At this point in the college soccer season, to see North Carolina anywhere else but at the College Cup would be highly unusual.
The Tar Heels are making the trip to the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year, and are looking to make this trip count after three prior unsuccessful tries.
“This year we’ve had a strong season – winning the ACC regular season, the ACC championship,” midfielder Kirk Urso told MLSsoccer.com. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have done really well and I think this year we’re going in and go after this thing, we’re going to attack it and I feel very confident.”
The past three trips to College Cups have all ended in disappointment for UNC. In 2008, they made it to the final, only to lose to ACC rivals Maryland 1-0 in the final, with Graham Zusi scoring the winner.
In 2009, they ran into Akron, who defeated the Tar Heels on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw in regulation. And last year, Louisville sent UNC home 2-1 in the semifinals.
This year looks like it could be the one for North Carolina. Despite a coaching change back in February – former coach Elmar Bolowich took the same job with Creighton, and assistant coach Carlos Somoano was promoted to head coach – UNC has once again been a dominant force with a team full of talented and experienced players.
One of the reasons for the success has been the new coach’s fervent attention to even the smallest, seemingly minute aspects of preparing for matches.
“Carlos is very focused on the details and on the preparation and on the little things that make big differences,” Urso said. “And I think that’s been a big different this year.”
An extremely lethal attack has also helped in that, as UNC has piled up 55 goals on the year, an average of 2.49 per game, good for third-best in the country. Junior forward Billy Schuler, who missed most of 2010 with a shoulder injury, has scored 14 goals to lead the way, with others like Urso, Ben Speas, Enzo Martinez and Robbie Lovejoy consistently joining in on the attack.
“We’ve had great attacking players every year I’ve been here," Urso said, "but I think it’s a better understanding of our roles, the spacing, and the timing, the little things that are producing goals."
But as of right now, what they’ve achieved this year – and the past shortcomings – are gone, and the team is focused on one thing: their opponents in Friday's semifinal (8:30 pm ET, ESPNU, ESPN3.com)
“Our mindset is UCLA, UCLA, UCLA,” Somoano told MLSsoccer.com over the phone.
Added Urso: “I don’t think we need to think about what [needs to be] different about winning the College Cup, we need to think about how are we preparing and what do we need to do to beat UCLA on Friday.”
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.