at Somoano's disposal, with speed and strength taking precedence over finesse. But it's a combination that's been very difficult to beat.

A couple of final notes:

1. UNC is one of six ACC teams in the field. The Tar Heels have their 12-team bracket to themselves, but Boston College (4-seed), Maryland (5) and Virginia (unseeded) are in a bracket of death together, while Duke and Wake Forest are unseeded entrants in the other two brackets. So, an all-ACC Final Four in Hoover, Ala., is a possibility.

2. The Mid-Atlantic states really dominate college soccer. Twelve of the 48 teams are from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The 12 teams are: UNC, Elon, Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion, Liberty, Virginia, Wake Forest, James Madison, Furman, Charlotte, South Carolina and Duke.


UNC plays the winner of Elon and Coastal Carolina at 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill.

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Before we dismiss UNC's Sunday opener as a walkover in the works, let's note that potential opponent Coastal Carolina is the nation's highest scoring team with the nation's leading scorer. On the other hand, the opponent could be Elon.

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