HOOVER, ALABAMA – A moment of brilliance provided a national championship for the North Carolina Tar Heels here Sunday.
UNC gave coach Carlos Somoano a national title in his rookie season with a heart-stopping 1-0 win over in-state rivals Charlotte. Some desperate defending by the Tar Heels in the closing minutes, and a dismal decision by match referee Michael Kennedy also played parts in the result.
Ben Speas scored a beautiful winner for the Tar Heels in the 65th minute, lobbing Charlotte keeper Klay Davis after some excellent work with the ball on the edge of the penalty area. The goal came about 15 minutes after Charlotte had a valid penalty claim denied by match referee Michael Kennedy, the non-call coming on a weaving run into the box by Charlotte’s Donnie Smith.
Charlotte also had a number of chances to pull even in the closing minutes, forcing frantic saves and defending from the Tar Heels, and also hitting a bar and shooting narrowly wide and over.
Charlotte’s Jeremy Gunn was gracious in defeat, crediting Speas for scoring a great goal and the Tar Heels as an outstanding team. He did allow that from his vantage point, the play involving Smith and Urso was a penalty.
Urso, not surprisingly, disagreed, saying he thought the match referee got it right.
Gunn also noted that he wouldn’t blame the loss on the non-call given the other chances Charlotte had to score later in the match.
Gunn praised his team, saying it showed its quality throughout the match, but just couldn’t come up with the goal it needed.
Charlotte had the first good chance of the game in the 10th minute as Evan James picked out Giuseppe Gentile with a good pass. Gentile chested the ball down, sidestepped a defender and fired a shot, but it was blocked at the last moment by North Carolina’s Boyd Okwuonu. The resulting corner came to nothing.
Gentile won a corner for the 49ers in the 17th minute. A scramble from the set piece led to a shot in the area from Charles Rodriguez, but it was blocked at the defense.
The Tar Heels gradually began asserting themselves more and more in the midfield, gaining more possession and creating some half chances from Mikey Lopez and Kirk Urso, but the teams still went to the break at 0-0, with no decided advantage being held.
In the early minutes of the 2nd half, Charlotte had a surefire penalty claim ignored by referee Michael Kennedy. Donni e Smith made a weaving run into the area and beat a couple of Tar Heel defenders before going down when UNC’s Kirk Urso tugged on his left arm, but no penalty award was given.
Charlotte created more chances as the half went on. UNC goalkeeper Scott Goodwin had to save from very close range from a scramble, then Donnie
Smith made a surging run down the left and hit a shot/cross that went just wide of the far post, with the 49ers’ faithful roaring their approval.
Goodwin had a nervous moment with a Tyler Gibson serve in the 6-yard box, but Charles Rodriguez’s header was off target.
UNC created a good chance of its own as Ben Speas made a good run and cross, but Rob Lovejoy’s cross went just wide.
That proved to be a foreshadowing, as Speas produced a moment of individual brilliance, beating a defender near the edge of the area and deftly lobbing the goalkeeper to give the Tar Heels a 1-0 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Charlotte managed to create some good chances in the closing minutes. Thomas Allen had a header from a corner that was headed off the line by UNC’s Jordan Gafa. In a wild flurry with 3 minutes remaining, Goodwin made a fantastic save from close range to deny Giuseppe Gentile, with T.J. Beaulieu then
heading off the crossbar, Smith being denied by Goodwin and Beaulieu just missing with a follow-up effort.
That was enough excitement for 90 minutes and while the Tar Heels walked off the field champions, the 49ers also did themselves proud on college soccer’s biggest stage.
GK: Klay Davis
D: Thomas Allen, Charles Rodriguez, Isaac Cowles, Anthony Perez
M: Owen Darby, Aidan Kirkbride, Robby Thomas, Evan James
F: Giuseppe Gentile, Tyler Gibson
Subs: Donnie Smith, T.J. Beaulieu, Jennings Rex, Isaac Caughran
GK: Scott Goodwin
D: Boyd Okwuonu, Matt Hedges, Jordan McCrary, Drew McKinney
M: Enzo Martinez, Mike Lopez, Kirk Urso
F: Rob Lovejoy, Ben Speas, Billy Schuler
Subs: Carlos McCrary, Jordan Gafa, Josh Rice, Nathan Diehl