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Friday, December 9, 2011
COLLEGE: Final-four rundown

By Scott French

The NCAA College Cup kicks off Friday afternoon in Hoover, Ala., with No. 2 Creighton taking on surprise semifinalist Creighton in the 3 p.m. PST opener. No. 4 UCLA meets No. 3 North Carolina in the second game, at 5:30 p.m.

The title game is Sunday at 1 p.m. All three games will be shown live on ESPNU.

Here's a quick rundown on the final four:

The Bruins lost in the quarterfinals the past two years, but a shift to a pure possession attack -- with style as or more important than results -- has taken UCLA to a different level. Junior forward Chandler Hoffman gets to finish a spectacular campaign, in which he's netted 18 goals to head a dynamic attack, at home: He's from Birmingham.

Pacific 12 MVP Kelyn Rowe adds attacking dimensions off the bench and Englishman Andy Rose provides a midfield foundation around which the Bruins revolve. And they might be at their strongest at the back, where goalkeeper Brian Rowe has posted eight straight shutouts -- keeping his sheet clean for 747 minutes, 40 seconds.

The Tar Heels reached the title game three years ago and lost in the semifinals the past two years, and now first-year coach Carlos Samoano -- promoted when Elmar Bolowich moved to Creighton -- looks to take them to a second title 11 years after the first. They bring in a nine-game winning streak, with six of the victories, including the last two, by shutout.

North Carolina has the nation's third-ranked attack, averaging 2.49 goals per game behind junior forward Billy Schuler (15 goals, 5 assists) and a dynamic supporting cast led by midfielders Kirk Urso and Enzo Martinez. Schuler and Martinez are Hermann Trophy semifinalists.

Bolowich transformed the Blue Jays' defensive approach and arrives at the College Cup with the nation's No. 1 defense, one that has conceded only five goals (0.21 per 90 minutes), 65 shots on goal (2.79) and 165 shots (7.08) in 23 games. Creighton, ranked and seeded second, has had two shutout streaks that reached eight games behind veteran goalkeeper Brian Holt and defenders Andrew Duran and Tyler Polak.

Ethan Finlay, a Hermann Trophy semifinalist, leads the attack with 14 goals and six assists, and contributions are made by midfielders Jose Gomez (Santa Ana/Century HS and Cal State Fullerton) and Dion Acoff (Upland/Damien HS).

The 49ers might seem a stunner, especially having to go through defending champion Akron and third-seeded UConn to get to the College Cup, but they were ranked as high as eighth before flaming out in the Atlantic-10 tournament. Freshman Giuseppe Gentile is the key man up front, with 10 goals -- including the strike to beat Akron and a late equalizer in the penalty-kicks win over Connecticut -- and Charles Rodriguez, last year's A-10 Defender of the Year, anchors things at the back.

Coach Jeremy Gunn, an Englishman who played at Cal State Bakersfield, has restored Charlotte to glory after winning an NCAA Division II title (and reaching three finals) at Fort Lewis, taking the 49ers in the playoffs for just the second time since 1997.