HOOVER, Ala. — The last meeting between North Carolina and Charlotte meant little beyond pride and practice.
Now, the two will play for both a state and national title today in the NCAA men’s soccer championship match four months after that August exhibition game. Neither top-seeded North Carolina nor unseeded Charlotte had reason to think back then they’d be meeting again in December.
“You know when we played them at the beginning of the season we knew they were a good team and we knew we were a good team but we weren’t thinking that far ahead,” Tar Heels defender Matt Hedges said Saturday. “That would just be dumb to be thinking we might face you in the final at the first game. Both of us are totally different teams and we’ll just see.”
They didn’t really settle who was best in that Aug. 21 game. North Carolina led 2-1 when the game was called because of weather in the 70th minute.
This is the first time the two teams have met in a game that counted since 2001, which also happens to be the year the Tar Heels (21-2-2) won their only NCAA title.
They’re playing in their fourth consecutive College Cup. Charlotte (17-4-3), which has won its past two matches on penalty kicks, is trying to make the most of its first since 1996.
The last unseeded team to win the NCAA men’s soccer title was UC Santa Barbara in 2006.
“We always felt we had the ability, but you just have to keep looking forward and hoping the players are playing their best soccer at the end of the season,” Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn said. “I think we had the setbacks through the year but come the national tournament, the players have just been unbelievable.”
Both teams advanced from the semifinals on penalties.
North Carolina’s Carlos Somoano is trying to join Indiana’s Mike Freitag (2004) as the only first-year coaches to lead their teams to the title.
The 49ers don’t just feel like underdogs for this game, or the College Cup, but in a state where they’re typically overshadowed by programs like North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State. They also want to claim a title for Charlotte, the city.
“I’m just proud to be at a college that kind of represents the city we are from,” Charlotte midfielder Owen Darby said. “Charlotte isn’t known for much sport — the Hornets left, the Panthers came when I was pretty much grown up. I think Charlotte has kind of been the one thing that has represented the city.”