The College Cup final will be an all-North Carolina affair.
North Carolina will face UNC Charlotte on Sunday with the national title on the line after both advanced to the final game thanks to penalty-kick triumphs on Friday night.
Unseeded Charlotte advanced thanks to a 4-1 victory on PKs over heavily Creighton in the evening's first game in Hoover, Ala. Charlotte substitute goalkeeper Brian Dawson came in to save Kris Clark's penalty, and star Bluejays forward Ethan Finlay missed his spot kick as the 49ers triumphed.
Neither team’s stout defense yielded an inch after 110 minutes, meaning penalties were necessary following a 0-0 deadlock, setting up Charlotte’s four-for-four performance from the spot.
In a game lacking many clear scoring opportunities, Creighton had a good look in the ninth minute on a free kick from 20 yards out. However, Bluejays midfielder Bruno Castro fired a right-footed shot that was saved rather easily by Charlotte ‘keeper Klay Davis, who timed his dive well.
With possession heavily in their favor, Creighton nearly took the lead in the 22nd minute. Jose Gomez just missed latching on to a long ball in the 49ers box. But Charlotte failed to clear their lines, with Isaac Cowles’ clearance attempt going off his own crossbar. It bounced to Bluejays forward Ethan Finlay, but his shot was wide.
Creighton didn’t stop there, pushing for the opener as the first half went on, and defender Andrew Ribeiro’s header at the back post from a corner kick forced Davis to tip the ball over the ball.
UNC Charlotte began to find their way into the game as the first half wound to a close, although they failed to trouble Brian Holt in goal.
The gritty and defensive affair continued, and in the second half, chances were harder to come by. Finlay hit the crossbar off a corner kick in the 60th minute, but cohesive attacking play was scarce.
With five minutes left in regulation, Charlotte substitute Donnie Smith went on a mazy run down the left wing, bombing into the box. His cross teed up a huge chance for freshman forward Giuseppe Gentile, whose tame shot was easy for Holt to gobble up.
Neither side could break the deadlock in the two 10-minute overtime periods, setting up the penalty-kick finale.
In Friday's second match, North Carolina goalkeeper Scott Goodwin made two saves in the shootout and Ben Speas converted the clinching spot kick as the Tar Heels advanced past UCLA. UNC won 3-1 on penalties after an entertaining 2-2 draw in regulation.
In a matchup of two of the most talented teams in the nation, UCLA struck first in the 17th minute. Enjoying the stronger start, the Bruins took the lead thanks to a 25-yard blast by Ryan Hollingshead.
The goal frazzled the Tar Heels, but the No. 1 seed still narrowly missed an equalizer in the 37th minute. Forward Billy Schuler, who was given acres of space by the Bruins defense, turned past his defender and fired a shot that forced UCLA ‘keeper Brian Rowe to make a diving save and push the ball onto the bar.
North Carolina kept pressing for the tying goal, and Speas took another shot from distance, rattling the upper corner of Rowe’s goal frame just before halftime.
That pressure finally paid off in the 57th minute. Speas beat UCLA defender Joe Sofia down the left flank, and once in the box, sent in a looping cross that Robbie Lovejoy headed past Rowe to tie the game.
But despite the pressure from UNC, UCLA jumped back in front in the 74th minute. Kelyn Rowe played a one-two with Chandler Hoffman at the top of the North Carolina box, then Rowe dinked Hoffman’s return pass over Goodwin.
Just when it looked liked that would be the winner, the Tar Heels had other thoughts. Enzo Martinez drilled a 35-yard shot from distance that Brian Rowe tipped onto his left post. But Schuler was alert, charging in to slam the rebound into an open goal and giving his side the equalizer to set up overtime.
Neither side could break the deadlock in overtime – although North Carolina almost stole it right before the buzzer as Kirk Urso had a goal-bound shot deflected wide by Rowe – and the game was decided on penalties.
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.