North Carolina FC faced their rivals to the north, the Richmond Kickers, for the first time in the 2022 USL League One season on Saturday night.
NCFC was looking to build off of their best performance of the season when they beat Greenville Triumph SC 1-0 on May 21. For the Kickers, it would be their first game in two weeks after last week’s match at Tucson FC was postponed due to Kickers personnel entering the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
The Dead Whales had to overcome a slow start that saw the Kickers put pressure on North Carolina throughout their half of the field.
Richmond’s pressure paid quick dividends. In the 13th minute, Emi Terzaghi carried the ball through the attacking half before laying the pass off to Stephen Payne rolling down the flank. Terzaghi continued his run into the box, and Payne returned the pass at the top of the 18-yard box, and the Richmond captain found the seam between the NCFC defenders, beating a screened Will Pulisic.
North Carolina shook out any lingering jitters after the Richmond goal. NCFC found some creativity through midfield and started poking at the Kickers defense.
Luis Arriaga thought he had the equalizer in the 24th minute when Oalex Anderson tapped a Christian Lue Young pass to him just outside the box. Arriaga ran up on the ball and blasted a hard shot that skiffed along the turf before bouncing off the goalpost.
Their work in the attacking third was finally rewarded in the 36th minute. Arriaga swung a corner kick toward the top of the six-yard box. Garrett McLaughlin and Gustavo Fernandes engaged the Richmond defense in an aerial battle, and it was the Golden Boot leader connecting on the header to tie the game 1-1.
“I was extremely pleased with the way the guys turned around a poor start to the game,” head coach John Bradford said after the match. “…the guys were able to mentally kind of put that behind them and start finding their way a little bit.”
In the 41st minute, Jaden Servania was pulled down in the penalty area for the second time in the first half. The center referee waived off the challenge earlier in the half, but this time she immediately pointed to the penalty spot.
McLaughlin placed the ball on the spot and waited for the signal from the referee. He finished the shot with precision, beating Akira Fitzgerald to put NCFC in the lead right before halftime.
“Something that we’ve been preaching is consecutive goals wins games,” Bradford noted. “Rarely do we score a goal and then we score another goal. It’s usually kind of back and forth and whoever gets the last goal wins the game with us.”
Shortly after the halftime break, Owayne Gordon got on the end of a lofted ball into the attacking zone. At first, it appeared Gordon was offside, but the ball deflected off of a North Carolina defender, so play continued. He found open space through the center of the box and unloaded a shot on frame that a diving Pulisic batted away to preserve the lead.
It was a very good night for the North Carolina defensive corps, led by Pulisic and Jordan Skelton. “Jordan’s been strong for us all year,” Bradford said. “And tonight there was a good balance of leadership as well as quality in terms of clearing things, blocking things, getting to each ball and headers, and you can tell the back four and the goalkeeping, and everybody, collectively, had that enthusiasm to seal up the victory.”
NCFC substitutes also put on an impressive performance late in the game. Cole Frame came on in the 73rd minute for Jaden Servania and wasted no time frustrating Richmond’s defense. His work rate on and off the ball pestered the Kickers and created some good opportunities.
Max Flick, who replaced Anderson in the 79th minute, nearly scored the goal of the year in stoppage time. After slaloming through Richmond’s defense, he rocketed a left-footed shot toward the bottom corner. Fitzgerald came up with a big save to keep his team in the game.
The final whistle blew moments later, and would you look at that: North Carolina FC climbed into second place in the USL League One standings.
“So it was nice to have that response to the first half and then a really good defensive effort in the second half and also the guys that came on,” Bradford said. “And I thought as the game went on, we got stronger and more defensive-minded and that kind of stuff. Good job from the boys to be able to see out a good result.”
Next up for NCFC is a trip out west to take on Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC on Wednesday, June 8. They’ll return to WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, June 18, when they face rival Charlotte Independence. You can get tickets at northcarolinafc.com/tickets.
North Carolina FC (4-2-2): W. Pulisic; C. Lue Young, N. Blanco Flores, J. Skelton ©, G. Fernandes; R. Somersall, L. Arriaga, J. Servania (C. Frame 73’), N. Martinez; G. McLaughlin (B. Fischer 90+1’), O. Anderson (M. Flick 79’)
Richmond Kickers (4-3-3): A. Fitzgerald; S. Ritchie, C. Cole (S. Fitch 46’), N. Aune, S. Payne; D. Barnathan (V. Candela 48’), D. Moran (E. Bryant 74’), N. Vinyals; M. Bentley (J. Bolanos 63’), E. Terzaghi©, O. Gordon (M. Bolduc 74’)
North Carolina FC: 2
Richmond Kickers: 1
North Carolina FC: G. McLaughlin (L. Arriaga) 36’; G. McLaughlin (PK) 42’
Richmond Kickers: E. Terzaghi (unassisted) 13’
North Carolina FC: J. Skelton (YC 37’); G. Fernandes (YC 65’)
Richmond Kickers: M. Bentley (YC 28’); N. Aune (YC 35’); S. Ritchie (YC 64’)