A cool night at Charlotte Christian School was the scene as the sun began to set on the Second Round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup for the first-ever official match between the Charlotte Eagles and the Charlotte Independence. A real derby.
Adding to the drama is the fact that when the Eagles dropped to the PDL after more than 20 years as a pro team, the Independence were the club that replaced them in the USL.
The Eagles, playing in the tournament as a PDL team for the first time, entered the night with just two games under their belt, having won twice the week before in Open Cup and regular season play. The Independence, on the other hand, sit third in the USL Eastern Conference having already played nine regular season matches and a full preseason – giving the USL side an apparent fitness advantage and a comfort in tactics that proved to be a difference maker in the club’s 2-0 win.
Having played a congested schedule over the past two weeks, the night ended up being a much-needed opportunity for Independence to rest starters and see younger guys get some key minutes. Young players like Austin Yearwood, Emmanuel Appiah, Alec Bartlett, and Christopher Hellmann all made their first starts for the club in any competition. It would prove to be a fateful night for the young forward Hellmann, who got the game going just before halftime.
Both the scoreboard and the play on the field was deadlocked for over 40 minutes as neither Charlotte team could find the back of the net – though they had their chances. Eagles forward Tresor Mbuyu struck the woodwork around the 22nd minute and the Independence got a few shots off before Hellmann would get on the end of a poor save from William Pyle in the 44th, notching his first professional goal in his first-ever start for the club.
On the other side of halftime in the 50th minute, Caleb Calvert for the Independence would get a shot on goal off, forcing Pyle to make a save. Unfortunately for the PDL side, the ball fell straight to midfielder Jorge Herrera who put the ball away. It was bittersweet for the Columbian veteran, after spending over a decade with the Eagles throughout their professional days, but it was his goal that would put the nail in the Eagles’ Open Cup coffin.
Independence did a good job closing out the game, with young defenders Alec Bartlett and Austin Yearwood paired at center back for the first time performing well and goalkeeper John Berner returning from offseason surgery to keep a clean sheet in his first appearance back.
“First of all, a lot of respect to the Eagles group,” said Independence head coach Mike Jeffries after the game. “I think they’re very talented and play at a high level. For us, it was very important to get guys minutes in a meaningful game, in a game where there’s pressure to have to win, and I thought the guys held up very well. It’s always tricky in the Open Cup because you want to advance and yet, the way our schedule’s been with two away games…I didn’t make a lot of changes in those games so obviously giving games a break was important. More importantly, its good for these guys to in a game and contribute and they all did.”
With the win, the Independence, won’t have the leave the state of North Carolina. They will travel to Cary on June 1 to take on the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks in Round 3. This will be the second year in a row that the two clubs will meet at WakeMed Soccer Park. Last year, the Independence got the best of Carolina, winning 1-0 in the Third Round.
Zach Hall is your friendly neighborhood soccer fan with a blog, based in Charlotte, NC. He can be found spending too much time on Twitter @crowntownsoccer.