Danny Garcia
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FETZER FIELD/ CHAPEL HILL—With alternate traffic patterns already dissecting the streets of the UNC campus in advance of Saturday’s football home opener against Elon University, 2,945 lively, powder blue partisans enjoyed an athletic amuse-bouche compliments of Chef Coach Carlos Somoano and his North Carolina men’s soccer team. And in a contest often evocative of a gridiron grapple, the top-ranked Tar Heels ground out a 1-0 victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers.

After opening their season last Saturday with an offensive onslaught against outmatched Gardner-Webb, the Tar Heels faced a tenacious, unbeaten West Virginia side, which came in ranked nationally somewhere between 9th, 24th and “Also Receiving Votes,” depending on your poll of preference. [Indeed, Carolina sits well atop virtually every poll except Soccer America’s, where they are inexplicably sixth.]

Besides another Tar Heel win, the chief common denominator between this weekend and last is the stellar early play of freshman midfielder Danny Garcia. After contributing two assists as a substitute in his first college game against Gardner-Webb, Somoano rewarded Garcia with his first college start against the Mountaineers, a plaudit Garcia learned two days ago and readied for since using everything from increased training to better diet to ice baths.

The Texas native obliged his coach’s confidence in the 58th minute with a pinpoint cross off the outer regions of the left wing that looped over the head of 6’2” defender Francio Henry and onto the lithe left foot of redshirt senior Martin Murphy, who slotted a one-touched volley past Mountaineer goalkeeper Pat Eavenson for the game’s only score.

“I looked to my left and I had two defenders in between me, and I really didn’t think Danny was going to feed me because it was such a tight gap,” Murphy recalled. “I just picked my head up, and I saw that he saw me. He chipped the ball in and I made a run in front of the defender. It was an absolutely perfect ball from Danny, and I slotted it home.”

Any other scoring chances were scarce. The Tar Heels’ first shot came in the 39th minute when senior Cameron Brown blasted a seemingly sure score that Henry blocked. In the second half, a loose ball that got behind Carolina keeper Scott Goodwin nearly netted West Virginia an equalizer before it was cleared from the box by defender Boyd Okwuonu.

Notwithstanding Garcia’s bit of brilliance, the game was dominated by chippy, physical play, particularly from the burly Mountaineers. Blessed with a stout, sizable back line, West Virginia had only allowed one goal over their previous two wins, and against the Tar Heels they surrendered only five shots (two on target). However, the visitors also committed more fouls (15) than the number of shots (10) and corner kicks (three) taken by both teams combined.

It was an approach Carolina was ready for.

“Coach Carlos warned us about them being a physical team, fouling, so we were prepared for it,” said Garcia.

“I think this was a mental challenge for us,” added Somoano. “For us to play a very good West Virginia team and have to battle for a game is a different kind of learning experience that we needed. We needed to be tested like that…we needed to grind out a victory.”

For Murphy, the game-winner was another step ahead in the Scotland native and CASL product’s continued conversion from midfielder to striker, one cog in a formational revamp Somoano made from last year.

“We changed our system from what we did last year because we have different players,” Somoano explains. “We tried during preseason to replicate what we were doing last year just as a starting point, but it just wasn’t coming along. We weren’t moving forward as quickly as I like. I kinda felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. So we changed it up a little bit and put two forwards up top. We moved Martin up there and that brings him up to the forward role because he’s quite good when you play with two forwards. If you play with three, [including] two wingers, then he’s not in sync.”

However, the night belonged to Garcia. Like Okwuonu, the 5’5” freshman is a product of the FC Dallas Academy (making both of them potential future Homegrown signees for the parent MLS club), and he has been a member of the U.S. U-18 and U-20 national setups.

“Before he came in we knew he was a big time talent,” said Murphy. “He played with the U.S. national team, and he’s a really good player.”

Somoano was more precise in his praise.

“He just provides a different calm to the game than the other guys right now,” explained the Carolina gaffer. “We have a lot of ambitious guys who are excitable…their eyes get big. He’s different; he takes a deep breath when he gets the ball and he calms down and makes an aggressive play but it’s composed. So, he brings a nice measure of composure and it stands out so much.”

The win over West Virginia was the opening match in something called the Carolina Nike Classic. Part two is this Sunday at 7 p.m., when the Tar Heels return to Fetzer to host Boston University, which lost 3-1 at Wake Forest Friday evening.