Syracuse men’s soccer outlasts North Carolina in nailbiter 1-0 win

SU men's soccer top UNC in nailbiter

Levonte Johnson scored the Orange's lone goal in the 85th minute to eliminate the Tar Heels.
Published: November 7, 2022
MSOC ACC quarterfinals
Syracuse's Levonte Johnson (14) celebrates the first and only goal of the night against North Carolina on Sunday night in the ACC Quarterfinal.

Sometimes all it takes is one moment to turn the tide of a match, and for Syracuse, that moment came in the 85th minute. After running out to catch a North Carolina corner kick, Syracuse goalkeeper Russell Shealy found forward Levonte Johnson as he launched the ball to the other side of the pitch.

Johnson put his marker in a spin cycle and sprinted towards the box, drawing UNC goalkeeper Marco Saborio-Perez out of his zone. It was a bad decision. As soon as Saborio-Perez got close enough, Johnson sent the ball between his outstretched legs into the back of the net, giving Syracuse the lead that would advance the team into the ACC semifinals.

“That was postseason, dramatic, ACC action. North Carolina’s well coached, they caused us a lot of problems tonight, but I could not be more proud of this team,” said Syracuse Head Coach Ian McIntyre.

Coming into the match, North Carolina was fresh off of a 1-0 victory against Boston College in the opening round of the playoffs. Although the Tar Heels finished the regular season with a 7-4-5 record, which put them near the bottom of the ACC Coastal Division standings, the playoff win clearly gave them some momentum. They held their own against Syracuse as the first half started, and it was UNC midfielder Ernest Bawa who produced the match’s first shot on goal in the 10th minute of play.

The Orange soon took the ball the other way, creating a chance of their own after midfielder Giona Leibold intercepted an errant North Carolina pass. Leibold took a shot from just outside of the box that sailed above the crossbar, but Syracuse found themselves with another chance to capitalize off of a North Carolina mistake soon after.

MSOC ACC quarterfinals

MSOC ACC quarterfinals

Off of a corner kick, SU's (2) Christian Curti goes up for a header against North Carolina at SU Soccer Stadium on Sunday.

The rain was falling on and off throughout the night, and it finally claimed its first victim in the 17th minute of the match. Tar Heel midfielder Yaya Bakayoko hit the deck while running with the ball, allowing Syracuse forward Nathan Opoku to swoop in and steal it from him. It seemed like a good opportunity for the Orange, but unfortunately, it ended after Opoku couldn’t connect a pass to his teammates.

In the 25th minute, it was Syracuse that made what could have been a costly mistake. North Carolina defender Riley Thomas sent a long ball to teammate Cameron Fisher, but Syracuse defender Buster Sjoberg was there to recover the ball. Sjoberg’s pass to get the ball out of harm’s way, however, fell right to Bakayoko who crossed it into the Syracuse box. The ball wasn’t accurate enough to produce a shot on goal for the Tar Heels, but it was a very close call for the Orange.

Nine minutes later, the Orange countered with a deep ball of their own. Midfielder Curt Calov booted the ball towards UNC’s half of the pitch, hoping to find teammate Levonte Johnson. A footrace began between Johnson and his marker, with Johnson soon gaining the upper hand. As the ball rolled closer to the UNC box, goalkeeper Saborio-Perez sprinted out to clear the ball before Johnson could get to it, ending the Syracuse chance.

As the first half entered the final minute of play, North Carolina found themselves in a good position to get on the board. The Tar Heels’ attack slowly crept forwards to the Syracuse box, but the play began to speed up once UNC forward Key White maneuvered past defender Abdi Salim with the ball. White sent a pass to Cameron Fisher, who might have put it in the back of the net if not for the timely intervention of Syracuse midfielder Amferny Sinclair. The whistle soon sounded, signaling the end of the first half between two teams that looked equally matched from start to finish.

“I thought Sinclair was man of the match. He covered ground, broke things up, and made things complicated for them.” said Coach McIntyre.

As the second half got underway, both teams tried to get their offenses clicking, but to no avail. Things started heating up in the 57th minute, after North Carolina forward Daniel Kutsch found himself with the ball near Syracuse’s box, with only Abdi Salim to beat. But Salim would not let Kutsch get the better of him. The senior defender cleared the ball away for a UNC corner kick. The corner was headed by Kutsch towards Russell Shealy’s net, but it took a deflection off of a Tar Heel, resulting in a goal kick.

MSOC ACC quarterfinals
Syracuse's Lorenzo Boselli (11) battles North Carolina's (17) Cameron Fisher for a ball thrown in during their quarterfinal match.

In the 79th minute, the rain caught some more unsuspecting victims. North Carolina’s Riley Thomas was dribbling with the ball near his goal line, but suddenly hit the deck and sent the ball flying behind him for a Syracuse corner. Up to this point, the Orange had mostly been spared from moments like this, but their immunity came to an abrupt end. The corner was sent into the UNC box, slowly bouncing towards Nathan Opoku who winded up to send it into the net. His hopes were abruptly dashed as he too came falling to the ground, putting an end to a promising Syracuse opportunity.

The next minute, North Carolina quickly took advantage of an inaccurate ball from Syracuse midfielder Camden Holbrook, whose pass was intercepted by UNC’s Sebastian Schacht just before the middle of the pitch. The only man in the vicinity for Syracuse was defender Buster Sjoberg. A timely stop was necessary, and Sjoberg delivered. As soon as Schacht crossed midfield, Sjoberg made a diving tackle to give the ball back to his team and end the UNC chance.

“Buster grinded it out tonight… so did Abdi. They were warriors when we needed them to be.” Said Coach McIntyre.

In the 84th minute, the Orange finally gained the upper hand over the Tar Heels. Syracuse had just given up a corner after Shealy made a diving save on a shot from North Carolina’s Cameron Fisher. The corner was gobbled up by Shealy, who quickly punted it downfield to Levonte Johnson for the first and only goal of the match. The Syracuse crowd, which had been waiting nearly an hour and a half for this moment, erupted in thunderous cheers.

The Tar Heels had a chance to even up the score in the 88th minute but were stopped by a clutch block from Abdi Salim. The match came to an end two minutes later, with the Orange on top once again.

This game was the first playoff game for Syracuse, who will be facing Virginia next week in the ACC semifinals. The Orange lost to Virginia in the regular season, and they will look to prevent that from happening again as the two sides meet each other for the last time this year.

Coach McIntyre had one last thing to say as he wrapped up the press conference at the end of the match: “Spread the word that it is fun to come to our stadium and watch our guys play.”

The team hopes to see an even bigger crowd for this semifinal game, which will take place at 5 P.M. on November 9th at the SU Soccer Stadium.

MSOC ACC quarterfinals
Syracuse's Levonte Johnson (14) slides as he taps the ball past the UNC goalkeeper for the game-winning goal on Sunday night.