Plenty of storylines for final
HOOVER, Ala. -- Sunday's College Cup final couldn't be surrounded by any more clichés.
With No. 1 North Carolina (20-2-2) and unseeded Charlotte (16-4-4), you've got David versus Goliath. There is that big brother-little brother feel. The underdog is heading into the lion's den.
And most cliché of all: Charlotte is playing the part of Cinderella.
It's not hard to see why Charlotte has that label. After losing to Xavier in the opening round of the Atlantic 10 tournament, the 49ers have worn the glass slipper well. Charlotte beat 11th-seeded UAB, third-seeded UConn and second-seeded Creighton heading into Sunday's final.
It sounds like the 49ers are setting up for a fairy tale finish, but don't dare mention it to Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn -- or any of his players.
"I know all of you people have to write about something, you have to come up with a story. You need to get a bit more imagination because people have used Cinderella lots of times before," Gunn said shortly following his team's defeat of Creighton 4-1 on penalty kicks after tying 0-all in regulation Friday.
"This isn't a Cinderella team. We've been playing great soccer for a number of years, and have grown and matured. There are tons of other teams that could be sitting here right now that are every bit as good as this group, but we've got a resolve and we've got a determination.
"You talk about Cinderella; we scored more goals than anyone in this tournament, right now."
Added defender Isaac Cowles, whose PK sent the 49ers to Sunday's final: "We're not as good looking as Cinderella."
Maybe not, but the 49ers looked pretty good from the second half on against Creighton. A team that was playing on its heels in the first half charged ahead after adding a second striker up top, putting tons of pressure on Creighton's defense before dumping mounds of it on Bluejays keeper Bryan Holt.
The Tar Heels looked pretty good, too. They were bigger, faster and more fundamentally sound, and powered in two goals before their double-overtime, penalty-kick thriller against UCLA. No wonder the Heels, who are in the College Cup for a fourth straight year and are playing for a second national title since winning it all in 2001, are No. 1.
UNC fired off 22 shots in the semifinals and came back from one-goal deficits twice, including a Billy Schuler equalizer in the 84th minute that sent the game into overtime at 2-all.
UNC is loaded with postseason experience, including forward Ben Speas, who transferred from last year's national champ, Akron. Naturally, the 49ers are back in the underdog role.
"Yeah, we feel a bit disrespected, but it's another reason we want to go out and prove everybody wrong," defender Charles Rodriguez said. "You guys can call us Cinderella. We'll accept it; we'll use it as fuel to go out there and do what we do."
Charlotte might not shake its tag, but its next opponent isn't taking the 49ers lightly. UNC played a rain-shortened preseason exhibition with Charlotte, so the Heels know how tough this team can be. They saw the fight and grit in that 2-1 match and expect to see a tougher Charlotte team Sunday inside Regions Park.
"There's no underrating there," Speas said. "They're here for a reason. They're a great team.
"I remember them being tough and tough to break through."
It will no doubt be tough for both teams to break through Sunday. UNC has its tactical advantages, but Charlotte's resiliency has it still kicking.
The 49ers are still underdogs, but at this point, they don't care.
"To be honest, there's nothing we really haven't seen over the season," Cowles said. "We've been up to Virginia and Maryland, and we've played the best. Really, there's nothing new that we're going to see on Sunday, so we really can do what we've been doing all season long.
"As long as we step on the field, we're a contender to win."
Edward Aschoff covers college sports for ESPN.com.