Creighton came into their NCAA Men's College Cup semifinal match against UNC-Charlotte as heavy favorites. While the 49ers had scored the most goals in the tournament, they were coming up a team much better at keeping possession in the Jays. Additionally, they'd allowed just five goals all season. Creighton's defense did what was expected of them and kept a clean sheet, but couldn't get a goal. The match finished 0-0 after extra time and went to penalties, which is where it all went wrong for the No. 2 seed Creighton. With their PK specialist keeper in, they won the shootout easily, 4-1, to advance to the College Cup Final.
For those unfamiliar with NCAA rules, players can be substituted in and out, unlike professional soccer. It is also legal to substitute in a different goalie for penalty kicks and have players who did not play in the game take penalty kicks. Charlotte made use of these unique rules, as backup goalkeeper Gavin Dawson came in and came up huge for the 49ers.
The first half featured very few chances as Creighton were content to keep possession, while Charlotte were content to sit back an defend. The best chance was probably a Jose Gomez free kick in the 9th minute, which UNCC regular goalkeeper Klay Davis saved from 20 yards out.
Charlotte almost gave up a disastrous own goal in the 22nd minute. During a long spell of pressure from Creighton, Gomez had two shots blocked before Isaac Cowles almost scored against his own team, putting a poor clearance attempt off his own crossbar. Nothing came of it, and it was the last real chance of the half. Charlotte were second best in the first half, but Creighton lacked ideas and looked like a team that didn't know a way into the opposing penalty area other than long balls.
Creighton All-American forward Ethan Finlay had a couple of chances to put his team ahead early in the second half. In the 47th minute, running onto a ball over the top, Finlay botched a finish while one-on-one with Davis in the penalty area. To Davis' credit, he seriously altered the shot by charging out at Finlay, but the Jays forward should have done much better.
He had an even better opportunity in the 61st minute, on a corner kick. Greg Jordan set up the chance with a great header, putting a far post corner back across the face of goal. It fell perfectly for Finlay, but he hit the crossbar with his golden opportunity.
Very little happened between that point and the end of regulation, when UNCC and Donnie Smith suddenly came alive. Smith did not start the game and played just 82 of the 110 minutes, but it's possible that he was kept fresh as a strategic move. While Creighton was starting to tire, Smith looked like he was completely fresh and was easily the best player on the pitch from the 80th minute, all the way through extra time.
In the 85th minute, Smith ripped off a great run down the left flank in what was the first serious attack for UNCC during the match. He beat three defenders with the ball at his feet on a fantastic pacy run before squaring for Giuseppe Gentile. It appeared like the 49ers forward was going to put his team ahead, but he didn't make the most of his chance, hitting an average shot directly at Brian Holt that he had no problem saving. The teams would head to extra time tied 0-0, and penalties seemed inevitable.
There was only one serious scoring chance in the extra time period, with Smith creating it nine minutes into the overtime period. Once again, with a fantastic pacy run down the left, Smith got himself into a great position and dribbled through multiple defenders. This time, he shot instead of passed, hitting a vicious strike on goal at the near post. Holt was ready for it and made a great save, forcing a corner that ultimately resulted in nothing. The teams went to penalties, and the body language of the two teams seemed to foreshadow what was to come.
Charlotte looked like a team aware that they were playing with house money, while Creighton looked nervous. Tyler Gibson of Charlotte and Bruno Castro of Creighton made the first two penalties easily with good strikes. The drama started with the third taker, as Isaac Caughran hit a weak shot that Holt appeared to save. However, the ball somehow rolled under Holt's arm and into the back of the net, giving Charlotte a lead they would not relinquish.
Creighton missed their next two penalties, giving the 49ers a spot in the College Cup final. Penalty specialist keeper Gavin Dawson vindicated his coach's decision to put him in for Davis with a great save on Kris Clark, giving his team the advantage. Smith stepped up and converted for the 49ers, putting the pressure on Finlay to score. It wasn't the All-American's day, as he missed the goal when he should have scored for the third time in the game, skying his penalty with a shot over the bar. Cowles stepped up and converted UNCC's fourth, giving them the 4-1 victory.
The 49ers will now wait on the result of the second semifinal between the UCLA Bruins and UNC Tar Heels. Regardless of who wins, Charlotte will be underdogs again. Both UNC and UCLA have Hermann Trophy semifinalists and multiple players who will make rosters in Major League Soccer next season.