North Carolina FC 2 – 1 One Knoxville SC
CARY, NC— Gustavo Fernandes scored his first career goal, and captain Garrett McLaughlin headed home a late goal that gave North Carolina FC three massive points and a first-round bye in the 2023 USL League One playoffs.
And they accomplished it without some key members of their lineup. Oalex Anderson Jr. is on international duty, Mikey Maldonado sat out with yellow card accumulation, and D.J. Benton was serving his suspension for the red card he received last week at Lexington.
One Knoxville had a good spell of possession early in the match, but it was North Carolina creating some promising scoring chances when they got the ball.
McLaughlin sowed the seeds of chaos in the 13th minute with a drive down the right flank into the box. He cut back to get around the defender and took a shot that Knoxville goalkeeper Sean Lewis fumbled. The Knoxville defender tried to clear the ball out, but it went right to Raheem Somersall, who tried for the far corner, but that was cleared away.
In the 29th minute, it would be Rafa Mentzingen with the close-in shot from a McLaughlin backheel. Lewis made the kick save to keep the game scoreless.
CAN’T TAKE THAT ONE AWAY FROM FERNANDES
North Carolina broke through in the 30th minute, courtesy of Gustavo Fernandes.
After winning the corner kick, Rafa drilled the ball into the box. The defense cleared it out, but Christian Lue Young was there to calmly tap it back over to Mentzingen, who lofted it back into the box, where Fernandes redirected the ball with a brilliant header, beating Lewis.
“Yeah, I had a couple of goals taken away from me this year,” a happy and somewhat relieved Fernandes said after the game. “You know, it kind of stinks, but you know they weren’t going to take that one away.”
He noted that it was a play he and Rafa had been working on in training. “Whenever the second ball comes out, just recycle my run and hopefully it finds me on my head, and it did that time, and it went in. So, a very good ball from Rafa; you know, he did most of the work.”
Head coach John Bradford was thrilled for Fernandes, even though it might make him a little lighter in the wallet.
“I told Gustavo yesterday in training I’d give him 100 bucks if he scored tonight and now, I actually have to pay up,” he said. “But I’m happy to do it because it’s been a long time coming for him to get his header in and get his goal.”
After watching his centerback partner nod in a goal in the first half, David Garcia thought he’d have a go in the 49th minute. This time it was Rafa with a free kick from distance lofted perfectly into the box. Garcia couldn’t have played the header any better, but Lewis—who had a phenomenal game for One Knox—made the diving save, getting his fingertip on the ball.
DIGGING DEEP TO UNEARTH THREE POINTS
North Carolina FC has a pretty good record when leading at halftime. They’ve taken points out of every game with 13 wins and a draw. Still, with plenty of eyes keeping watch on the game between Forward Madison and Union Omaha, NCFC needed to be especially greedy if they wanted to claim the regular season championship.
Things got a bit nervy in the 55th minute when Knoxville won the ball in their defensive end and got a great ball behind the North Carolina defense. After some good ball movement in NCFC’s defensive third, the ball came to Kyle McDowell on the left flank. He bounced the ball back across the box to Frank Ross, who took a touch and beat Brooks Thompson with a line drive to the near corner to level the score.
North Carolina could lock up the bye with a draw but would need to run up the score to catch Omaha, who was leading Madison in the second half. Once again, it was Mentzingen facing off against Lewis off of a perfectly weighted free kick from Louis Pérez that found him on the doorstep. Rafa one-timed the ball on net, but Lewis got down with the kick save.
The crowd of 5,795 fans was sure Rafa had the game-winner on his boot when he sent a laser of a free kick toward the top corner of the net in the 65th minute, only to watch it sail just wide of the mark.
A LESSON IN PERSEVERANCE
Team captain—and off-season substitute teacher—Garrett McLaughlin delivered a lesson on perseverance in the 89th minute. Lue Young and Rafa cycled the ball around the right side before Lue Young sent a chipper across the box. Nathan Ntalu headed the ball back toward McLaughlin. The skipper bounced a strong header on frame, but once again, Lewis got down to scoop the ball away.
But he scooped the ball right to the feet of McLaughlin, and this time he made sure Lewis wouldn’t be able to perform any more heroics by slamming the ball past the fallen keeper to give his team their biggest win of the regular season.
And, like any good captain, he was quick to credit Ntalu for his role in getting the game-winner.
“I don’t score if Nathan’s not there to drag that defender out,” McLaughlin pointed out. “Hope he gets an assist because it came off his head, then I just kind of shot it with my head and he saved it and I shot again and I scored.”
The game-winning goal was even more special for McLaughlin, with his parents in the stands to support him. “I’m happy I can do that for the club, to get us a bye when my parents are here too. And that’s always special enough to get a goal like that in that scenario.”
A common theme in the post-game conversation with McLaughlin and Fernandes was believing in themselves and the guys next to them on the field.
“I felt like, this team, overall we have a huge desire to win,” McLaughlin said. “And that shows, how we go where it’s we’re up 1-0, tied 1-1 and then we score in the [89th] minute. I mean, we never, never stopped; we always kept believing. So, it’s what I love about this group.”
Fernandes drew inspiration from the hit show “Ted Lasso,” to keep his teammates on the right track during training and in the game. Drawing a parallel with the show, where the fictional AFC Richmond needed help from other teams to achieve their goal, NCFC needed Madison to pull off the upset over Omaha for them to win the shield.
“I’ve been harping on ‘believe, believe, believe’,” Fernandes said. “And, you know, we did what we could, you know, sadly the results didn’t go our way in Madison, but you know we still got second place. We got a first round bye and a semi-final game at home.”
ARRIAGA: MAKING THE MOST OF AN OPPORTUNITY
His contributions didn’t show up on the scoresheet, but Luis Arriaga played an outstanding game Saturday night and could easily have been named Player of the Game. With Maldonado out of the game, Arriaga stepped up and did a fantastic job of disrupting One Knoxville’s attacking flow throughout the match.
“I thought Luis was great,” Bradford said. “Obviously, our formation a lot of this year has made it difficult for Luis to get on the field, but he showed tonight how much quality he has, especially recapturing the ball in the opposition half, when they would try to clear it, and defensively breaking up plays, and then, obviously, very important for us in terms of our build and our attack as well.”
NEXT UP FOR NCFC
North Carolina FC returns to the playoffs at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, October 28. They will play the winner of next week’s playoff match between Greenville and Charlotte. Get your tickets at northcarolinafc.com/tickets.
North Carolina FC (4-3-3): B. Thompson; C. Lue Young, G. Fernandes, D. Garcia, N. Flores Blanco; R. Somersall, L.Arriaga, L. Pérez, R. Mentzingen; J. Servania, G. McLaughlin©
One Knoxville SC (3-4-3): S. Lewis; J. Thomas, G. Claudio, D. Fernandez; K. McDowell, C. Johnson, A. Kelly©, Y. van der Pluijm; F. Ross, G. Calixtro, R. Castro
North Carolina FC: 2
One Knoxville SC: 1
North Carolina FC: G. Fernandes (R. Mentzingen) 30’; G. McLaughlin (unassisted) 89’
One Knoxville SC: F. Ross (K. McDowell) 55’
North Carolina FC: none
One Knoxville SC: J. Thomas (YC) 47’; G. Claudio (YC) 77’; Y. van der Pluijm (YC) 90’