North Carolina joined five other ACC schools in the 48-team field for the NCAA men’s soccer tournament, which was announced Monday.
However, Duke and N.C. State will stay home again. The Blue Devils missed the tournament for the second consecutive year, while N.C. State has not received a bid since 2009.
The Tar Heels (8-5-5), who at one juncture of the season were ranked No. 1 before tumbling in the national polls, got an at-large bid and will host American Athletic Conference champion South Florida at 7 p.m. Thursday at Fetzer Field. The winner will play at 12th-seeded UC Irvine at 5 p.m Sunday.
“I’m excited we’re getting to host a game,” UNC coach Carlos Somoano said Monday. “We’re playing a team we don’t usually see on a regular basis. That should be exciting. They’re a a great opponent.
“They were on TV the other night in their tournament final. We’ll get to watch that.”
Somoano said his Tar Heels would be healthy entering the tournament. Forward Josh Rice and defenders Jonathan Campbell and Colton Storm had missed games at the end of the regular season with injuries.
“We expect they’ll all be available Thursday,” Somoano said. “That’s two of our starting back four, so that’s pretty significant.”
Five other ACC teams also made the field. Notre Dame (3), Maryland (5), Virginia (8) and Wake Forest (14) earned seeds and will get first-round byes. They won’t play until Sunday’s second round. Clemson (11-7-2) will play at 7 p.m. Thursday at Elon (15-4-2), with the winner having to face No. 1 seed UCLA (11-3-4) on the road Sunday.
The only other in-state team that got a bid was No. 13 seed Charlotte (12-5-3), which awaits the winner between East Tennessee State (10-5-4) and Coastal Carolina (17-4).
With six entries, the ACC had more teams in the field than any other conference. The Big East and Big Ten each got five. The Pac-12 was top-heavy in the seeds however, with Washington (2) and California (4) also among the top four with UCLA. The league’s fourth representative was unseeded Stanford.
N.C. State and Duke were left on the bubble.
“We were probably one of the last two or three teams out (of the field),” N.C. State coach Kelly Findley said. “We could look back as a program this year and look at games where we were winning and ended up not getting the result we wanted. We were up against Wake Forest, Virginia, Maryland, Notre Dame and Duke, and only came out of that with three ties. That’s not enough to put you in the tournament. I think we were one win away.”
Findley could be right, considering Clemson got in with an RPI of 37, while N.C. State’s was 38 and Duke’s 42. Duke also owned a win over Clemson, while N.C. State beat UNC. Both results came in the regular-season finales.
Twenty-five at-large teams make the 48-team field, and at least three teams – Indiana, South Florida and Drexel – probably would not have done so without winning their conference tournaments. Indiana (8-11-2), the reigning NCAA champion, has the worst record in the field but received an automatic bid by winning the Big Ten tournament.
“I won’t say they don’t deserve it, but that’s why you have tournaments,” Findley said. “It’s just hard when you’re in our situation, when you think you’re one of the best 48 teams in the country but don’t get in.
“In the end, that’s the lesson for our team this year. Every game matters, not just the last one.”
All first-round games will be played Thursday, and all second-round action will take place Sunday. The third round is scheduled for Dec. 1, with the quarterfinals Dec. 6 or 7. The first four rounds are all at campus sites.
The College Cup is scheduled for Dec. 13-15 at PPL Park in Philadelphia.