College Cup: UNC, Charlotte meet to decide nat'l champion

The game is yet to be played, but the NCAA title will be heading to North Carolina no matter what.

Which program that ends up bringing home the honors – UNC Charlotte or North Carolina – will be determined on Sunday (4 pm ET, ESPNU) as two schools separated by just 148 miles square off in Hoover, Ala., to wrap up the college soccer season.

Entering as the No. 1 seed in the tournament, the Tar Heels are the overwhelming favorites to hoist their first national title since 2001 when the sides square off at Regions Park. But as Charlotte have shown during their unexpected tournament run, they simply can’t be counted out.

The 49ers advanced to the final using a familiar formula – tight, rigid defending, while capitalizing on opposition mistakes and taking advantage of their prowess from the penalty spot. Still, shutting down North Carolina, which boasts one of the nation’s best attacks, is going to be a mighty task. The two sides already met earlier this year in August, a rain-shortened exhibition match that the Tar Heels won 2-1.

Simply getting this far is an impressive feat for Charlotte. But the pressure is going to be on the Tar Heels, who are the clear favorites with a No. 1 seed and the chance to finally take home a national title in their fourth-straight trip to the College Cup.

However, having reached their first final since 2008, North Carolina also have a wealth of experience to call on as they seek to erase past failures and claim the program’s second-ever national title.

Key Matchups

North Carolina offense vs. Charlotte defense

The 49ers have advanced this far because of their defensive prowess, conceding one goal in the last three games, but weren’t able to show much push the other way against the Bluejays on Friday night. The longer they can keep the vaunted UNC attack off the board (57 goals so far this season), the better it will be for Charlotte. How long they can keep the likes of Enzo Martinez, Ben Speas, Robbie Lovejoy and Kirk Urso at bay remains to be seen.

F Robbie Lovejoy (UNC) vs. D Charles Rodriguez (Charlotte)

The obvious matchups are going to be pivotal between North Carolina’s attack and Charlotte’s defense. But Lovejoy, UNC’s speedy sophomore, gave UCLA fits on Friday night with his ability get in behind the defense, and even got on the score sheet. If Lovejoy can trouble the experienced Rodriguez along Carolina's right flank, it’ll make the Tar Heels even more difficult to stop.

D Matt Hedges (UNC) vs. F Giuseppe Gentile (Charlotte)

The nation’s best defender takes on Charlotte’s leading scorer, and Hedges clearly has the edge here. Gentile struggled to get anything going against Creighton in the semifinal, and he’ll have his hands full trying to find the gaps against the solid and steady Hedges. The tall central defender is likely to present problems on set pieces for Charlotte's back line as well.

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.