Like a lot of casual soccer fans, I generally watch soccer for two reasons:
One of my kids is playing.
The United States is playing in the World Cup.
But I made an exception Friday night, watching every minute I could of the men's soccer final four, featuring Charlotte in the first game and North Carolina in the second. And by the end I was riveted - needing to sleep but not going to bed, waiting out the two overtime periods and then the penalty kicks to watch the Tar Heels advance and join the 49ers in today's national final.
It riveted me enough that I'm driving to Hoover, Ala., today, joining The Observer's David Scott to cover the Charlotte-North Carolina final in person in the same building just outside Birmingham where Michael Jordan once played minor-league baseball.
It was 34 years ago when Charlotte and North Carolina nearly met in the 1977 men's basketball final. But Marquette edged the 49ers, 51-49, to spoil that - and then beat North Carolina in the final, too.
Now it's a different sport and a different generation. But the dream matchup - at least for 49ers fans - is finally upon us at 4 p.m. (ESPNU). The timing is good - the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons should be finishing up their game at almost exactly the same time.
There are a lot of sudden soccer fans all around the Charlotte area. Winning a couple of thrillers in a row will do that. And the first national championship in any sport in Charlotte 49ers history would be triply sweet if it came over North Carolina, the big brother in this relationship.
The No.1-seeded Tar Heels have made it to the College Cup - which is what men's soccer calls its final four - for four seasons in a row and won a national title in 2001. The Tar Heels' game against UCLA was pretty fascinating - they were behind both 1-0 and 2-1 and then tied the game twice with two beautiful goals. Then, on penalty kicks, the Tar Heels' goalkeeper Scott Goodwin was magnificent, saving the first two UCLA tries and basically winning it right there.
The unseeded 49ers' win over Creighton Friday I had to catch mostly via highlights and over the Internet since I was covering a Charlotte Bobcats practice that was happening at the same time. We couldn't find ESPNU on the nearest TV at Time Warner Cable Arena, and so I found myself following David Scott's tweets from Alabama and trying to picture the action.
Incidentally, Bobcats head coach Paul Silas was asked a question about the 49ers' soccer team Friday night - that had to be a first.
I enjoy the 49ers' pluck and their strategy of using a substitute goalkeeper for the penalty kicks. It's unusual - backup goalkeeper Gavin Dawson is like a great closer on a baseball team - but has now worked two times in a row.
North Carolina and Charlotte played in an exhibition in Charlotte this season. It's interesting that the Tar Heels led 2-1 with the final 20 minutes canceled due to a huge rainstorm, and perhaps more interesting that the game set an all-time soccer attendance record at Charlotte (4,038).
Charlotte wasn't supposed to get this far. The 49ers weren't seeded and didn't win either the Atlantic 10 regular-season or tournament championship.
But the 49ers have found their way to Alabama, playing the perfect opponent in a game that will decide a national championship. And no matter who wins, our state can revel in this matchup, for the trophy comes back to North Carolina either way.