Everything you need to know about UNC men’s soccer (and some things you probably didn’t)

It’s really hard to be good at sports in Chapel Hill without anyone noticing. With a sports-crazed student body and membership in one of the nation’s best all-around athletic conferences, UNC-Chapel Hill is the sort of place where the women’s soccer coach is a national celebrity and 1,300 free Americans once attended a field hockey match without anyone threatening to kill them if they didn’t.

Yet somehow, the North Carolina men’s soccer program exists in obscurity. The Carolina Blues have gone to the College Cup- soccer’s Final Four- in three consecutive years, and have missed just one NCAA Tournament since 1999. But when the winningest coach in program history resigned after 22 years to go be the head coach at Creighton (CREIGHTON!), the reaction on campus ranged from “Who?” to “ …oh.” After all, Elmar Bolowich announced his resignation just hours before the first Carolina-Duke basketball game.

Unlike the University’s higher-profile non-revenues, the men’s soccer team does not have a history of dominance (women’s soccer), nor a string of ESPN appearances in the dead of summer (baseball) nor a cultish bro following (men’s lacrosse) to prop it up. But while the No. 3 Tar Heels won’t get the same attention as some of its Olympic sports peers when it opens its season Saturday at home against UNC-Wilmington, they could very well be the best of the bunch.

Here’s why:

Unfinished business

The 2010 Tar Heels used a superb midfield to control possession and grind out nine one-goal victories en route to a 14-2-1 record and the school’s first ACC regular-season title. But even heart-stopping 1-0 wins at Duke and Virginia couldn’t compare to UNC’s unprecedented white-knuckle thrill ride through the NCAA Tournament. The fourth-seeded Tar Heels became the first team in NCAA history to reach the College Cup without actually winning a game, prevailing on penalty kicks three weeks in a row at Chapel Hill’s Fetzer Field. In fact, UNC was nine seconds from being eliminated by Michigan State in the Round of 16 before Enzo Martinez’s miracle equalizer, captured here by midfielder Alex Walters’ mother (note the “THERE’S my baby” at 0:55):

But after a season spent scraping together winners the way one might scavenge for change under a living-room couch, the Tar Heels were impaled upon their own sword in the National Semifinal when Louisville’s Aaron Horton broke a 1-1 tie with 51 seconds left in regulation. The goal sent the Tar Heels home empty-handed for the third straight year.

The Carlos Somoano Era

After three years of banging at the doorstep of a national championship, Bolowich decided to pack his bags for a different doorstep in Omaha that didn’t have a football team or a way more accomplished women’s soccer program he had to share a doorstep with (pardon the metaphor- not my finest).

After a two-month delay, the athletic department gave the full-time job to interim head coach Carlos Somoano (some-WAH-no), who had served as an assistant at UNC for nine years. While Somoano is obviously familiar with the program and played a huge role in assembling the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, it will be interesting to see if he can make the transition from popular assistant to head coach in his first season at the helm of a college program.

Regardless, Somoano earned my fandom when rumors started leaking out that he would be abandoning Bolowich’s efficient yet snooze-inducing 4-4-2 diamond for a more attacking style of play. These rumors seem to be confirmed by UNC’s two exhibition victories, in which UNC played a 4-3-3, moving a midfielder to a forward position and encouraging the two outside backs to push up in support of the midfield. Given the team’s personnel (more on that in a moment), I absolutely cannot wait to watch this team play soccer, especially against a crappy team it can score a lot of goals against (hello, Oregon State!).

Something old, something new

The Tar Heels lost six players to the MLS from last season, but they might be even better this year due to a highly regarded freshman class, two key transfers and the return of forward Billy Schuler, who missed 2010 with a shoulder injury after leading the team in scoring and earning all-conference honors in 2009. Indeed, the Tar Heels have once again been picked first in the ACC’s preseason poll.

Last year’s departures will be most missed in the midfield, where the Tar Heels will have to make do without their best player, electric center attacking midfielder Michael Farfan, and holding midfielder Stephen McCarthy, a 6-foot-4 beanstalk who was vital to UNC’s ability to win the ball in midfield and hold it for long periods of time. That Somoano seems to have abandoned the diamond speaks in part to the fact that while younger players are capable of filling the other spots, there is no obvious replacement for McCarthy.

Still, the Tar Heel midfield will return senior captain Kirk Urso and the aforementioned junior, Enzo Martinez. A second-team All-ACC selection a year ago, Urso is a sturdy distributor who plays on the outside and is known for his ability to kick a soccer ball really, really hard. You know how sometimes when you’re playing FIFA and a loose ball falls to you in space outside the box and you just reflexively hold the shoot button and fire away? Kirk Urso is like that in real life EVERY SINGLE TIME. It’s awesome. He’s also a dead-ball wizard, having scored twice on short corners from 175-degree angles and once on a golden-goal free kick last season. If you are the type of person who believes in the ideal of the student-athlete, you will be pleased to know Urso was the 2010 ACC Academic Scholar-Athlete of the Year for men’s soccer.

In addition to being the team’s leading scorer last year, Enzo Martinez is also my favorite athlete of all time. He is extremely quick on the ball with excellent control and splits his non-possession time between making sharp runs in the box and slamming into players twice his size in pursuit of loose balls he has no business winning. Off the field, he is easily the nicest athlete I’ve covered and UNC’s best quote this side of Anson Dorrance. As an example, he told a Daily Tar Heel reporter earlier this week that “In practice, we’re trying to combine our brains. That way, we all know what the other person will do before they receive the ball.”

