North Carolina FC concluded their road trip in Statesboro, GA, where they faced off against South Georgia Tormenta FC for the third time this season.
NCFC is still trying to find the form they had early in the season when they were jostling for position at the top of the standings. The Dead Whales have continually demonstrated the fight that lifted them to the top of the table in May, despite their challenges in June and July.
A win at Erk Russell Athletic Park and NCFC would be right back in the playoff mix. But for head coach John Bradford’s club, it’s more a matter of eliminating the mistakes that have either cost them a lead or put them in the hole.
Compared to their start a week ago, North Carolina looked more solid defensively and through midfield, which helped buy the attacking players time to establish themselves in the game.
They found some creativity early in the game when Cole Frame picked out Garrett McLaughlin in the penalty area. McLaughlin hit Nicolás Molina with the one-touch pass, but the Tormenta defense swarmed the Argentine striker before he could get into space for a shot.
And in the 21st minute, NCFC put together a solid spell of possession that nearly ended with McLaughlin heading home a goal, but the ball deflected out for North Carolina’s first corner of the night.
Unfortunately for the Dead Whales, they ended up on the bad end of a controversial call in the penalty area. Kazaiah Sterling attempted a shot in the penalty area that went wide. Referee Jose Lara, who was several yards behind the play, immediately blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot, apparently calling Gustavo Fernandes for contacting Sterling before the shot.
Sterling converted the penalty kick to put Tormenta up 1-0 in the 27th minute.
How would North Carolina respond to a frustrating turn that saw them starting to develop some dangerous chances only to see them behind on the scoreboard?
Cole Frame found the ball right at his feet in the 33rd minute after it bounced around the box. He tried to find the seam with a right-footed shot, but it went just wide of the post.
Moments later, Raheem Somersall took the flick on from Molina and had to hurry a shot that sailed over the net.
In the 37th minute, Tormenta pulled together a tremendous buildup that saw Gabriel Cabral get the ball to Kingsford Adjei all alone on Will Pulisic, but the NCFC keeper made an outstanding block to keep the score 1-0.
All things considered, it was a solid first half for North Carolina. They were nearly even in possession and dominating in duels won on the ground and in the air. But yet again, they found themselves chasing a result.
NCFC put in the work early in the second half, with Frame being an absolute pest for Tormenta’s back line and Luis Arriaga getting more involved in the mix, helping to create scoring opportunities.
Arriaga was credited with North Carolina’s first shot on goal of the game in the 55th minute when he ripped a left-footed shot that went right to Tormenta goalkeeper Pablo Jara.
Ten minutes later, after NCFC had another good spell of possession, Tormenta came down the field on a strong counterattack. After passing the ball through the box, Nelson Flores Blanco rallied to win a huge duel at the endline.
While the defense was trying to lock it down in the back, Bradford looked for some offensive spark and more support for McLaughlin. He brought Jaden Servania on in the 58th minute and swapped Arriaga and Molina for Shak Adams and Showkat Tahir in the 70th minute.
The moves paid off in the 79th minute when Adams worked deep in the attacking end and skipped a pass off a Tormenta defender to Jaden Servania in the middle of the box. Servania got enough behind the ball to beat Jara and level the game.
It wasn’t level for long. Just a minute later, with North Carolina’s defense pressing forward, Chris Heckenberg found an unmarked Sterling behind the defense. Pulisic came out to cut off the angle, but Sterling was patient and waited for the NC goalkeeper to commit before getting the better of him to regain the lead in the 81st minute.
NCFC stormed right back down the field, and after some nifty footwork at the top of the box, Tahir rifled a left-footer that forced Jara to make a save.
They thought they earned a penalty kick opportunity in the 90th minute when Adams was muscled down in the penalty area. However, the referee deemed that Adams oversold the contact and showed him a yellow card.
Adams nearly found the equalizer in the 94th minute when Flores Blanco picked out Adams at the far post. It looked like the Dead Whales would earn the draw with a point-blank header, but Jara made a huge save to keep his team on top.
After six minutes of stoppage time, North Carolina FC found themselves on the disappointing end of a 2-1 score. But with games next Wednesday and Saturday, there won’t be any time for John Bradford and his team to dwell on the result.
Game Notes: Before the start of the match, there was a moment of remembrance for Tormenta 2 player Carter Payne, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident on July 9. There is a Go Fund Me campaign to help his family with medical and funeral expenses. Anyone wishing to contribute can go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/in-memory-of-carter-payne.
Next up for NCFC is a stop at WakeMed Soccer Park on Wednesday to take on the Richmond Kickers before they head west again to face FC Tucson on Saturday, July 30. Get tickets for all home games at northcarolinafc.com/tickets and come out to support the Boys in Blue.
North Carolina FC (4-4-2): W. Pulisic; C. Lue Young, N. Blanco Flores, J. Skelton ©, G. Fernandes; Pecka (N. Martinez 58’), R. Somersall, C. Frame (J. Servania 58’), L. Arriaga (S. Adams 70’); G. McLaughlin, N. Molina (S. Tahir 70’)
South Georgia Tormenta FC: P. Jara©; F. Adeniyi, J. Dengler, J. Phelps (D. Nembhard 90+2’); J. Roberts (A. Morrell 73’), O. Green, T. Otieno (C. Heckenberg 74’), G. Cabral; K. Sterling, A. Billhardt, K. Adjei
North Carolina FC: 1
South Georgia Tormenta FC: 2
North Carolina FC: J. Servania (unassisted) 79’
South Georgia Tormenta FC: K. Sterling (PK) 27’; K. Sterling (C. Heckenberg) 81’
North Carolina FC: G. Fernandes (YC 13’); N. Flores Blanco (YC 49’); J. Servania (YC 68’); S. Adams (YC 90’)
South Georgia Tormenta FC: T. Otieno (YC 24’)