The top two seeds take on unexpected challengers in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels, as the top seed, were favorites to make it, but UCLA was the lowest seeded team in its section and a definite underdog to emerge from the Elite Eight.
Yet, the Bruins are not even the biggest surprise of the four teams left. The unseeded Charlotte 49ers hold that honor. The Cinderella story of the 2011 NCAA tournament faces off against Creighton, the two seed, in the other semifinal.
The last four teams standing pretty accurately reflect the season that was in 2011. A season defined by parity, upsets, and two teams which stood above the rest for most of the year.
College Cup preview
UNC (20-2-2) – UCLA (18-4-1), Dec. 9, 8:30 p.m. (ET), ESPNU
The Tar Heels and Bruins last met in 2008. There are five players from that 1-1 draw who will be playing on Friday. One would think familiarity would play a factor in this clash, but from a style of play standpoint, quite a bit has changed for both programs in the last three years.
Former assistant coach Carlos Somoano now leads UNC with a renewed focus on scoring. The Tar Heels scored 55 goals this year, good for second best in the nation, and 12 more than last season.
The main cog of UNC’s success has been the freedom of midfielders Enzo Martinez and Billy Schuler to roam and create in the attacking third. Freshman Mikey Lopez has also been an important piece with his ability to hold down the center of the field with limited support at times.
UCLA, on the other hand, has quietly emerged as a defense first team. Head coach Jorge Salcedo dropped forward Fernando Monge into a holding midfield role about halfway through the season to help senior Andy Rose control the center of the park. Since the tactical shift, the Bruins have won 12 out of the last 13 games.
Salcedo also made another defensive adjustment in the last few games when he sent Kelyn Rowe to the bench. Rowe, the 2011 PAC-12 Player of the Year, is now used as a super-sub, and the move has provided a better balance to the Bruins play.
The boys from Westwood found a system that suits them just fine with eight straight shutouts, tied for best in program history, and a red-hot striker in Chandler Hoffman.
“At the beginning of the season, Chandler [Hoffman] looked at me and said he was going to put this team on his back and get us to College Cup,” Salcedo said after the Bruins victory on Saturday. “He did. He absolutely did.”
“We are going to College Cup as a team, but he really put us on his back and helped us get there,” Salcedo added about his star junior forward.
With 18 goals to his name, Hoffman has more goals in a season than any Bruin since Joe Max-Moore in 1991. The hometown hero will face a difficult task on Friday when he meets the top defender in the country, Matt Hedges.
Hedges’ ridiculous career has gone unnoticed due to spending three years with the relatively obscure Butler program. However, over the course of his four seasons there are very few who have comparable stats to the Indiana native.
The defender has started every game in his career and tallied a winning percentage of .825. He can also claim a four-year goal against average of 0.64, which would rank him in the top 20 in NCAA history if he were a goalkeeper.
It is really hard to find an advantage for either side in this game. UCLA’s balanced midfield should slow down the UNC attack. And Hedges will make Hoffman work for every opportunity.
It will be a tight contest with the slimmest of margin separating the sides.
Prediction: UNC 0-0 UCLA. Tar Heels advance 4-2 in penalty kicks.
Creighton (21-2) – Charlotte (16-4-3), Dec. 9, 6:00 p.m. (ET)
“We still have to work to do,” Creighton forward Ethan Finlay said after the Bluejays quarterfinal victory.
When fully healthy, the Jays have been the best team in the country this season. Now, they are looking to make those words ring true with two more victories.
First up is the Cinderella story of the 2011 NCAA tournament, Charlotte. The 49ers are not a squad with a lot of notable names. In fact, they are the only team at College Cup without a conference player of the year on the roster.
The star of the underdog side is the coach. Head coach Jeremy Gunn, in his fifth season, has put the right pieces together for a complete squad from top to bottom.
“When I came into the program, it is something I said we wanted,” Gunn said after the win over UCONN about making it to College Cup. “Every recruit we talk to, we say, ‘we are trying to become one of the best programs in the country.’ That is honest.”
Gunn’s side is in for a very difficult challenge against Creighton. The Bluejays did not win 20 games by accident. The MVC champions play with unrelenting pressure that very few teams are able to handle.
The 49ers have a few players who could give the Bluejays trouble though. Senior Evan James is dynamic on the ball and proved to be a nightmare for the UCONN defense in the last round. Also, leading scorer Giuseppe Gentile only needs a couple inches of space to get his shot off.
The big question mark for this game is how the field will hold up for the first game of the day, as the pitch is a converted baseball stadium. If the field does not hold up well, it will even any perceived advantage for either side.
Prediction: Creighton 1-0
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