Three years ago, North Carolina and Charlotte played for the biggest prize in college soccer, the NCAA championship.
UNC came away with a 1-0 victory in the 2011 title game at Hoover, Ala., and Carlos Somoano became only the second coach to win the championship in his first season as a head coach.
The unseeded Tar Heels and 10th-seeded 49ers will meet again at 2 p.m. Sunday at Charlotte’s Transamerica Field in the second round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament.
After Thursday’s 6-0 rout of James Madison in the first round, UNC again looks like the high-octane team it presented most of the season, when the Tar Heels led the ACC in scoring and ranked among the nation’s leaders.
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However, in the regular-season finale against Virginia, a 1-1 tie, and in a 1-0 loss to Louisville in the ACC tournament, UNC faced strong defensive teams that compacted the field and denied scoring opportunities.
The Tar Heels got back on the right track against JMU, but the six goals were misleading. Three came after JMU went down two men via red cards and was almost defenseless.
Although JMU tried the same defensive philosophy as Louisville, UNC had tilted the field long before the red cards came out.
Andy Craven’s first goal of his hat trick came after sustained pressure late in the half, and he set up Rob Lovejoy’s goal two minutes into the second half with a superlative individual effort resulting in a rebound that Lovejoy pounced on.
“The first 30 minutes we only had a couple chances,” Lovejoy said. “We ended up with 24 shots. It was a matter of being patient, and things eventually opened up for us.”
That was the message from UNC coach Carlos Somoano as well.
“I think it was very important that we didn’t get frustrated or panic and get caught up in that,” he said. “We had to stick to our game plan without panicking or overplaying trying to go forward.”
That was a big part of the problem against Louisville. The Tar Heels gave in and tried to beat the Cardinals with long balls served directly into the teeth of the defense. They used more finesse against JMU, with Craven and Lovejoy making interchanging runs that provided open shots.
“We’ll make our adjustments based on what we saw worked for us tonight and what didn’t,” Somoano said. “At this point in the year we’ve grown so much. We’ve learned so much about ourselves. We’ve faced different types of opponents. Some teams came in and played us this way, and we learned from our experiences, good and bad.
“Charlotte will come in and present a different challenge. Our job on Sunday is to be prepared for whatever they bring. Obviously it will be a very tough opponent, but we’ll be ready to play.”
Notable: Charlotte is led in scoring by junior forward Kyle Parker (9 goals, 7 assists, 25 points). … Two N.C. State transfers are starters for the 49ers: senior forward Monbo Bokar and junior midfielder Conor Agnew. … UNC leads the all-time series 15-3, but other than the 2011 final, the teams haven’t met since 2001.