College Cup Commentary: UNC in rare territory with title

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics

With Sunday’s 1-0 victory over UNC Charlotte in the national title game, North Carolina accomplished a rare feat in college soccer: a treble.

While it’s not the conventional three trophies the term usually embodies, the Tar Heels captured the ACC regular-season title, ACC tournament title and, thanks to the 1-0 win on Sunday, the national title. The accomplishment is magnified by how challenging it can be to string together consistent success in the ACC.

It’s a title that is well deserved, but one that also required a unique mix of skill and good fortune in Hoover, Ala., against in-state rivals Charlotte. The 49ers took the game to the Tar Heels from the opening whistle, pressuring UNC all over the field and looking the more dangerous side for long stretches of the championship game.

A couple calls went against the 49ers as well, with referee Michael Kennedy swallowing his whistle on multiple occasions when it looked like the Tar Heels had committed a foul inside their own penalty area. Not to mention the last five minutes of the game when Charlotte threw everything forward, only to be denied by a game-changing save by UNC goalkeeper Scott Goodwin as well as the crossbar.

Ultimately, though, it was the wonder-strike off the foot of Ben Speas, whose long, slaloming run through the Charlotte defense culminated with a beautiful, dipping shot from distance, that stood up as the winner.

It was a goal that deserved to win the national title, and it also ended four years of frustration for the Tar Heels, one of the nation’s top programs.

Top three stars of the College Cup

1. F Ben Speas, North Carolina

The experience of winning a national title in 2010 as a reserve member of the Akron Zips – Speas played 12 minutes in last year’s title game – carried over well throughout the College Cup weekend.

Speas was the architect on UNC’s first goal and converted the clinching PK in last Friday’s triumph over UCLA before scoring the goal of the tournament in the second half on Sunday.

2. D Matt Hedges, North Carolina

With plenty of potential MLS draft prospects on display, few players helped themselves more in Hoover than Hedges. The 6-foot-4 defender hardly put a foot wrong, and appears ready to help an MLS back line next year.

3. M/D Donnie Smith, UNC Charlotte

A backup/bench player for most of this year, Smith’s quality off the bench gave both Creighton and North Carolina fits. He was extremely unlucky not to win a penalty in the second half when Tar Heels midfielder Kirk Urso pulled him down during one of his barnstorming runs down the left flank.

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