Photo courtesy of US Presswire
Turns out the fourth time is the charm for North Carolina.
In their fourth straight College Cup appearance, the Tar Heels finally won the national title thanks to a 65th-minute wonder goal off the foot of Ben Speas, holding off a late flurry from UNC Charlotte to win 1-0.
Speas’ tally came in the face of tremendous Charlotte pressure in the second half. Racing in from the right wing, he danced past several 49ers defenders and unleashed a shot that looped over ‘keeper Klay Davis, tucking just under the crossbar.
The Tar Heels managed to hold on to that lead, weathering a ferocious push by the 49ers in the game’s final five minutes to hang on and raise their first national championship trophy since 2001.
Despite their underdog status, Charlotte began the game on the front foot, applying good offensive pressure and winning a couple of corner kicks that came to naught. North Carolina looked surprised by the high-pressure approach adopted by the 49ers, and took the first 20 minutes of the game to settle.
The Tar Heels went close to taking the lead in the 32nd minute, though, as Enzo Martinez found space from 20 yards out and fired a low, driven shot wide of Davis’ far post.
Still, chances in the first half were limited for both sides, with neither team registering a shot on frame. But the Tar Heels finally settled into the game and looked the more dangerous side, with defender Matt Hedges heading over from a corner kick in the 38th minute, and Mikey Lopez stabbing wide on the counterattack three minutes before the half.
After the break, Charlotte were the first side to threaten, breaking through the left flank through Donnie Smith on a handful of occasions. T.J. Bealieu had a clean look at goal but couldn’t get a shot off to test North Carolina goalkeeper Scott Goodwin.
The 49ers continued to dominate, and in the 55th minute, forward Giuseppe Gentile curled a left-footed shot just wide of Goodwin’s far post. Then, a Goodwin blunder almost gave Charlotte another chance to score in the 59th minute, as the goalkeeper dropped a free kick that Charles Rodriguez headed just wide.
Carolina, weathering the pressure, nearly struck against the run of play in the 63rd minute. Speas made a darting run from the left-hand side and curled a cross that found the head of a diving Robbie Lovejoy, who just missed the side netting.
After Speas delivered in 65th minute, Charlotte put their foot on the pedal to try and find the equalizer. They came close on a couple of occasions, the first coming in the 84th minute when defender Jordan Gafa cleared a goal-bound header off the line.
With three minutes to go, the 49ers pushed forward one last time, but somehow came away empty-handed.
Gentile started the sequence with a low, blistering shot that Goodwin kept out. The rebound wasn’t cleared, and the ball was sent back in from the right wing, allowing Bealieu to rise at the back post and head it off the crossbar.
Smith shot the ensuing bouncing ball wide, and Charlotte couldn’t find the equalizer despite outshooting North Carolina 19-10, giving the Tar Heels the championship they’ve been chasing for four years.
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.