The Syracuse Orange men’s soccer team have been on an absolute run this season. They’re 13-2-3 (5-1-2 ACC) and have had their best regular season since 2014 and matched their best win total since 2016 already. I’ve been remiss in my duties and not giving them the coverage they deserve, with arguably the most complete team I’ve ever seen them trot out on the pitch, at least since those years, maybe beyond.
Playing against the North Carolina Tar Heels, in the postseason, is a situation that the team has found themselves in before. It rarely has ended well. Last season, the Tar Heels ended the Orange campaign in the ACC Tournament in a double overtime 1-0 affair. In 2019, the Orange traveled to Chapel Hill to eek out a 0-0 draw and advance in the ACC Tourney on penalties. 2016 was the infamous NCAA Tournament snow game at OCC, in which Syracuse outplayed the visitors and lost 1-0 on one of the slipperiest surfaces imaginable. They were forced there because the SU Soccer stadium pitch was utterly destroyed in their first round game against Dartmouth. Even back to 2015, the year of the College Cup run, the Orange had to advance in the ACC Tournament on penalties in North Carolina. The overall series heading into yesterday was 1-4-4 for the Orange. They had revenge on the mind.
Through the first half, Syracuse held serve. They showed themselves as the better team, but weren’t able to really enforce themselves in the final third like they have throughout the season. Forward Nathan Opoku looked as dangerous as he normally does with solid hold up play and some nice one on one work. Amferny Sinclair and Jeorgio Kocevski were trying to find a rhythm and control the midfield, but nothing was particularly stable or working. Some set pieces looked like they had potential, but overall it was a half of back and forth, only resulting in three shots for the Orange and a single for UNC.
Keeper Russell Shealy was up to the task in the second half, needing to be a bit more active as the Tarheels came out of the locker room pushing ahead and controlling the ball well. He finished with four saves on the night. The Tar Heels were repeatedly pressing the right side of the Syracuse defense, trying to take advantage of the space behind Giona Leibold and then Camden Holbrook as they pushed forward and find Christian Curti on an island. Judging by the clean sheet (and the look test), the Curti, Buster Sjoberg, Abdi Salim back line was up to the task on the day.
The breakthrough goal came on a run out from a Russel Shealy gather off a corner kick. Shealy attempted a long clearance, trying to hit Levante Johnson streaking up the middle of the pitch. The ball deflected off a UNC defender Til Zinnhardt and caught Johnson in stride, a challenge came in from Thomas Riley, but a nice half turn and he was on his way one-on-one with Marco Saborio-Perez, the UNC keeper, who he handily kept his composure and nutmegged Saborio-Perez for the game winner.
The win for Coach Ian McIntyre’s squad allows them to continue the revenge tour against the Virginia Cavaliers. UVA is the only team to beat the Orange this year in the ACC. The 1-0 loss was marred with ten total cautions, including a second yellow to Jeorgio Kocevski in the 22nd minute, which left the Orange battling a man down through more than three quarters of the game. Syracuse was still able to get forward, but without the extra man and being forced to sit lower and hold the midfield, playing on the counter. The defense and Shealy held the entire match until a 85th minute breakthrough from UVA forward Leo Afonso.
Virginia is about as storied a soccer program as they come, though the Orange never faced them prior to joining the ACC. Over the years, they’ve been home to some of the best players to come through college soccer, including Claudio Reyna, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Ben Olsen, Tony Meola, Kyle Martino, and Daryl Dike. Bruce Arena also got his coaching career started there. Fun fact: Prior to that he was a lacrosse assistant at Cornell. They also have won seven College Cups, including most recently in 2014, coincidentally one of the years that the Orange actually beat them. The overall series is 2-5-1 to the ‘Hoos.
Syracuse will host Virginia at 5pm on Wednesday, November 9 at the SU Soccer Stadium. As this is an ACC Tournament Semifinal, there is admission being charged. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and youth. Students get in free. If you want to watch along, the game will be broadcast on ACC Network.