UCLA stood five minutes from a chance to play for another NCAA soccer championship. Turns out their destiny led somewhere else.
The Bruins on Friday night twice watched leads slip away in the second half, lost their homecoming hero to heavy cramps, then came up wanting at the finish, falling to top-seeded North Carolina on penalties following a 2-2 draw in a Division I men's semifinal in Hoover, Ala., outside Birmingham.
The third-ranked Tar Heels (20-2-3), making their fourth successive College Cup final-four appearance, advance to Sunday's title game against Charlotte (16-4-4), which beat No. 2 Creighton on penalties in the first semifinal.
It was a devastating end for fourth-ranked (but 13th-seeded) UCLA (18-4-2), which dominated stretches of the match with a possession game that wearied North Carolina, went ahead on superb goals by Ryan Hollingshead in the 17th minute and Kelyn Rowe in the 74th, then conceded a late equalizer to All-American Billy Schuler.
“It was so close tonight, it could have gone either way,” UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo told ESPN Los Angeles after the game. “To win win a game, you need to have a little bit luck, a little bit skill. We had skill but no luck tonight.”
It was a marvelous encounter, full of incident, featuring great drama, massive momentum swings, great individual performances on both sides, some beautiful soccer -- especially by UCLA the latter part of the first half -- and four stunning goals.
All-American striker Chandler Hoffman, a Birmingham boy playing before family and friends, assisted both UCLA strikes but wasn't in position to score himself, thanks to expert work by North Carolina All-American Matt Hedges.
His departure with a hamstring injury in overtime -- “I was cramping like I've never cramped before,” he reported -- deprived the Bruins of their best finisher in the closing minutes and in the penalty-kick shootout, when they really missed him.
North Carolina won the tiebreaker, 3-1, with three of the Bruins' four shots taken poorly. Andy Rose and Rowe didn't get the ball close enough to the posts on the first two rounds, leaving simple stops for goalkeeper Scott Goodwin. Victor Munoz went up the middle to score on the third round, but Fernando Monge fired well wide left with the fourth shot, and Ben Speas -- an NCAA champion last year at Akron -- followed with the decisive kick.
“Unfortunately, when you miss the first one, it doesn't set a good tone,” Salcedo said. “But we didn't lose because we took poor penalty kicks. It's not one player, not one call, not one penalty kick in soccer that decides whether you win or lose. It's just the overall game.”
The Bruins had the most of the game late in the first half and following the second-half television break, building through, especially, Rose, Rowe and Hollingshead. North Carolina struggled to penetrate but found chances with shots from distance, a few requiring special attention from UCLA goalkeeper Brian Rowe, who was outstanding all night.
UCLA went ahead near the start, with Hoffman holding off Hedges to play the ball back to Hollingshead about 10 yards outside the box. Hollingshead's first touch was superb, opening a canyon above the UNC box, and his blast from 25 yards -- a knuckling bullet that kissed the bottom of the crossbar on its way in -- left Goodwin rooted to the turf.
North Carolina might have pulled even in the 37th, when Brian Rowe leapt to palm a Schuler blast onto the crossbar, or in the 44th, when Speas' 25-yard shot caromed off the top of the right post.
Rob Lovejoy pulled the Tar Heels even in the 56th minute, beating Shawn Singh and Matt Wiet to a header following Speas' run past Patrick Matchett (Laguna Niguel/Dana Hills HS) and Joe Sofia (Dove Canyon/Mission Viejo HS) along the left byline.
Kelyn Rowe gave the Bruins the lead again with a run past three defenders on a give-and-go with Hoffman, but North Carolina -- getting exceptional performances from midfielders Speas, Lovejoy and especially Enzo Martinez -- wasn't done. Martinez, almost out of nowhere, unloaded from 30 yards in the 85th minute, forcing Brian Rowe long stretch to his left to push the ball off the right post.
It caught the inside of the post and bounced back through the goalmouth, between the prone goalkeeper and the goal line. Schuler, a finalist for the Hermann Trophy -- college soccer's Heisman -- raced in to knock home the rebound.
“I think we might have just packed it in [defensively] too early. We got away from keeping the ball and moving foeward,” said Hoffman, a junior who is expected to sign a Generation adidas contract with Major League Soccer. “They were a good team. They never quit.”
Both teams had chances in overtime, the best in the final seconds by Carolina, with Brian Rowe forced to push Kirk Urso's drive from the top of the box past the left post.
Ten minutes later, it was over.
“This is obviously really tough to swallow,” said Hoffman, who had rhapsodized that a Birmingham final -- playing at home for the first time since high school -- was a sign that this was UCLA's year. “I'm so proud of the guys. We had a great team, and it's been an honor to play with the seniors. It's just tough it had to end like this.”
No. 14 Charlotte, the only unseeded team to make it to the College Cup, trumped Creighton (21-2-1) from the spot after a scoreless draw.
The 49ers won the tiebreaker, 4-1, with all four of their shooters -- Tyler Gibson, Isaac Caughran, Donnie Smith and, with the decisive kick, Isaac Cowles -- finding the net. Goalkeeper Gavin Dawson, brought on for the shootout, stopped Kris Clark on Creighton's second attempt and watched Hermann finalist Ethan Finlay fire high on the Blue Jays' third shot.
Creighton twice hit the goal frame in regulation, with Cowles knocking the ball from Jose Gomez (Santa Ana/Century HS and Cal State Fullerton) off his crossbar in he 22nd minute and Finlay heading off the bar in the 64th. Charlotte's best chance arrived in overtime, with Smith testing All-America goalkeeper Brian Holt at the left post.
North Carolina 2 (Lovejoy 56, Schuler 85), UCLA 2 (Hollingshead 17, K. Rowe 74), OT (North Carolina advances on penalties, 3-1)
Semifinals (Friday at Hoover, Ala.)
UCLA 2, North Carolina 2, OT (North Carolina advances on penalties, 3-1)
Charlotte 0, Creighton 0, OT (Charlotte advances on penalties, 4-1)
North Carolina (20-2-3) vs. Charlotte (16-4-4)