NCFC takes USL League One championship, defeating the Charlotte Independence 5-4 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 extra-time deadlock.
North Carolina FC 1 (5) –1 (4) Charlotte Independence
CARY, NC—Going from last place to lifting the championship trophy would be a proper storybook ending on its own. Getting the trophy on their way up to USL Championship makes the sacrifices and hard work even more satisfying for North Carolina FC.
Facing their in-state rivals for the last time, NCFC overcame an extra-time deficit, while goalkeeper Brooks Thompson provided some penalty-kick heroics, with a huge save on Joel Johnson’s attempt, giving NCFC their first championship in club history.
A TENSE OPENING 45 MINUTES
The first half was a bit of a chess match, with each side getting a feel for the game and looking for ways to slip in behind the other team’s defense.
At the end of a tense 45 minutes, the game was scoreless, though both teams each logged two shots on goal. While the visitors held an 8-7 shot advantage, NCFC had over 60% possession, with their heavy-hitter attacking unit creating a couple of promising opportunities.
On the other side of the pitch, Charlotte had their chance to take an early lead in the 29th minute off of a corner kick. Thompson punched the corner kick down, but it was collected by the Independence. Mikey Maldonado got in the way of Gabriel Obertan’s second-chance attempt, and then David Garcia blocked Bachir Ndiaye’s follow-up shot.
EXTRA TIME, EXTRA DRAMA
Neither side could find the breakthrough in the first 90 minutes, so the 4,487 fans on hand were treated to another 30 minutes of extra soccer.
The traveling fans from Charlotte thought they had the trophy in hand when Héctor Acosta’s header beat Thompson in the 99th minute.
But this North Carolina FC team has excelled at getting back up when they get knocked down, and Sunday night was no exception. And once again, it was Raheem Somersall taking it upon himself to make things happen.
Pérez lined up to take the free kick after Nick Spielman committed a foul. Following the kick, Garcia made an incredible hold-up play and got the ball back to Somersall in the middle of the box. He blasted the shot off the crossbar, but it rebounded off of the backside of goalkeeper Austin Pack and into the net. It was scored as an Own Goal, but no one wearing dark blue minded as long as the Dead Whales were back in the game.
As extra time ticked down, players on both sides were cramping, prompting head coaches John Bradford and Mike Jeffries to get fresh legs on the field as both sides looked to lock up the game before it went to penalty kicks.
A FULL TEAM EFFORT
Extra time ended in a 1-1 deadlock, so it was on to PKs. Following the coin flip, the teams were shooting at the goal in front of the Independence supporters, with NCFC electing to shoot last.
Dane Kelly converted the first penalty for Charlotte, and Pérez equalized for North Carolina.
Then it was Thompson coming up huge, swatting away Joel Johnson’s attempt to give NCFC the advantage.
Jaden Servania, Daniel Navarro, and Maldonado made good on their attempts, while the Independence got tallies from Acosta, Luis Álvarez, and Nick Spielman.
The championship was on the boot of Luis Arriaga. He coolly beat Pack with a shot to the bottom right corner to get the celebrations going for North Carolina FC.
“I’ve been asked a lot about this team this week,” Bradford noted in his post-game talk with the media. “And I keep saying the word, ‘togetherness,’ keep saying the word, ‘belief.’
“After they scored, obviously, it hurts, but at the same time, the guys continued to believe in what we could do: fight back, get a goal, get ourselves to penalties. Brooks comes up with an amazing save and all five guys step up and get the job done.”
“This is big. This is big,” said Oalex Anderson Jr. after the team lifted the trophy. “For everything that we went through last season, finishing last place, then this season to just go all the way and win a championship. This is big.”
MVP FOR SOMERSALL
It was a surprise to absolutely no one that Somersall was awarded the playoff MVP. His contributions and leadership have been massive for North Carolina FC all season.
He also had a bit of a chip on his shoulder after Charlotte beat NCFC 5-1 at the end of last season.
“That’s it, for me, it’s revenge,” Somersall said after the game. “They beat us 5-1 last year and I took that personally. And for me, I’d be replaying that video…they posted on Instagram. I’d be replaying that video for the last week and I said it’s not gonna happen again.”
A player who came up through the NCFC Academy, Somersall is a prime example of the way North Carolina FC gives players an opportunity to succeed at the professional level.
“He’s from here,” Bradford said of Somersall after the game. “He’s been with us through the hard times in the past. He’s grown, he’s developed, and to get the goal in extra time to get us to penalties is incredible.”
NEXT UP FOR NCFC
MOVIN’ ON UP. North Carolina FC will move up from USL League One to USL Championship for the 2024 season.
North Carolina FC (3-4-2-1): B. Thompson; M. Maldonado, G. Fernandes (D. Navarro 120’), D. Garcia; C. Lue Young (D.J. Benton 116’), N. Flores Blanco (M. Flick 120’), L. Pérez, R. Somersall; R. Mentzingen (L. Arriaga 100’), G. McLaughlin© (N. Ntalu 100’), O. Anderson (J. Servania 82’)
Charlotte Independence (4-2-3-1): A. Pack; H. Acosta, N. Spielman, A. Flanagan, J. Johnson; O. Ciss, M. Ibarra© (L. Alvarez 82’), T. Mbuyu (F. Ngah 112’), B. Ndiaye (R. Djedgie 90’), G. Obertan (B. Dunwell 112’); K. Bennett (D. Kelly 75’)
North Carolina FC: 1 (5)
Charlotte Independence: 1 (4)
North Carolina FC: A. Pack (own goal) 111’
Charlotte Independence: H. Acosta (L. Alvarez) 99’
North Carolina FC: L. Pérez (YC) 86’; N. Ntalu (YC) 108’
Charlotte Independence: A. Flanagan (YC) 71’; T. Mbuyu (YC) 88’