HOOVER, Ala. – Predicting the winner of Friday’s semifinal match between UCLA and North Carolina depends largely on your choice of surface. On paper, UCLA (18-4-1) comes in hot with eight shutouts in a row, its last a double-overtime win against Louisville to reach the national semifinals.
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The Tar Heels (20-2-2) come into the finals smoking, too. They are riding a 10-match unbeaten streak, have outscored opponents 22-4 over the stretch with six shutouts. The last of those six wins was a 2-0 victory against St. Mary’s that catapulted them to their fourth consecutive finals appearance.
Maybe the biggest number is the seeding, one that makes the No. 1 Tar Heels a huge favorite against the No. 13 Bruins. The match, though, is not played on paper, but on the beautifully manicured pitch of Hoover Municipal Stadium, site of this year’s Men’s College Cup championship.
So forget those numbers.
“Numbers don’t mean anything,” Billy Schuler, the Tar Heels’ standout redshirt junior forward said. “We came in my freshman year as the No. 13 seed and played the No. 1 seed and knocked them off. We’ve got a lot of guys with experience. We all know what to expect. I think it comes down to experience, and I think we have that. It’s a plus for us.”
This whole season has been a plus for Schuler. He started just two games before an injury ended his 2010 season. He has come back strong, scoring 15 goals this season and adding five assists. During the past five weeks, Schuler has scored 13 points in eight matches including five goals – three for overtime game-winners – and three assists. That looks like an effort from a man who desperately wanted to be a part of a championship run.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Schuler said. “I’ve been looking forward to this since I got hurt. Just waiting and watching the team go this far. It’s always hard to make the final four. We made it last year when I was hurt and I was thinking, ‘Oh, God. We’ve got to make it again. Hopefully I can come back and make it again.’ ”
They have and will face a Bruins team feeling pretty good about itself. Its defense has been stellar and it is road-tested. If they are considered an underdog, you won’t get an argument from them. But just getting here won’t suffice for them.
“People say that we’re the underdogs and that is fine,” Jorge Salcedo, UCLA head coach, said. “We’re ready to step on the field and show what we can do. As long as we’re the one of the one at the end, that’s all that matters.
Ben Speas, playing for Akron in 2009, helped eliminate North Carolina from the 2010 College Cup. This year, alongside Matt Hedges, who transfered from Butler, Speas hopes to lead the Tar Heels to a title.
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“I think what you’ll see two teams who are fairly similar in terms of the number of guys on the field who are technical players, guys who can make individual plays. They have an attacking core group of players we have to deal with when they have the ball. We have very good attacking players. I don’t look at them as a team that has a lot better individual players than we do. They have some experience, but we match up with them really well.”
The guy most experienced for the Tar Heels is their captain, Kirk Urso. This is his fourth trip to the finals. He scored the winning goal in the NCAA quarterfinals in his freshman and sophomore seasons and the tying goal last year that gave the Tar Heels the opportunity to advance in penalty kicks. PKs have been huge for the Tar Heels in their past three NCAA tournament victories. UNC needed penalties to advance – and Urso made all three of his.
The finals experience has been teaching moments for himself and his teammates.
“From all of those you learn you have to go after it, you got to attack it from the get-go,” Urso said. “You have to be disciplined. You have to fight all the way to the end. It’s the final four. It’s a big event. It’s awesome. But it’s also just another game.
“You want it that much more. Getting so close. It makes you hungrier. This year we’ve got a lot of guys who have been through it before and are hungry. And want it.”