In his private life, Enzo is that rare combination of South American machismo and hopeless romantic, evidenced by this most excellent YouTube video. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, he doesn’t track back enough, he’s too small, blah blah blah.” Whatever. Somoano will be thrilled to have Martinez causing problems either opposite Urso on the wings or between Urso and redshirt junior Jordan Gafa in a center midfielder role.

The midfield could be even more ballerific if redshirt senior Cameron Brown ever makes it back to the pitch from a knee injury that kept him out all last season. Even if he doesn’t, expect the feisty Brown to start between three and five shouting matches with opposing players and/or referees.

The transfer market

For whatever reason, the NCAA has deemed men’s soccer one of the sports where a player can transfer schools and play for his new team without sitting out a season. Arguably the three best players on UNC’s College Cup team a year ago took advantage of the policy. This year, the Tar Heels have again done well on the transfer market, losing reserve midfielder Bruno Castro to Creighton and picking junior forward Ben Speas from Akron and All-America senior center back Matt Hedges from Butler.

Speas had trouble cracking the starting lineup for the National Champions a year ago, but I don’t really think you can hold it against him when you consider he played for a team so loaded it placed five players in the first 10 picks of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by the aforementioned speed demon Billy Schuler and sophomore Rob Lovejoy, who scored three goals off the bench as a freshman and, in my humble opinion, probably should have started. If nothing else, his decision to stop going by “Robbie” seems to suggest he’s ready to get serious about this soccer business.

Defense wins championships

As dominant as Anibaba was in the middle of the defense last season, Hedges is expected to be as good or better playing alongside redshirt senior Drew McKinney, who’s no slouch himself. The lone starter remaining from last year’s defense, McKinney has started every game for North Carolina each of the past two seasons and helped UNC finish 2010 with a 0.68 goals against average, good for 10th in the nation. Freshman Jordan McCrary, who enrolled early and played with the team during the spring season, will claim one of the outside back spots. Freshman Boyd Okwuonu or redshirt freshman Glen Long will likely claim the other. While this year’s outside backs are said to be skilled on the ball and confident going forward, there remains the possibility they could be victims of a strong counter-attack due to their unfamiliarity with the system and their propensity to push forward. For me, how the back line plays together will be the biggest indicator of whether the team is capable of contending for a national title.

Fortunately for the defense, it will be backed by one of the nation’s better young keepers in junior Scott Goodwin, the hero of North Carolina’s three penalty-kick wins in the NCAA Tournament.

Rolling deep

As the Tar Heels begin conference play in the best league in the country, they’ll be fortunate to have a deep bench to carry them through a grueling schedule that includes six games against ranked opponents, including one against Louisville. Underclassmen who contributed a year ago like Josh Rice, Martin Murphy and Carlos McCrary should continue to make their presence felt, especially as the season goes on, as will freshmen Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler and David Walden.

Congratulations, you just read 1,650 words about UNC men’s soccer!

You’re pretty much an expert now. Go forth and spread the good word.

*Thanks to Goal.com’s J.R. Eskilson and UNC athletic department spokesman extraordinaire Dave Schmidt for their assistance with this story.

Aaron Taube is an associate reporter at MLB.com after two years on the Daily Tar Heel sports desk. He misses his alma mater dearly and can be found on Twitter at @aptaube.

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5 Responses to Everything you need to know about UNC men’s soccer (and some things you probably didn’t)

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  1. Shane says:

    Great preview, and that goal was unbelievable. I can’t believe I didn’t hear about it at all last year. Proves your point, I suppose.

  2. TarHeelAlex says:

    As someone who wasn’t a big soccer person prior to arrival UNC soccer has enabled me to gain a far greater appreciation for the game. Part of that was due to the dominance of the women’s team, but the heroics of the men’s team helped. Otherwise why else was I one of about 50 people at Fetzer to watch a mid week, freezing cold night match with lowly Wofford?

    In any case, thanks for the great preview-you made my work easier. I was going to go compile my own info in advance of Saturday’s game with UNCW (I like to know things before I go), but you have provided everything I need to know right here. So, I certainly appreciate that.

    Two other notes: When Bolowich peaced out on us, I remember I had risen early to move my car and was walking back at like 7 AM through campus. I stopped to pick up the DTH and saw the headline. My reaction, unlike those you sampled was more like, “Our coach is leaving for FUCKING CREIGHTON!!??? After almost winning every year?”. Secondly, I two have noticed that complete disregard the campus has for men’s soccer. Although I feel really sorry fo rthem when I look up at the champions area in the corner of Fetzer and they have a lone championship as compared to not only women;s soccer but also men’s lacrosse.

    In any case, Go Heels! Women vs Notre Dame & Men vs. Wilmington.

    1. Shane says:

      I will be at the women’s game tomorrow night. Looking forward to that. Hope for some revenge against ND.

      1. TarHeelAlex says:

  3. William says:

    I’ve played soccer my entire life, so I went to a lot of soccer games while I was at UNC.

    But even if you aren’t really a fan of soccer, I think getting drunk and heckling opposing teams at Fetzer Field is an experience every UNC student should have.

    BTW…that shot in the video was sick.

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