By JOHN BOSCHINI
By just about any measure, it has been a good year for the UNC-Charlotte 49ers.
The little-known school of the Atlantic-10 dispatched defending champions Akron and scored in the final five minutes against stingy UConn to steamroll their way into the College Cup. It's the first time the 49ers have appeared in the Final Four since 1996, but head coach Jeremey Gunn isn't satisfied with the semifinals.
"The last two years we've been a very good soccer team, and our goal is to be one of the best in the country," Gunn said. "To get to the Final Four we've done enough to prove that we belong, and we think we can do well."
Charlotte faces by far its toughest test of the season on Friday with a matchup against Creighton (6 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3.com), a side that is allowing just a goal every five games. Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year Giuseppe Gentile has been the driving force behind the team, leading the tournament in goals scored with three of Charlotte's eight scores. The Charlotte native has scored 10 goals in 2011, including the equalizer in the Elite Eight, and finding that offense early will go a long way towards securing the shocking upset over the Bluejays.
"It's always important, in any race, to get off to a good start," Gunn said. "Giuseppe is a tremendous lad, and he scores goals, which helps you win games. We have a great goals against average, and if we can put Creighton under pressure early they're not going to feel comfortable."
On paper, the lengthy road trip and playing away from the friendly confines of Transamerica Field are massive disadvantages. Charlotte was perfect at home, going 9-0-0, but has struggled on the road, where the 49ers have won only half of their games.
"Going away from home takes a toll," Gunn admits. "But I do think it's taught us some valuable lessons. I don't want to look backwards through the year, and, the way I see it, the game's on a neutral field, so I'm happy to be in the position we're in."
The Charlotte student body has stepped up as well. The student government applied for and received, $9,000 to bus 55 students down to Alabama to fill a supporters section. The university also plans to double that contingent with another bus should the 49ers advance to the final.
Regardless of the outcome on Friday, the program has already been given a massive boost in terms Charlotte's image. North Carolina is one of the most populous states for successful collegiate programs — UNC is making its fourth straight College Cup appearance — and Gunn knows what a College Cup showing can do long-term for Charlotte.
"Naturally, it elevates the image of our program quite considerably," Gunn said. "We're proud of what we've done over the past two years with getting into the national rankings. We've been putting ourselves on the map and it's been tremendous."
The recent postseason success is already paying dividends, with Evan James and Charles Rodriguez being included in the 52-man MLS Combine roster. The two seniors, along with Gentile, will have to play flawless soccer if they are to pull off an upset few are expecting.
"The biggest strength of this team is that we're always looking forward," Gunn said. "We're always asking questions of our opponents, and in games like this, the soccer changes quite considerably. Against UConn, we let in a goal in the last 10 minutes and it could have easily been curtains, but we showed great character."
It's that kind of character Charlotte will need in spades come Friday evening.