The regular season is over for Louisville men's soccer, and it didn't end anywhere near the way they had hoped it might. After a disappointing 0-0 draw with SIU Edwardsville early in the week (story, highlights), the Cards finished their ACC slate with a 1-0 overtime loss at Wake Forest on Friday (story, highlights).
Taking a look at the Wake highlights, it's almost shocking that Louisville couldn't find a goal somewhere. They had plenty of quality chances in both halves, and should have scored at least once or twice from all of that opportunity. Still, the inability to find a goal as of late is certainly somewhat troubling heading into tournament play, where the next game is not guaranteed.
Ready or not, the ACC Tournament is upon us, and the Cards are the sixth seed after the Wake Forest loss took away their shot at the second seed and an Atlantic Division title. Third-seeded North Carolina will host Louisville this Sunday in Chapel Hill at 1 p.m. in a quarterfinal match. Notre Dame and Syracuse claimed the top two seeds in the tournament. You can check out the full bracket right here.
North Carolina will present a significant challenge for Louisville, and the fact that they're just the third seed in this tournament speaks volumes about the depth of the ACC in soccer. Depending on who you ask, the Tar Heels are ranked as high as sixth in the country and are a top-20 team in the RPI. They're also Louisville's foil as far as recent form after posting a 7-0-0 record and outscoring opponents 24-4 in the month of October. The torrid October helped them solidify a goals per game average of 2.38, which is tied for third-best in the country and best in the ACC.
At midseason, North Carolina had four players ranked in Top Drawer Soccer's list of the top 100 players in college soccer (found here). With the trip to Chapel Hill being the next match on the docket for the Cards, let's take a look at those four and how they lead a Tar Heel squad with top talent all over the field.
Forwards Andy Craven (24th on TDS' Top 100) and Tyler Engel (33) are the two top point earners for the Heels on the season so far. Both seniors, they bring a wealth of experience between them, though Craven transferred to UNC after his sophomore season at College of Charleston. Craven leads the team and the ACC with 11 goals, which is also the fourth-highest total in the nation. Engel's four goals and five assists have led to his second place finish on the team in points. Together, they'll be a formidable test for Louisville's defense.
Sophomore Omar Holness (45th on TDS' Top 100) leads the North Carolina midfield, and while he's only posted a modest five points (1 G, 3 ASTs) on the season, he's still a legitimate threat in the middle of the park. He led the Heels in shots as a freshman last season and was named to Soccer America and ACC All-Freshman teams. A native of Jamaica, he's appeared as either a captain or vice captain for the Jamaican U-17s and U-20s.
Finally, center back Boyd Okwuonu (47th on TDS' Top 100) is yet another senior on this team that's loaded with upperclassmen. Okwuonu has started all 16 games for North Carolina this season and (unsurprisingly) has played the most minutes among field players (1423). Last season, he was the ACC's defender of the year and was named a second-team All-American by Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News.
In short, North Carolina is very good and very balanced. Playing them at home, where their only loss this season came to current #1 UCLA, doesn't help Louisville's chances, either. But for all of the Cards' well-documented struggles to score goals and get results this season, they've performed well against some of the nation's top teams. They beat Syracuse and Maryland and pushed Notre Dame to two overtimes in South Bend. While this postseason certainly appears to be an uphill battle, it's not impossible to see how Louisville could be successful.
As is true in most road games, there will need to be an emphasis on disciplined defending and sharpness on set pieces (among other things) in order for the Cards to have success at North Carolina. For Louisville, this could play to a strength of theirs, as Tim Kubel has proven his ability to both strike for goals on set pieces and provide good service into the penalty area. Senior center back Daniel Keller has played in plenty of tournament games, and should be able to set the tone for the back four. Behind them will likely be another senior in goalkeeper Joachim Ball.
The start of postseason tournaments comes with a change in perspective, almost like an entirely new season. Maybe that will be a good thing for the attacking group on this Louisville team, who need a reboot in the midst of their longest goal outage of the year. If the likes of Ricardo Velazco, Andrew Brody and Will Vitalis can find a way to get back on track, they possess the talent to spark a serious postseason run.
While it'd be wrong to call Louisville favorites by any stretch in this match, they're far from long-shot underdogs. They've shown the ability to be competitive with anyone, and now it's just going to be a matter of battling to find a way to get over the hump. The ACC Tournament shifts to a neutral site in Cary, N.C. after the quarterfinals, which should be a more comfortable atmosphere for the Cards should they reach it.
Ken Lolla and his staff will have an entire week to get the team ready for the big road trip. There's work to be done, but it isn't insurmountable. We'll reconvene here next Monday, hopefully to talk about who Louisville will be preparing for in an ACC semifinal.