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North Carolina quells Charlotte Frenzy to take College Cup
by Paul Gardner, December 12th, 2011 12:28AM

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TAGS:  college men

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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.



17 comments
  1. Tito Messi
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 2:16 a.m.
    college soccer at its best...kick and run with zero possession, typical college game....99.9% of college coaches are "terrible", the same can be said of youth coaches in the USA, they can never "teach" the control, joga bonito game...and you know why? because they can't!!!! soccer in America "will never" get better...NEVER! unless we start from zero, instead of having English coaches teaching our young kids, players will only be as good as a Charlotte University player, no skills with lots of "hustle"....man will colonize Mars before soccer is played the "correct way" in America..for Christ sake, have coaches from South America, Netherlands, Spain, France, even Germans teach our kids, universities should give them jobs, instead if a coach have a British accent, universities love these kind of coaches....terrible, god help us in soccer, no one else will :-(

  1. Tito Messi
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 2:18 a.m.
    Paul Gardner, you are the "only" true soccer analyst that understand "our" plight, the rest, forget about it...they are in "denial"

  1. Ric Fonseca
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 2:36 a.m.
    Tito: "Good grief Charlie Brown," you're spot on again! On both counts, no less!!! My wife and I saw the second half of the Charlotte game and the UCLA game, and we both ended up channel surfing, though I agree with PG that UCLA seemed to play better, even stringing up to at least fifteen passes at one time, yet the helter-skelter appearing-to-be-on-steroid games left a lot to the imagination. I wonder what PG has to say comparing the early 1970's UCLA skillful game to the one Friday evening? Remember those games, Paul? Just the same congrats to UNC!

  1. tim francis
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 9:08 a.m.
    I agree with Tito and Ric, although more blame must go off coaches and to our culture and its distractions from building the skills needed to play at the higher level. Remember, Basketball, Football, and Baseball dominate tv and media, and TV/video/computer games are unfortunately a lot more addiction to most kids than going out after school and playing or practicing. We also have to deal with hyper-win focused parents that conspire with select clubs and leagues put great young athletes against should-be-developing players who now must unsuccessfully struggle against Charlotte-like bulls, failing to build a skilled fluid, feinted controlled game--one that just might out-do cultures other addictions.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 9:27 a.m.
    The Charlotte semi/final games demonstrated what is a coaching and cultural failure. It doesn't take much to boot it and run it, anyone can do that. Both performances by Charlotte were abysmal and not worthy.

  1. . Lev
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 9:54 a.m.
    There is no one right way to play the beautiful game, as is demonstrated at the WC. It is a competition - not a beauty contest. That said - I completely agree with PG. A+ for effort to all the young men, and let's leave it at that.

  1. . Lev
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 9:59 a.m.
    There is no one right way to play the beautiful game, as is demonstrated within the various European leagues (playing styles), the CL and at the WC. It is a competition based on goals scored - not a beauty contest. That said - I completely agree with PG. A+ for effort to all the hardworking young men, but let's leave it at that.

  1. tim francis
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 11:49 a.m.
    Lev, you may be right about there being no 'right' way to play football/soccer, but what about playing beautifully, as characterized first by Brazil, then rebounded by Spain, and through history by the great artists of the game. Isn't there a standard teams should strive for?

  1. Saverio Colantonio
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 2:01 p.m.
    The college game is the same up here in Canada. I could barely watch for more than ten minutes at a time even with my son playing on the team. The thing is, these kids are talented and if the coach would let them play real soccer I'm convinced that they would entertain.

  1. Harry Houdini
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 2:16 p.m.
    This s the best, most honest article I've read about College football since coming to the US. The players lack the quality required to play attractive football so I think the coaches have to do the best with what they have. They promote a fast, physical game that doesn't allow either team to play. This is to make up for the lack of technical ability on hand. Zero entertainment! The best talent in the country at youth level never get to see College football so you're better off going to watch a top youth game if you like good footy. I walked out early of the last College game I went to. As a former player and current youth coach I just couldn't handle it. It was the last 8 in the country and there were players on the field that wouldn't get near professional football in the UK. Maybe non even non league football. It's a huge flaw in the system that players like this end up playing at this level.

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.
    The question that people are not asking is why? Soccer in the US is in the business of making money. Soccer in the US is not in the business of winning. We need to radically change the way we approach the game. And I think it will gradually get there. But the MLS needs to be the one force to make this radical change. They must start to create their own developmental environment starting with 5 year olds. The US academy program is to late. You need to get these kids early and give them a quality environment. It must be free and a playing environment which is 7 days a weeks. That is where it must begin. Until then do not expect any big changes.

  1. Michael Scappator
    commented on: December 12, 2011 at 7:14 p.m.
    In the immortal words of Al Davis. "Just win baby." Correct me if I'm wrong but England, that invented the game, has only won one more World Cup than the US? And we all know that they didn't even score what was counted as the winning goal that time. If the USA were that bad at winning Olympic basketball gold metals and Canada that bad at winning Olympic hockey gold metals maybe sanctimonious English babble about soccer would carry more weight.

