Moment of magic wins it for UNC
HOOVER, Ala. -- Ben Speas' first instinct was to pass.
With several Charlotte defenders blocking his path toward the goal, North Carolina's veteran forward wanted to send the ball through for a teammate to have a better crack at the goal.
Fortunately for No. 1 UNC, Speas didn't have enough time. Speas, Friday night's penalty-kick hero against UCLA, tried to shoot right, but a Charlotte defender cut him off. Swiftly, he cut left toward the top of the goal box, ripping a shot with his left foot from 25 yards out that curled over Charlotte keeper Klay Davis' gloves.
Once the ball hit the back of the net in the 65th minute, Speas was mobbed. Twenty-five minutes later, his goal stood as the game-winner, as UNC (21-2-3) captured its second national title in men's soccer with a 1-0 win over Charlotte (16-5-4).
"Someone is going to score the goals. It doesn't matter who it is," said Speas, who earned Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the College Cup. "We're a team and we won. That's all that matters."
Deep down, it did mean more to Speas. A year ago, he was a reserve for national champion Akron, but he never felt a part of that win.
Shortly after, Speas left for a fresh start. UNC was his first -- and only -- choice and while he was nervous about the reception he'd receive when he arrived, he couldn't have found a better landing spot.
Speas' goal also made things right for a group of snake-bitten seniors. This was UNC's four consecutive trip to the College Cup. Three times before the Heels came up short.
Senior midfielder Kirk Urso had been through the pains of losing so close to glory, but he entered the season expecting different results. He felt this team truly was championship material because of how the talent and chemistry meshed.
Four months later, Urso's feeling proved correct.
"This year's been unbelievable," Urso said. "I don't think it could have gone any better.
"To cap it off with this is going to be something I'll remember for the rest of my life. Even if we hadn't won we would have known we built something special."
Sunday's championship didn't come without a street fight. Staring down the top-ranked Tar Heels was underdog Charlotte.
Feeling disrespected and counted out, the unseeded 49ers raced out of the gates with the endurance of marathon runners. They were more aggressive, worked harder and got UNC completely out of its rhythm.
The refs seemed to have thrown away their whistles, as hard foul after hard foul brought boos, but no calls.
UNC's finesse was countered by Charlotte's relentless effort, which was fueled by a raucous student section bussed in by Charlotte's chancellor. The 49ers had the home-field advantage and all of the momentum and was done in only by Speas' moment of brilliance in the 65th minute.
"We literally didn't have the legs to play the game that we wanted," UNC coach Carlos Somoano said. "It's the first game all year that we weren't able to dominate the ball in a game."
There was even a sequence late in the game in which Charlotte ripped off five shots in 40 seconds but none bested UNC keeper Scott Goodwin. One managed to slip by him, but Jordan Gafa headed it off the goal line.
For the last five minutes, you could sense a Charlotte goal coming, but it never did.
"Chapel Hill was arguably -- and certainly -- the best team in the country throughout the year and got the No. 1 seed, but, maybe, today when you watch the game, Charlotte were the better team on the evening, but they just managed to find a way to win," Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn said.
UNC might have claimed the title, but Charlotte claimed newfound respect.
Even while UNC bathed in confetti, Charlotte's fans were still screaming. Chants of "We are Charlotte," and "For-ty nine-ers" drowned out UNC cheers.
The 49ers applauded their fans before heading to the stands.
"You don't get tired when people are screaming for you like that," Charlotte defender Isaac Cowles said. "You can run all day.
"They were loud all the way through. I couldn't even hear a Carolina fan. All I heard was Charlotte."
But as Cowles put it later, Charlotte needed more time. The 49ers played their best game of the year, but UNC's one magical moment was the difference.
It was especially gratifying for Somoano, who became the second coach in NCAA history to win a national championship in his first season. It seemed a monumental task, taking over a No. 1 team in his first year as head coach and maintaining that level of excellence through the entire season -- but his team met the challenge.
His players praised Somoano's coaching and instincts, but Somoano thanked his players. He took his credit and put it on them. His journey to Hoover, Ala., began with them believing and ended with them finishing.
"The fact that we won the national championship is extremely rewarding," Somoano said. "But more so than anything is my experience working for these guys and them working for me and working as a team for each other. That's what makes me feel great inside."
Edward Aschoff covers college sports for ESPN.com.