SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — As the No. 1 seed in this year's College Cup, there is virtually nothing Louisville can throw at North Carolina in tonight's semifinal game at UCSB's Harder Stadium that the Tar Heels haven't experienced in the past.
When it comes to the pressure of winning a "win-or-go-home game," the Heels have that covered - having become the first team in NCAA history this year to advance to a College Cup by "winning" three tournament games on penalty kicks.
When it comes to having to face a top seed in a semifinal or final, the only team in this year's Cup with a national championship has been there, done that. The 2001 champs will face their third top seed in as many years (Wake Forest 2008, Akron 2009) when the two teams kick off tonight at 8:30 p.m.
"We are absolutely thrilled to be here," UNC coach Elmar Bolowich said. "Based on what you saw from our journey to get here, it was very close. But we prevailed in the end, and now we have achieved a goal we set at the beginning of the season."
Louisville is making its first appearance in a College Cup. If the Cardinals (19-0-3) succeed, they will become the first team since Santa Clara in 1989 to win a national championship as an unbeaten side.
Tonight's meeting is the first between the teams.
"I give [the players] all the credit in the world," said Louisville coach Ken Lolla, a standout for Duke during his playing career. "They are the first ones, they are the pioneers, they are the ones who brought the University of Louisville to national recognition in men's soccer. They are a remarkable bunch of young men."
Tar Heels sophomore goalkeeper Scott Goodwin is, perhaps, the biggest key to UNC's bid for a second national championship. The Raleigh Broughton graduate has a staggering 0.63 goals-against-average this season, which ranks seventh nationally. Goodwin, who held fifth seed SMU to two successful penalty kicks in the Tar Heels' quarterfinal match last Friday, will face a supreme test in Louisville - a team ranked sixth in the nation in goals scored with 47 and ninth in scoring offense with more than two goals per game.
"We come into this game just like we would any other," Goodwin said. "I don't think you focus on coming into it like they're the big, scary, No. 1. I know what I'm going to do; everyone on the team knows what they're going to do when they walk up. We're going to go into it, no matter what, very confident in what we're doing."
If the Tar Heels feel a little less pressure than the other three teams in this year's College Cup (Louisville, Michigan and Akron), there are two very good reasons. UNC has been on the brink of elimination in each of its three NCAA tournament games.
But a perfect 14-for-14 in penalty kicks coupled with Enzo Martinez's strike with nine seconds remaining in regulation to tie Michigan State in the third-round contest, is why the Tar Heels are visiting California for the first time in nearly 20 years.
"We have prepared for this game just like we have any other all year," Martinez said. "We are calm, and we are excited for this opportunity that we have. We know we got here because of hard work all year, and we're just excited to play Louisville."
The Cardinals faced their toughest test of nerves this season in their previous game, a 5-4 quarterfinal victory over UCLA, which saw Louisville come back from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 to win on Aaron Horton's second goal of the season in the 90th minute. It marked the only time this postseason that the Cardinals have trailed at any point in a game.
"We did what we had to do to make it here," Lolla said. "It's the mark of a good team that can come through in situations like that. We feel so blessed and honored to be a part of college soccer's greatest weekend."
If the UNC players and coaches need any added insight on the electric atmosphere that has made Harder Stadium one of the nation's premier college soccer venues, they need not look any further than one of their own - senior midfielder Michael Farfan - who transferred from Cal State Fullerton, a Big West Conference rival of UC Santa Barbara.
"I'm really excited about coming back here," Farfan said. "It's a stadium with great atmosphere. It's going to be exciting for me to come back to the West Coast and play in front of family and friends."
The winner of tonight's UNC-Louisville game faces the winner of Michigan-Akron (11 p.m.) in Sunday's championship game at 4 p.m.