The Charlotte 49ers shutout the Florida Atlantic Owls, 4-0, Sunday afternoon at Transamerica Field while scoring three goals in the first half and one to cap off the game in the second to capture the 2016 Conference USA Women’s Soccer Championship. With the win, the 49ers clinched a trip to the NCAA tournament for just the fifth time in program history, and the first under head coach John Cullen.
“The disappointment of not getting in last year fueled us, and drove us on to be a better team and a better program,” said Cullen. “We addressed a few things internally to become better teammates, and I just think the closeness of this group has been outstanding. I’m immensely proud of the group, of how they’ve worked for 12 months to get to this point.”
As the No. 6-seed in the tournament, the 49ers did not have an easy trail to the championship game against FAU, needing penalty kicks against No. 3-seed Western Kentucky in the quarterfinals and a shutout to slide by No. 7-seed UTEP. FAU (12-8-2)carried the fourth-seed in the tournament, dominating Louisiana Tech 3-0 and sneaking by North Texas 3-2. With an NCAA tournament bid on the line, these two high-powered offenses made for an exciting championship game.
Charlotte (11-8-2) wasted no time to net their first goal of the half, scoring in just the sixth minute, using three freshman to do so. Riley Orr, an All-Conference USA Third Team and All-Conference USA Freshman Team selection, lined up for a corner on the far side of the field, centering the ball into the box with perfect loft to Megan Greene. Greene, named the C-USA Freshman of the Year, headed the ball to 5-foot-11 Julia Grainda who waited patiently at the goal line, heading it just by the C-USA Keeper of the Year, Sydney Drinkwater, to put the 49ers up 1-0.
After 20 more minutes of action on the pitch, the 49ers used another cross-to-header connection to jump out to a two-goal lead in the 26th minute. Senior Kaitlyn Walker finessed her way around a defender on the right side, sending the ball into the box to a wide-open Katie O’Neill, heading the ball to the far post to give the 49ers a 2-0 edge.
The 49ers used their aggressive attack that they displayed all tournament long to set up another opportunity in the 46th minute. Orr worked her way by the FAU backline down the left side of the field, pitching a ball to the top of the six-yard box, with Greene waiting to attack. The star-studded freshman, Greene, found the back of the net with a header, putting Charlotte up by three goals in the championship game.
Heading into halftime, the 49ers held a 10-6 shot advantage, barely making keeper Anna Sheldon break a sweat, using spectacular play from defenders Abby Taylor, Walker, Orr and Shelby Hicks.
Coming out of the break, Charlotte figured three goals weren’t enough, so they added a fourth just two minutes into the second half. C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Martha Thomas received a corner from Orr, who then one-touched the ball over to Emily Truelove. With only two goals on the season for the sophomore out of Garner, N.C., Truelove earned the 49ers fourth goal of the game with a strike from 20 yards out in the 47th minute.
With a four-goal lead, the 49ers also put on a defensive showcase in front of their home crowd, only allowing two shots to be on-goal, speaking volume to how fundamentally sound coach Cullen’s team is.
By getting the win at their home field, the 49ers improved to 9-1-1 at Transamerica Field, feeding off of a loud crowd that nearly reached 700 fans.
“This program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in many years—it’s definitely a big step for us,” said tri-captain Thomas. “We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to prepare all week, get our bodies some rest after three games in five days.”
After raising the C-USA Championship trophy, there were a few ladies for the 49ers who brought home hardware of their own: Katie O’Neill, All-Tournament Offensive MVP; Shelby Hicks, All-Tournament Defensive MVP; Anna Sheldon, All-Tournament Team; Kelley Suggs, All-Tournament Team.
With the win, Charlotte earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, awaiting their seed and opponent with Monday’s selection show beginning at 4:30 p.m. The First Round of the tournament will be set for Nov. 11, 12 or 13.