North Carolina and UCLA were supposed to be here. They are two of the most storied programs in the country and both teams are packed with future professionals. It didn't take long before it was clear that Creighton was also one of the best teams in the country, riding arguably the best defense in the nation to win after win so three-fourths of the College Cup makes sense. Then there's Charlotte, the unranked, unseeded nobodies who only beat 11th seeded UAB, defending champions Akron and then third seeded UConn in succession to get here. Yeah, no big deal.
Now there are three matches left in this NCAA soccer season. On Friday, the Tar Heels and Bruins meet in one semifinal and the Blue Jays and 49ers meet in the other, with a spot in the final on the line. They're all in Hoover, AL and by the time they leave on Sunday, someone will be crowned national champion. It's always more fun with a trophy on the line.
North Carolina vs. UCLA
With a combined six national titles, there aren't many programs in the country more storied than North Carolina and UCLA. This year, the two teams also have some of the most talented players in the country too, making this match-up a dream.
For the Bruins, their big future pro prospect is Kelyn Rowe. A star for the U.S. U-20 team, the sophomore Rowe entered the season as one of the nation's most highly touted players thanks to a creativity and skill that could be the best in the country. Add in 18-goal scorer Chandler Hoffman and the dynamic Eder Arreola and UCLA has plenty of threats going forward.
As good as UCLA might be in the attack, they can't match the depth of attackers of North Carolina. A U.S. youth national teamer, Billy Schuler has bounced back from an injury last season to put up 15 goals this season and cement himself as one of the best pro prospects in the country. The Tar Heels also have their own highly touted creator similar to Rowe in Enzo Martinez. Add in Ben Speas, who partners Schuler up top and Robbie Lovejoy, who joins Martinez in the midfield, and UNC has a handful of talented attackers who can test the Bruin defense.
A group of attackers like North Carolina has is necessary to crack UCLA too because they are among the best defensive teams in the nation. The Bruin defense is anchored by three seniors right through the middle with redshirt senior Brian Rowe in goal and seniors Shawn Singh and Andy Rose doing the dirty work in front of him. The Bruins have been impenetrable down the stretch, keeping eight consecutive clean sheets in their eight straight wins to land them a spot in the College Cup.
Whether that defense can hold up against the UNC attack is a whole other question though. Even if the Tar Heels struggle to get it going though, they have one of the best centerbacks in the country Matthew Hedges holding down the fort in back.
The Bruins play Hoffman, the Tar Heels counter with Schuler. UNC has Martinez, but UCLA has Rowe. You have Rose? We have Hedges. UNC sends Lovejoy, Speas and Kirk Urso out there, UCLA has Arreola, Evan Raynr and Victor Chavez. Yeah, this match is going to be stupid good.
Pick: 1-1, decided on penalties
Creighton vs. Charlotte
People didn't doubt the potential of the Creighton soccer program. With a gorgeous stadium and support, the Blue Jays had the makings of a power program and when they hired Elmar Bolowich to take over as head coach, they had their man to lead that program. Bolowich wasn't supposed to turn the program around and get it to a College Cup in just his first year though, but that's what he's done.
The former North Carolina assistant got Creighton flying and to the second seed thanks to an incredible defense that has allowed just five goals all season. Tyler Polak is the man most responsible for the Blue Jays' stingy defense, anchoring the back line with an exceptional ability to read the game and tackle that makes his short stature at 5'8'' largely irrelevant.
With the defense standing strong, the Blue Jays don't need a ton in the attack, but they get plenty from Ethan Finlay, who scored 14 goals this season, including the winner in the quarterfinals. Charlotte has their own attacking star too though in Giuseppe Gentile, who scored the winner against Akron then scored the goal that put the 49ers in penalties against UConn, where they prevailed. The strong 6'0'' striker looked nothing like a freshman in scoring 10 goals this year.
Gentile and Charlotte will face quite the challenge in the Creighton defense though. It's going to be tougher than anything they've faced this season and if a team like South Florida couldn't get a goal against the Blue Jays, it's tough to imagine the 49ers tallying.
Pick: Creighton, 2-0