HOOVER, A.L. - Despite clearly outplaying what had previously been considered the best team in the country, the Charlotte 49ers were edged by the North Carolina Tar Heels, 1-0 in the NCAA National Championship on Sunday night. The Niners, who were representing the Charlotte men's soccer program in its first national championship game in school history, conclude their outstanding season with a 16-5-4 record.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more in the game," head coach Jeremy Gunn said. "We kept an incredible attacking team quiet. We kept getting great chances. The simple fact in the game is they scored a fantastic goal to win the game and we did everything but. We are so proud of the players, everybody that watched the game could see what we put into it. On another day, it may have been a different outcome. Out timing has been incredible all season long. We've managed to make things go our way. Today, it just wasn't meant to be."
North Carolina's Ben Speas scored the match's only goal in the 65th minute of action to lift the Heels to victory. His unassisted tally was a beauty, coming off a left footed shot that curled in under the crossbar from 25 yards out.
Both before and after the goal, it was the Niners who controlled the match from both halves of the field.
"[UNC] got the #1 seed, but we wen't scared of them," senior Charles Rodriguez said. "We haven't really been scared of a team this entire season. I guess it was important for us to really take the throttle and go at them as much as we could. We fed off each other's energy, but unfortunately the result didn't go our way."
In the final six and a half minutes of play, the 49er offense put unbelievable pressure on the Tar Heels, firing a flurry of nine straight shots, including five within 40 seconds. In the 84th minute, Charlotte's Thomas Allen nearly scored when he headed a ball from Tyler Gibson on net, but North Carolina's defense made an outstanding team save right on the goal line.
Less than three minutes later, the real flurry began. Down a goal and playing with absolute desperation and determination, the Niners fired off five straight shots in the 87th minute. Isaac Caughran had a shot blocked, and 12 seconds later, Giuseppe Gentile had an excellent try saved by the UNC keeper Scott Goodwin. Immediately after that, T.J. Beaulieu's shot went off the bottom half of the cross bar and nearly cleared the goal line. Donnie Smith and Beaulieu had two more chances, one wide and one high, before the ball was finally cleared away.
"We had them on the ropes the entire last ten minutes," senior T.J. Beaulieu said. "We had a lot of good chances. Thomas Allen had a header off a corner kick that got cleared off the line. I had a header that hit the crossbar. We were all over them. I don't know how many shots we got, but it was just a bit unlucky."
In the 88th minute, defender Anthony Perez had a solid attempt blocked by the Tar Heel defense, and in the 89th, Isaac Cowles headed a ball that went just wide of the goal mouth. With 41 seconds remaining in regulation, Aidan Kirkbride made the final shot attempt of the match, but it was blocked away.
In the first half, most notably in the first 20 minutes of play, the 49ers came out looking impeccable and literally had the Tar Heels playing back on their heels. Charlotte had the first four shots of the game and the first three corner kicks. Gentile had three straight attempts to open the match, including two that were blocked nicely by Carolina defenders.
Midway through the fist half, junior Donnie Smith was brought down in the box as he was trying to score. Despite an outcry from players and fans, the referees signaled to play on, certainly the most controversial of the match.
The Tar Heels looked better as the game wore on, but Charlotte was still clearly the overall aggressor. The Niners nearly doubled up the Tar Heels in shots for the match, boasting a 19-10 advantage, including a 14-3 lead in second half shots. Gentile led all scoring attempts with six shots, while Kirkbride and Beaulieu each had three apiece and Charles Rodriguez had two. Charlotte also led 6-2 in corners.
In goal, sophomore Klay Davis did not make a save, as his back line played great defense to keep the pressure off him. On the opposite end of the field, Goodwin made two stops and the Carolina defense added a third with a team save.
Charlotte played in front of a crowd of 8,777 fans, including an overwhelming majority of 49ers supporters who made the trek down for the championship. Charlotte sent six buses full of students down to Hoover, and Niner Nation provided an incredible home-like atmosphere for the players, cheering incessantly and drowning out all other noise, even after the game had ended.
"It was phenomenal," senior defender Cowles said of the fan support. "As anybody who was out here watching, you could probably hear it on TV. They were loud all the way through. I couldn't even hear a Carolina fan. All I heard was Charlotte. I just want to say a big thanks. The fans were there for us and I loved it. It was amazing."
Rodriguez, Cowles, Gentile and Donnie Smith were all named to the All Tournament team, and Cowles was also honored as the Defensive MVP of the Tournament.
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