We were out of town and nowhere near a television or Internet connection when the UNC Tar Heels met the 49ers of UNC-Charlotte in Hoover, Ala. for the NCAA championship.
While I missed the game, I found myself in an unexpected conversation about it in Sylva, N.C., when I walked into City Lights Bookstore, the town's cozy downtown institution. The proprietor knows me as an occasional, avocational soccer journalist, and he and another store worker struck up a conversation about the upcoming championship game. It turned out that two players at the local high school were driving down to Alabama with their parents to see this game.
My first thought was that times have changed since I was a high school soccer player in Western North Carolina in the 1980s. Not all high schools had soccer teams then, especially in smaller communities where life revolved around football and the Friday night lights. But here in Sylva, the local soccer team is the big deal, the football team having fallen on hard times.
But my second thought was that in 1987, I was the high school soccer player making a road trip with a teammate to the NCAA final. My trip was much shorter, though: I lived in Asheville and the game was in Clemson, S.C., where the Tigers hosted San Diego State and its flashy, long-haired freshman forward, future U.S. international and current Fox Soccer Channel commentator Eric Wynalda. A big crowd turned out for that one, and all the fans in my vicinity taunted Wynalda and his golden locks for 90 minutes. Clemson won, by the way. (I recently had a brief Twitter exchange with Wynalda about this game. He wrote, "I thought I was a long haired punk who could dribble. Never forget that trip!")
Anyway, I missed yesterday's game, which UNC won 1-0. UNC junior transfer Ben Speas continues to enlarge his profile on a team that features such talents as Enzo Martinez and Billy Schuler. In the 65th minute, he made a dazzling run and finish. (His goal is at :28 in this video.)
UNC finishes 20-2-3, while UNC-Charlotte ends a fine season at 16-4-4.
Next month, eyes will be on the MLS SuperDraft. Both Schuler and Martinez are projected to go in the top five—if they opt to leave school a year early. The 19 Major League Soccer teams will select 38 players in two rounds, and the draft will be televised by ESPN at noon on Jan. 12.
If a mere two rounds seems like a small draft, it is. The reality is that there are few top unaffiliated prospects in college. Many teenage prospects opt out entirely, preferring to find professional work, either with an MLS team or abroad. Other college prospects, such as Duke defender Sebastien Ibeagha, have already had their rights claimed by an MLS team, perhaps because of a prior youth academy affiliation (as in Ibeagha's case). These players are not subject to the draft.