It was always worth it.
The 200 minutes spent huddled at a laptop watching an internet feed. Meeting the team on campus after stamping their ticket to the 2011 College Cup. The 16 wings consumed Friday waiting for a goal. The nervous pacing during the shootout. The 14 hours of driving on Sunday. It was all ALWAYS worth it.
On Sunday the Charlotte 49ers Men’s Soccer team took to the field with the National Title on the line, the furthest any of the University’s teams have ever played in an NCAA Tournament. The opponent was the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels, the symbolic foe of our University for decades. We had thought that with a 49ers win, a crack could be formed in the boulder holding us down for so many decades.
But the 49ers didn’t win. The Tar Heels scored on a beautiful goal by Akron transfer Ben Speas for a 1-0 advantage that would hold until time expired. But what those in attendance and those watching on television and computer screens saw a team that was ready for the big stage. The Niners played a game worthy of champions, but it just wasn’t our destiny to win.
“”That’s the cruel part of soccer,” said Charlotte’s Head Coach, Jeremy Gunn following the game.
From the first whistle, Charlotte imposed it’s will on Chapel Hill. Holding on the the ball for long periods, getting deep into the Tar Heel’s defensive end, creating opportunities.
“Charlotte came out so aggressive and played so hard that we literally didn’t have the legs to play the game that we wanted,” said UNC-Chapel Hill’s Coach Carlos Somoano, also noting, “It was the first time all year we weren’t able to dominate the ball in a game.”
The first half ended with the score knotted, and with 7 Tar Heel shots to 5 by the Niners, but don’t let that number deceive you. Charlotte’s shots came from domination of the ball, while Chapel Hill’s shots came from lapse in Charlotte’s control, pulling the trigger when the slightest shimmer of light shown through.
The second hand began with what ultimately was a turning point of the match. The half wasn’t even three minutes in when Donnie Smith, having broken through Creighton’s touted defensive front multiple times two nights earlier, used pristine footwork to get the ball in the box with only the goalie between himself and a 1-0 lead. But, seen here, Kurt Urso of the Tar Heels had other plans as he brought down Smith from behind before the Niners could capitalize.
Urso had the nerve to accuse Smith of flopping after the game, while the Tar Heel players had incredibly flimsy legs upon the slightest contact all game long. They played soft, to a chorus of “She fell over!” from the larger 49er contingency in the stands.
Then for the next 20 minutes the second half was much like the first, with Charlotte consistently controlling possession of the ball and putting the ball on a goal a few times. But then Ben Speas found himself all alone with the ball at the edge of the penalty box in the 63rd minute. Speas razzled and dazzled himself enough space to get a left footed shot off 25 yards from the goal. His shot was perfect, and in that one moment the Tar Heels had all they would need to win.
The Niners were shell-shocked by the goal, and it was the first moment of the game that Tar Heel fans were audible. The Niners were able to regroup to mount a charge the last 10 minutes of play. The crowd noise swelled as the Niners got chance after chance to put the ball in the goal. Those in the stands witnessed a gang fight between piranhas, frenzy would be an understatement when in one 40 second duration Charlotte launched five shots.
Time expired amidst such a frenzy and with the sound it was over. The men in blue running in jubilation and the men in green and white lying on the pitch in defeat.
One team played the best and another won the game.
Niner Nation was faithful as always. Staying in the stands as long as the team stayed on the field, applauding Charlotte’s 2nd-place finish louder than the reception received by the National Champion Tar Heels, many times over.
Senior defender Isaac Cowles found solace in the support from the crowd, “To have their voice drown out the national championship celebration is definitely something meaningful.”
To be a Charlotte 49er is to be always swimming upstream, to put our University on your chest is inviting struggle. Tar Heels float downstream in an inner tube. Only a few times in our short history has an athletic team broken free to get nearly this far. In 1996 soccer didn’t swim hard enough, and in 2011 we didn’t swim hard enough either but they will take what they know and swim harder the next time the get in the river. The pain of the loss was evident in the watered eyes on the field and in the stands, that pain was dwarfed by pride that we found a way to swim harder than ever before and confidence that we will swim harder again.
This soccer team gave us the hope that everyone would make it upstream one day, and by the grace of God we will.