Dec. 12, 2009

Sidebar: Soccer's Finest On Display

By Roger van der Horst Special to

CARY, N.C. - Two teams that were capable of lighting up the scoreboard as if playing tabletop hockey instead played 110 minutes of soccer that failed to produce a single goal.

The issue wasn't decided until Blair Gavin ended a cold Friday night at WakeMed Soccer Park with Akron's fifth penalty-kick goal in a shootout, sending the Zips to the Division I men's national championship game for the second time. With a 5-4 edge in penalty kicks, top-ranked Akron (23-0-1) eliminated North Carolina (16-2-4) even though the teams were tied through regulation and two overtimes.

Akron, which lost the 1986 final to Duke 1-0, will face Virginia (18-3-3) in the title game at 1 p.m. Sunday.

"At the end of the day, we move on," a relieved Akron coach Caleb Porter said. "We defended very well. We've defended well all year. That's our 18th shutout. And a lot of people have focused on our attack as being our strength. A championship team is typically a team that not only attacks, but the common thread is the ability to defend well."

In front of 8,862 fans enduring the freezing weather, the Zips showed their shooting prowess at the very end, making good on all five chances.

In the shootout, UNC's Michael Farfan and Zach Loyd traded goals with Zarek Valentin and Ben Zemanski. The Zips then got a big break when UNC defender Jordan Graye's shot sailed well over the crossbar. Kofi Sarkodie and Scott Caldwell scored for Akron, Drew McKinney and Kirk Urso for the Tar Heels, setting up the final penalty kick by Gavin.

His previous two teammates had beaten UNC goalkeeper Brooks Haggerty high. Gavin went low and left for the game-winner.

"There was no way I was going to let my team down," the junior midfielder said.

Haggerty, who tied a career high with seven saves, said he went into the shootout planning to "pick a side and go to it. I overreacted to some of their guys."

Akron and North Carolina had come into the game averaging almost 17 and 16 shots, respectively. Through regulation and two overtimes, the Zips had a 14-12 advantage. It was beautiful soccer to an unsurprised Elmar Bolowich, the North Carolina coach.

"A low-scoring game may be labeled as boring, but I didn't think that was the case at all," he said. "When you look at the finer things in there, it's a lot of neutralizing going on, strong defenses neutralizing attacks with very disciplined play and enormous structure and organization on both sides."

That said, Porter thought the tempo was a little slow, that his team could have pushed forward more effectively.

"I'm not sure why that was," he said. "I think when we got on the ball, had a lot of possession, they dropped in and we had a tough time breaking them down. We had a lot of rhythm but didn't generate enough."

The complexion of the game changed when the Zips got their first major break. North Carolina defender Brett King was sent off in the 69th minute after receiving his second yellow card for a hard foul on Akron star forward Teal Bunbury. That forced the Tar Heels to play a man down the rest of the way.

Bolowich, however, made clear his team was trying to hang on to force the shootout.

"I felt like with Akron maybe getting a little desperate and throwing players forward to decide the game with the man advantage, that would give us a counterattacking opportunity, and we had a couple of those," he said. "It's just that the final execution was lacking to break the ice."

Oh, how close Carolina came to scoring in the second overtime. A long ball to a sprinting Alex Dixon sent the Tar Heels deep into Akron's end, where the ball eventually wound up on the foot of Farfan. His hard, bending shot required a leaping, one-handed save by David Meves.

The resulting corner kick led to Akron's second big break. Off the corner kick, Graye had Meves beaten with a header, but midfielder Ben Speas, positioned to his keeper's left, cleared the ball before it crossed the goal line.

With that, Carolina's best chance for victory was gone.

When he met the media for a pre-Cup news conference Thursday, Porter jokingly thanked the ACC for inviting his team to its "invitational." With the semifinals in the books, the Zips haven't left the party yet.