HOOVER, Ala. — North Carolina always fields a good men's soccer team. The Tar Heels had made it to the College Cup - soccer's version of the final four - three times in a row heading into this season.
But there was one key reason that those three final four trips ended in losses and the 2011 version of the Tar Heels won the national championship with a 1-0 victory over Charlotte Sunday: This team had a great survival instinct.
"We relied on our heart and our guts to win this game," first-year Tar Heels head coach Carlos Somoano said.
The game didn't go exactly the way Somoano wanted. The Tar Heels are "the best passing team in the country," according to Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn, but they struggled to maintain possession Sunday.
"Charlotte came out so aggressive and played so hard that we literally didn't have the legs to play the game that we wanted," Somoano said. "It was the first time all year we weren't able to dominate the ball in a game."
Part of the reason was North Carolina played an enormously emotional semifinal against UCLA on Friday night, finally winning on penalty kicks. "Friday night, I think, was a game that extended us beyond what I could have possibly expected," Somoano said. "The standard and pace of that game took so much out of us."
Still, the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels were the clear favorite over unseeded Charlotte. But the 49ers ultimately outshot North Carolina 19-10 and earned six corner kicks compared to the Tar Heels' two.
"We were first in almost every category but the one that wins the game," Gunn said. "That's the cruel part of soccer."
But give the Tar Heels major props for surviving by doing exactly what they had to do. Forward Ben Speas scored the game's lone goal early in the second half with a curling, left-footed, 25-yard shot over the Charlotte goalkeeper.
"Ben had a moment of inspiration," Somoano said, "and it was incredible."
Speas had originally wanted to shoot with his right foot. "But the kid cut if off so I cut back to my left," Speas said. "I hit it with my left foot and it dipped over the keeper and went in."
North Carolina now has 38 NCAA team championships in all sports combined, including two in men's soccer (the Tar Heels also won in 2001).
After Speas' goal, they won by surviving one Charlotte attack after another. The 49ers outshot North Carolina 14-3 in the second half, including one frantic five-shots-in-40-seconds Charlotte barrage with less than five minutes to go.
"The only thing going through my mind was 'Don't let it go in,' " said North Carolina goalkeeper Scott Goodwin, who made one key save during that flurry and saw another Charlotte attempt bang off the crossbar.
While it was a neutral site, the game felt a lot like a Charlotte 49ers' home game. The 49ers have never won a national championship in any team sport and the school sent down six busloads of students hoping to see the first. Many more came down Interstate 85 in their own cars. Of the 8,777 fans in attendance, at least 7,000 were cheering for Charlotte.
The game was played on a converted minor-league baseball field - the home of the Birmingham Barons. It was where Michael Jordan played for one minor-league season in 1994 during his brief baseball foray and is still remembered with numerous pictures around the stadium.
Like Jordan, who was so clutch in the 1982 national title game as a freshman against Georgetown, the Tar Heels came up big at just the right moments Sunday night. Confetti cannons sprayed them after the game as they celebrated their championship - and their survival instinct.
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org