By Paul Gardner
The most baffling moment of the college final arrived during halftime. Charlotte’s coach Jeremy Gunn was telling us that he felt “the first half went well for us” and that what was needed in the second half was “to keep making life difficult for our opponents.” Well, fair enough, not exactly the most sophisticated approach you’ll ever hear, but I doubt anyone who had seen much of Charlotte was expecting anything too clever.
But Gunn had more to say, adding that, when his team did get the ball, he was hoping “to see someone put his foot on it, and make that special pass.”
Extraordinary. Was Gunn having us on? Because, if there was one thing that Charlotte’s players never looked like doing, both in this final and -- even more so -- in its frantic, helter-skelter semifinal against Creighton -- it was putting a foot on the ball -- in other words slowing the game down for a brief pause to allow a more measured approach.
What we got from Charlotte, all the time, was the standard college formula -- hustle, more hustle, and hustle again. If you admire sheer effort, this was quite amazing to watch. Every so often, a brief moment or two of genuine soccer would break through, though it was always played at a pace that was simply too rapid to survive more than a few seconds. A pace that the skills of the Charlotte players themselves simply could not cope with.
Yet here we have Gunn fantasizing about a player -- one of his players -- putting his foot on the ball. No, it didn’t happen, of course it didn’t. Charlotte went on doing what it’s good at -- “making life difficult” for the other team. Being energetically destructive.
When looking for a reference point for the crudest example of English soccer, the name that comes up as a sort of joke (there is an explanation, which won’t concern us here) is Scunthorpe United. Fairly or unfairly, Scunthorpe stands for mindless soccer. So it all fits rather neatly. Gunn is English and, when a boy, he played for Scunthorpe’s youth team.
And that’s the sort of soccer that Charlotte gave us -- getting stuck in -- sliding in -- all over the field, and all that demonic hustle.
When it’s done with total commitment, as Charlotte does it, that sort of soccer can be very successful, and Charlotte’s run to the final proved that. As it happens, it was desperately unlucky in Sunday’s game, being denied a pretty clear penalty kick at the start of the second half.
A moment of true skill, a wonderful dribble from Donnie Smith, was silenced when Smith was brought down by North Carolina’s Kirk Urso. Referee Michael Kennedy simply ignored the incident, which took some doing. Twenty minutes later, North Carolina’s Ben Speas scored the only goal of this frustrating game, a terrific goal, worthy of winning any championship.
Maybe they’ll give an assist on Speas’s effort, but I don’t think they should, this was all Speas. A determined dribble from the halfway line took Speas to the edge of the penalty area, where he cut to his left, dodged a couple more defenders (there were no fewer than six defenders around him at that point) and from 23 yards out, let fly with the perfect left-footed shot, a sort of chip with pace on it, that saw the ball fly over Charlotte goalkeeper Klay Davis positioned impeccably on his 6-yard line, and then drop wickedly to sail just under the bar and into the net. A magnificent goal.
Yes, I do think North Carolina deserved its narrow victory. But part of my opinion is based on aesthetics, on the Tar Heels’ ability to play true soccer, to be always looking to move the ball along the ground with intelligent passing.
We saw them do this with greater fluency against UCLA in the semifinal. That game was the highlight of the tournament. It was still a college game, still blighted with the attempt to do everything too quickly -- but we saw plenty of evidence that both teams could play good soccer, could create opportunities ... and could score goals. Four of them (the other two games produced only one goal). UCLA actually looked the better team, with two splendid goals from Ryan Hollingshead and Kelyn Rowe. By comparison, North Carolina’s catch-up goals were scrappy affairs -- but enough to tie the game.
So both semis ended in shootouts -- which meant that we could quite easily have had a UCLA-Creighton final. Shoot-outs merely sort out who goes forward -- they don’t tell you who deserved to win the real game.
Charlotte, as I said, was hard done by on the non-call on the PK. It will also, for sure, point to the final few minutes of the game, during which it laid siege to the North Carolina goal and did everything but score. Even so, this was typically Charlotte, a few crazy pin-ball moments. Too little soccer though -- and certainly too late.
Trying to make sense of college soccer -- I mean, sense beyond its own peculiar boundaries, sense that links it to the rest of the sport -- remains a tricky business. Were there players here, on these four teams, who will become pro stars? Well, I suppose so, the law of averages should take care of that. Who they will be, that’s not so easy, because pro soccer is a different world, one that demands different qualities, and certainly one that exposes the high-speed hustle and bustle approach of Charlotte for what it is. Unsophisticated frenzy. Scunthorpe United.
It is a style that, when played at full throttle -- and Charlotte certainly managed that -- virtually forces opponents to play the same sort of game. To counter that style, and still keep playing good soccer takes an exceptional team (can you imagine Barcelona being forced into playing that way?). Sadly, college soccer has always been short of exceptional teams.
We know that Carlos Somoano’s North Carolina can play better soccer than it did in the final -- because we saw it do it in the semifinal. In both of its games, Charlotte gave us the same negative “make it difficult for the opponents” stuff -- and while doing that it failed to score at all. Is it possible for a team to roar on to the field and race about relentlessly while it harasses its opponents -- and then suddenly “put its foot on the ball” and score a goal from a moment of calm soccer intelligence? I don’t think so. The transition from Scunthorpe to Barcelona is not that simple.