Sometimes a victory takes playing even more than the usual 90 minutes. Sometimes it even takes more than one overtime period. For the North Carolina Tar Heels this postseason, victories have taken just a bit more than that.
[media-credit name=”Photo Courtesy of UNC Athletics” align=”alignleft” width=”196″][/media-credit]All three games that UNC has played on the road to the 2010 College Cup have been decided by penalty kick shootouts. North Carolina has outscored its opponents 14-10 beyond regulation and overtime, taking and defending against more penalty shots than any other team in the tournament.
“It was a surprise [to finish three games that way],” Head Coach Elmar Bolowich said. “But penalty kicks have become our comfort zone this year.”
This is the third consecutive season that the Tar Heels will play in the tournament semifinals. It will also be the third year in a row that North Carolina faces a top seed in the same stage of the tournament. Last year’s semifinal game against top-ranked Akron came down to penalty kicks, but UNC was outscored 5-4.
Contrary to its tournament games thus far, North Carolina was able to finish the majority of its league games this season without the use of overtime, and has played in just two games that have been overtime decisions: the first a 2-1 win against Wofford as well as a 1-1 double overtime tie against Boston College. Of its 13 league victories, 10 have been decided by one goal. The close margins of victory provide UNC with the important experience of being forced to perform under pressure, a trait it has used to its advantage during this year’s numerous penalty-kick shootouts.
Also included in the 13 league wins are eight shutout victories, proof that the Tar Heels’ stifling defensive presence has been a major part of the team’s success. A 2-1 defeat suffered against Old Dominion early in the season was the only loss for North Carolina in ACC play.
“It was a sloppy game; we didn’t compete well,” Bolowich said. “It was a wakeup call.”
Still, the Tar Heels entered the ACC tournament on a five-game win streak. Its dominant defensive play was showcased in a 4-0 shutout against NC State and a 1-0 victory over Boston College.
“Any team has good offense,” Bolowich said. “Our big strength all season has been defense.”
The Tar Heels were upset by Maryland 1-0 in the ACC championship game, but managed enough quality wins to earn the fourth-seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Records are meaningless at this point,” Bolowich said. “The playing field is level now.”
All of North Carolina’s College Cup tournament games have been played at Fetzer Field on the campus of UNC. Friday’s match against Louisville will be its first away from home. Traveling to Santa Barbara will be a homecoming of sorts for sophomore defender Jordan Gafa, senior midfielder Michael Farfan and senior defender Jalil Anibaba, all of whom hail from California.
“It’s a neutral site,” Anibaba said. “It’s about adapting as quick as we can and being ready to perform.”
UNC will need to continue its strong performance on the defensive end of the field against the top-seeded Cardinals, which has scored more goals during regulation through its first three games than any other team in this year’s tournament. With a backfield led by Anibaba and sophomore goalkeeper Scott Goodwin, UNC will look to contain the Louisville offense en route to the College Cup championship, no matter how long it takes.
“It helps to know that we’re fit enough and can go 110 minutes,” Farfan said. “We know that we can win in penalty kicks if the game ends in a tie.”