  1. Brian Something
    commented on: December 13, 2011 at 11:32 a.m.
    I admit, the only UNC games I saw this season were the semifinal and final but based on that evidence, it’s a travesty that they win the award for best amateur soccer team in the country. Not an ounce of nuance to be seen anywhere. Charlotte were definitely more positive but 0 goals in 210 College Cup minutes speaks for itself. It’s a shame UCLA were eliminated, as they were the only team that seemingly tried to play decent soccer.

  1. Brian Something
    commented on: December 13, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.
    Frankly, I find Div. III soccer more enjoyable to watch than Div. I. They have to rely a little more on skill, guile and intelligence rather than raw athleticism.

  1. oliver foy
    commented on: December 14, 2011 at 3 p.m.
    Let me begin by saying that I had never heard of Paul Gardner before being sent his pile of nonsense through email. Yeah, that's right, over thirty years of involvement in the sport both collegiately, and professionally in the United States and Europe, and never once come accross him.......Until now. For the life of me, I cannot believe how any observer can watch the final between UNC and UNCC and come to the conclusion that Charlotte didn't come out to play football. They outpossessed a Tar Heel side who annually gets to pick the cream of the crop of kids coming out of high school, and has a pipeline into the US U-18's. Sure, Charlotte played very aggressive, organized defense. Wasn't that the smart thing to do? Of course it was! Yet, at the same time, they were the aggressor going forward--playing swift vertical soccer, and putting UNC under constant pressure. In the process, they created more chances, had more shots on frame, and had more corners (weren't you the genius who wanted games to be decided on the number of corner kicks, as opposed to a shootout?) You make degrading reference to Gunn's affiliation with his youth team growing up. That would be like me referencing your beginnings at Ramsgate School, where you weren't even allowed to play soccer, and suggesting therefore that you have never even played the game--and most likely don't have a clue. Which, by the look of this article, seems to be the case. When I was coming to the end of my career, I knew it was time for me to hang up my boots. I had slowed down, and the game had quite simply begun to pass me by. I was making poor decisions, passes were going astray, and shots were no longer on target. I can't help but feel when I read this that you have reached that point also. The whole article stinks of someone who is out of touch with the reality of the modern game. The have's and the have not's appear both in the college game and professionally. You rarely see Everton come out with two strikers when they play the likes of Man Utd or Chelsea. Likewise, Sporting Gijon will very rarely attack with more than three players when they play Barca or Real. Instead, they primarily look to defend, and disrupt--small breaks on the counter, and set pieces are their mantra. Although, in truth, it could be said that Charlotte played with this in mind in their semi final match against Creighton, there is noone of sane mind going to tell me they did the same in the final. Instead, they came out with an attacking gameplan, which, other than a true moment of genius from Speas, was working to perfection. I have talked since the game to numerous former pro's, and collegiate coaches who loved the final. It had energy, and excitement. It pitted a huge favourite, against a smaller, less fashionable program, and I can bet the independent observer would have thought UNC Charlotte were part of the have's, and the Tar Heels, the have not's, rather than the opposite.

  1. Jack Niner
    commented on: December 15, 2011 at 1:57 p.m.
    I'm not really sure what Mr Gardner is ranting about, other than he prefers to see more passing. OK, don't we all. I do find Mr Gardners snideness unsavory. Mr Gardners years in the bleachers since his grade school days of kicking the ball around certainly does not qualify him as knowledgable enough of high level competition to be a worthy critic. Unfortunately this is the state of soccer sports writing in most of America. Hopefully as the game grows in America, writers will come from the ranks of those who have trained, played, coached, and won at a high level. I leave my comment for Mr Gardner with a quote from a great American "It is not the critic who counts: nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles...The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..who strives valianty; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who..if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt

  1. Allan Lindh
    commented on: January 13, 2012 at 3:45 p.m.
    It is true that men's college soccer is played with too much testosterone and not enough skill. Solution is to get the NCAA to get rid of their ridiculous substitution rule -- the game will slow down, allow a little more time for real soccer. However, when you knock the American college game, you leave out the most crucial difference between here and England. When vast numbers of kids sign up with their local club in England at the age of 14 or so, they certainly get more training and advance faster. And at the age of 20 or there-abouts, when due to injury or lack of skill, their professional careers end (I'm guessing this is at least 95% of them) what do they do now? Drive a beer truck? The American college system certainly does not develop soccer skills as rapidly, but it does leave "the other 95%" with a much better chance for "a better life." Just a matter of priorities. So what's the reasonable answer -- work hard on the NCAA to treat soccer more equitably, and play by the world's rules. However, if you think this is going to make us a World Soccer Power -- guess again. Have you heard of Baseball, Basketball, and Football. That's where the most talented small guys with great quickness and coordination go in this country. That's not going to change, it's a miracle we're beginning to approach the level of Mexico. The game is getting better in this country -- be glad and stop whining.


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