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Midway through the second half, Syracuse remained in a 2-0 hole and needed to generate offense. A winger managed to break in behind the North Carolina defense, one of Syracuse’s few changes of the match. But instead of crossing the ball into the box and creating a scoring chance, she turned toward the sideline and allowed the UNC defenders to close her down.
The chance was lost, and in the empty stadium, a cry rang out from a Syracuse defender: “Just get a corner, just one, please.”
On a cold, rainy night at SU soccer stadium, Syracuse (0-4, 0-4 Atlantic Coast) tested the top-ranked UNC (5-0, 5-0) net only one time as the Orange fell to the Tar Heels 2-0, allowing 16 shots on goal. For much of the game, Syracuse was forced to defend as No. 1 North Carolina continued to attack Lysianne Proulx’s net. The senior goalkeeper broke her single-game saves record with 14. But the offense didn’t find nearly as much success, as the Tar Heels continued to snuff out any looks on goal.
“North Carolina is the number one team in the nation — we knew we weren’t going to have tons of opportunities,” head coach Nicky Adams said. “But I do feel like the few opportunities we had, we should’ve pulled the trigger.”
The offense struggled from the first minute, as much of the game was played in their own half. For the first 12 minutes of the game, only Hannah Pilley had a touch in the opposition half. It wasn’t until the Orange won a free kick — off a throw-in — that Syracuse was able to string a few passes together.
For this game, Adams used a 5-3-2 lineup instead of the typical 4-2-3-1 formation she relied on for the first three games of the season. The switch was for defensive purposes to contain the Tar Heels attack, Adams said. In doing so, the Orange conceded space on the wings to defend the middle of the field.
“We gave them the space on the wings,” junior defender Jenna Tivnan said. “We essentially would rather them attack down our sides than at the goal.”
In doing so, Syracuse was able to sit deep and defend against wave after wave of UNC attacks. While the Orange were able to prevent goals scored off crosses, they were unable to keep the Tar Heels scoreless. In both of their goals, the Tar Heels chose to move the ball inside instead of going down the wings, like Syracuse wanted.
Rachel Jones drove down the wing but instead cut inside, and her shot from the corner of the box floated over the outstretched arms of Proulx and hit the post. But before SU could react, Talia Dellaperuta slotted the rebound into the net. For a while, it looked like Syracuse would head to the locker room down by just a goal to the top-ranked team in the country. Then, a cut back from the winger and a pass across the top of the box found its way to the feet of Libby Moore, and she shimmied right and fired a low-driven shot that snuck into the near post.
While the defensive structure may have prevented goals off crosses, it also hurt Syracuse’s offensive ability. Whether it was Pilley, Meghan Root, Kate Hostage or Olivia Erlbeck up top, they were all left isolated. The shift to a 5-3-2 left the team’s offensive shape narrower than usual and resulted in many long balls played up top for the strikers. But the height of UNC’s defenders often rendered those initial long balls useless.
“They got some really tall players in the middle of the park that were able to win balls, so we wanted to focus on those second and third balls, cleaning them up and trying to play,” Adams said. “Carolina’s defense is smoldering. They are a pressure team, and they pressure all over the field.”
Every time a Syracuse midfielder played a through ball to the strikers, they would be outmuscled and outpaced by the Tar Heels backline. Likewise, on the rare instance that the Orange would win second or third balls, the attacker would immediately be swarmed by at least two North Carolina defenders to force a turnover.
The Orange could have pushed their wingbacks higher upfield to provide the width that the offense needed. Assistant coach Brandon DeNoyer shouted at right wingback Telly Vunipola to join the attack up the field instead of walking in line with her defense. But Vunipola, along with the rest of Syracuse’s wingbacks, were unable to go up and down the field to join the attack and assist with the defense. Most of the time, the wingbacks were pinned as UNC overloaded the wings to create mismatches and two-on-ones.
For most of the night, Syracuse tried to follow their game plan by sitting deep and hitting UNC on the counter. But just like every other game this season, the Orange were unable to take their chances and score what would be their first goal of the season.
“It’s not like we haven’t had opportunities,” Adams said. “We can go back from the very beginning, we had opportunities against Pitt, Louisville, Notre Dame. But if we’re not putting them in the back of the net, nothing we can do about it.”
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