It’s one thing when every game takes on the intensity of a playoff match. Add to the mix the fact that North Carolina FC has been on the road for most of the month of September and has played four games in the past 11 days, it makes the task even more difficult.
NCFC returned to WakeMed Soccer Park Wednesday night knowing they need to get full points out of every one of their remaining matches to have a chance at making the playoffs. Thanks to a solid team effort and goals from Garrett McLaughlin and rookie Nicolas Rincon, North Carolina took all three points off of Central Valley Fuego FC.
“I’m super proud of this group,” said head coach John Bradford after the game. “Coming off a long road trip where they competed really well and hard in each of those games, you could tell it meant a lot to them to be back on their home field and play in front of our fans.”
There were clearly some tired bodies on the field for North Carolina, but they played through any lingering road weariness to get out on the front foot against the visitors from Fresno, CA.
Fullback Max Flick almost got NCFC on the scoreboard 13 minutes into the game off of a give-and-go play with Oalex Anderson. Flick got the ball back from Anderson just outside of the attacking 18-yard box, turned around and uncorked a wild right-footed shot that nearly caught the top corner.
With a heavy schedule and injuries throughout the season, Bradford is grateful to have a utility player like Flick to call on. “You know, earlier in the season, if he’s not getting a moment or a start here, he doesn’t change his attitude. He doesn’t change his approach,” the coach noted. “And obviously, he’s a vital, important part of this team that can play a couple different roles and has been exceptional I think in this last week and a half in the left back roles.
“So I thought tonight he didn’t put a foot wrong…having a player like that it also just kind of speaks to the fabric of the group to have a lot of guys that just want to work hard and try to get a result for the team and that’s exactly what Max does.”
Goalkeeper Will Pulisic came up big moments later when Central Valley’s Victor Falck wiggled away from the defense inside the NCFC 18 and slid the ball across the box to Cherif Dieye who had only Pulisic between himself and the open net. The goalkeeper went down and got a hand on the ball to knock aside the attempt and keep the game scoreless.
McLaughlin came within inches of putting the Dead Whales on top in the 21st minute after an outstanding individual effort by Anderson to win the ball near the end line and pass it to his front line partner at the near post. Fuego goalkeeper Ofek Antman managed to get down and push the ball away.
Rincon delivered plenty of energy and poise, as well as some fancy footwork, putting his stamp on this game in front of the home crowd. His individual effort in the 22nd minute led to McLaughlin’s 14th goal of the season. He slipped his defender and carried the ball from the flank well into the box before picking out McLaughlin making a supporting run along with Flick. McLaughlin tapped the ball in past Antman, giving NCFC the lead and putting himself alone in second place in the Golden Boot race.
North Carolina’s team defense held together well throughout the game, coming up with plays when needed, but there was nothing to be done about Christian Chaney’s 29th minute golazo from 35 yards out.
It was a chippy game that saw a total of 34 fouls, 10 yellow cards, and one ejection. That’s a lot of set piece opportunities and Chaney came within a hair of putting Fresno ahead with a brilliantly taken free kick that just skimmed the top of the crossbar in the 48th minute.
But this was Nico Rincon’s night and in the 68th minute he nabbed the game-winner off of a picture-perfect feed from Luis Arriaga.
“That was awesome,” Bradford said. “You could tell the way he was playing and he was just going to find a moment that he was going to be a difference maker tonight. And I’m just so happy for him to be involved in both goals, to have the confidence of the team; you know, a young man, 16-year-old, starting as an attacking midfielder for that and to have all of…the older guys in the locker room believe in him and for him to have the confidence to be able to step out on the field and perform that way he performed is an exceptional night that he’ll never forget.”
Central Valley Fuego went down to 10 men in the 75th minute when McLaughlin picked off a clearing attempt at midfield and chipped the ball past a defender and was off to the races when he was leveled by Sam Strong. The foul earned Strong a straight red card and allowed North Carolina to see out the game with a man advantage.
Pulisic was called on one more time in second half stoppage time, when Fresno earned a free kick from 30 yards out. Chaney thought he had the equalizer when his free kick cleared the NCFC wall and was curling toward the post. But Pulisic made the diving save, parrying the shot away to secure the win.
Next up for NCFC is a match against Union Omaha on Saturday, October 1. They play their final home game against the Chattanooga Red Wolves on Saturday, October 8. Then they close out the 2022 USL League One season on October 15 at Charlotte. You can get tickets for all home games at northcarolinafc.com/tickets.
North Carolina FC (4-4-2): W. Pulisic; C. Lue Young, G. Fernandes, J. Skelton©, M. Flick; Pecka, R. Somersall, N. Rincon (J. Servania 71’), L. Arriaga; O. Anderson (N. Martinez 81’), G. McLaughlin
Central Valley Fuego FC: O. Antman; A. Vera (M. Hornsby 54’), S. Strong, F. Dulysse, N. Smith; A. Cerritos (O. Ramos 69’), V. Falck (M. Schenfeld 81’), M. Dabo, C. Dieye (D. Casillas 54’), V. Bijev© (Z. Vazquez 81’); C. Chaney
North Carolina FC: 2
Central Valley Fuego FC: 1
North Carolina FC: G. McLaughlin (N. Rincon) 22’; N. Rincon (L. Arriaga) 69’
Central Valley Fuego FC: C. Chaney (V. Bijev) 29’
North Carolina FC: G. Fernandes (YC) 9’; J. Skelton (YC) 47’; Pecka (YC) 90’; J. Servania (YC) 90+4’
Central Valley Fuego FC: A. Vera (YC) 24’; M. Dabo (YC) 58’; V. Falck (YC) 63’; S. Strong (RC/ejection) 73’; M. Hornsby (YC) 76’; C. Chaney (YC) 90+2’; F. Dulysse (YC) 90+4’