Despite a brilliant assist by Dynamo Academy forward Alex Dixon, North Carolina fell to Louisville in the first of two national semifinals Friday night at Harder Stadium in Santa Barbara. The unbeaten Cardinals advanced to face No. 3 Akron, which has lost just once on the year, in Sunday afternoon's final.
The loss marked the third straight year UNC has reached the College Cup but has gone home without a championship. It also meant the end of the season for Dixon, a junior from Humble Atascocita, and another Dynamo Academy product, freshman defender C.J. Odenigwe (Fort Bend Travis), who appeared in one postseason game.
In Friday's first game, Louisville freshman forward Aaron Horton once more displayed a trademark flair for the dramatic, scoring the winner just moments before the end of the regulation to send the Cardinals into their first-ever College Cup final with a 2-1 win. Off of a combination play, Horton streaked down the left side, where a pinpoint pass from midfieldercaught the subsitute striker in midstreak. Horton then buried the ball in the back of the net with a soft, right-footed chip over sliding goalkeeper Scott Goodwin to keep the Cardinals' dreams of an undefeated season alive.
Horton's goal comes just a week after another impressive game-winner in a wild 5-4 quarterfinal win over UCLA that put Louisville into the semifinals.
The Cardinals dominated much of the match, controlling possession throughout as the Tar Heel midfield -- and star playmaker Michael Farfan, in particular -- struggled to keep the ball and penetrate the burly Louisville defense. The Cardinals took advantage of their superior control to pressure the Tar Heel back line. While North Carolina may have been on its heels early on, timely defending kept the Cardinals off the board.
Louisville nearly opened the scoring in the 19th minute, when North Carolina defender Drew McKinney cleared the ball of the line to rob the Cardinals of an opening goal. Then, just moments later, goalkeeper Scott Goodwin saved a surefire Louisville goal.
Despite all the Tar Heel heroics, the Cardinals broke through first when midfielder Austin Berry headed in a 57th-minute corner kick from Dylan Mares. The freshman and recent U.S. U-20 invitee rose above his marker to slot past Goodwin and into the back of the net.
The Tar Heels didn't stay quiet for long, though, and tied things up in the 62nd minute. Dixon made a fantastic run that began on the right wing, swerved inside, then went back outside to the edge of the penalty area. From there, Dixon served an accurate back-post cross to Stephen McCarthy, who headed home the equalizer.
With the match deadlocked at 1-1 as time wound down, it appeared as though the teams would be headed for overtime and perhaps North Carolina's fourth straight shootout, but then Horton rose to the occasion and chipped over Goodwin to send the Cardinals through.
No. 1-seeded Louisville (20-0-3) will take on Akron, which beat Michigan 2-1 on goals from Perry Kitchen and Kofi Sarkodie, in Sunday's championship game at 3 p.m. CT on ESPN2.