Three years removed from its last ACC and NCAA championships, North Carolina may be ready to make more title runs in men’s soccer.
The Tar Heels (12-4-1, 5-2-1), seeded third in the ACC tournament and ranked ninth in the latest coaches poll, host sixth-seeded Louisville (8-6-3, 4-3-1) in the quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Sunday at Fetzer Field.
UNC is riding an eight-game unbeaten streak that is the nation’s longest. Fourth-year coach Carlos Somoano likes where the Tar Heels are entering the tournament.
“I think we have a lot of good qualities,” he said. “We have everything in front of us. Everything is possible for us. We’ve just got to make sure we’re prepared for each game now and give a good performance.”
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The Tar Heels combine the sixth highest-scoring offense in the country (2.29 goals per game) with a sturdy defense that has yielded 15 goals. It’s a senior-laden team that takes its direction from a front line of Andy Craven, Rob Lovejoy and Tyler Engel and a back line anchored by 2013 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Boyd Okwuonu.
The Tar Heels have won the ACC tournament three times and also own an ACC co-championship before the tournament was instituted in 1987. Their second NCAA title came in 2011, Somoano’s first year as head coach.
“That’s the funny part about winning championships,” Somoano said. “So much has to do with hunger and determination. You never know that until those moments, whether you have that grit. We certainly have some firepower; which can be defined as individual ability. But a big part will be drive and discipline. That’s really what will determine giving us the best chance.”
The Tar Heels don’t lack for firepower. Craven, with an ACC-leading 11 goals to go with three assists, leads the conference in scoring. Lovejoy is third in the ACC with eight assists and Engel is tied for sixth in the league with 15 points.
UNC has the defense to bring home a championship also. Senior goalkeeper Brendan Moore had not allowed a goal in 659 minutes and 27 seconds over eight games before Virginia got a late tally a week ago Saturday in their 1-1 tie.
The Tar Heels don’t have an easy route beginning with Louisville, who they did not play in the regular season because of the ACC’s new unbalanced schedule.
“We got the third seed in the ACC, and we’re playing Louisville, a national contender,” Somoano said. The Cardinals, coached by former Duke star Ken Lolla, spent five weeks in the top 10 of the national polls before a late-season decline.
Louisville probably underlines best how thin the margin for error can be in the ACC. Had the Cardinals beaten Wake Forest last Saturday, they would have been the No. 2 seed. After losing in sudden-death overtime, they fell to the sixth seed.
“You’re not going to play any teams that don’t have quality now,” Somoano said.
Duke (9-8-1, 4-4-0) at Syracuse (14-2-1, 5-2-1): The Blue Devils have reeled off a four-game winning streak since coach John Kerr decided to go with mostly veterans in his lineup. Seven seniors are starting and another gets long minutes off the bench.
The key senior, however, is midfielder Sean Davis, who had two assists in Wednesday’s 3-2 double-overtime victory against N.C. State in the first round of the ACC tournament.
“Another superlative game from him,” Kerr said.
Davis is especially dangerous taking free kicks on restarts, and he’s tied for the ACC assists lead (10) with Wake Forest’s Michael Gamble. He’s also a steadying influence on the field for the Blue Devils as a holding midfielder.
“He calms things down for us out there,” Kerr said. “His teammates look for him to get the ball up the field.”
For the second tournament game in a row, Duke will face a team it did not see in the regular season. The Orange received its first No. 1 ranking in this week’s coaches poll and has been a tough defensive assignment. Junior goalkeeper Alex Bono leads the nation with 11 shutouts and has allowed only seven goals.