The Second Round of the US Open Cup came to Charlotte, North Carolina on Wednesday night and pitted the city’s two beloved teams: the Charlotte Independence (also known as the Jacks) of the USL and the Charlotte Eagles of the PDL. In front of a crowd split 50-50 between Independence blue and Eagles orange, the USL’s Independence won a thrilling match 3-2 behind a second half brace from substitute Enzo Martinez and now move on to face North Carolina FC in Round 3.
The game looked to be setting up all “Jacks” in the first half. Forwards Casey Townsend and Jaime Siaj led the Independence in taking the ball towards Eagles goalkeeper James Pyle, peppering him with shots before connecting with one in the 9th minute. Yann Ekra got free down the left side and played a ball into the box for Townsend who took advantage of an Eagles mistake to put it past Pyle, making it 1–0 Independence early on.
The Jacks continued to dominate possession, as both Townsend and Siaj had several missed opportunities in the first 20 minutes of play. It wasn’t until the 26th minute that the Eagles spent any time on the attack, when forward Kosi Nwafornso put a shot just past the outside post. It was the Eagles’ only chance in the entire first 45.
The Independence could have been ahead three or four goals, but the halftime whistle blew at 1-0, and the Eagles were lucky to escape with that score line.
The second half started similarly to the first: the Independence had the majority of the ball and seemed to be toying with the PDL’s reigning South Atlantic division winners.
And then, somehow, the game turned on its head.
In the 60th minute, out of nowhere, the Eagles started attacking. A textbook save by Jacks keeper Cody Mizell denied Nwafornso an equalizing goal. But not a minute later, Ryan Williams took a shot from outside the box that Mizell just could not reach. Slotted low to the keeper’s outstretched left, Williams’ goal made it 1-1 in the Charlotte Derby.
Then, just two minutes later, Kelvin Omondi shocked the Queen City with a world-class goal from distance too. Cody Mizell was helpless as “Debouy” put another shot to the keeper’s left, and the crowd erupted as, somehow, the PDL Charlotte Eagles were up 2-1.
Of course, that made the Independence begin to take the game a bit more seriously. On cruise control for the first 60 minutes with many of their regular starters on the bench, Coach Mike Jeffries had a few tricks up his sleeve to get the Jacks to respond to the Eagles comeback: namely, brothers Alex and Enzo Martinez.
Alex came on immediately after Omondi’s goal in the 64th minute, and the Independence regained their footing with a possession-based attack. Then, in the 72nd minute, Alex’s brother Enzo came on. An MVP candidate in USL in 2016, Enzo is special on the ball, and the tired Eagles youngsters simply could not keep up with him.
On the attack, Enzo was pulled down in the box in the 76th minute and converted the penalty in the 77th to tie the game at 2-2. The wind taken out of their sails, the Eagles still made a few attempts at trying to find a third, but for the most part, the Independence had their way in the final 15.
And then, the heartbreaker for the PDL side came in the 88th minute: Enzo again showed his skill, taking a pass from his brother Alex and blasting it past an outstretched James Pyle for the game’s fifth goal, the Jacks’ third, and a 3-2 lead.
That was the final score at Charlotte Christian on Wednesday night: a 3-2 victory for the Independence that sees them move on to the third round of the US Open Cup.
Eagles GM Andrew Pierce took the loss in stride, looking for positives.
“Tough one tonight. I thought the boys did really well responding after halftime,” he said. “I think the first half it was tough for us to get a rhythm going. In the 2nd half we did a better job of combining and finding our playmakers. Tough penalty to give up to tie the game but it’s a teachable moment. Have to learn from these and get better and move on. But we’re looking forward to playing the Dynamo Saturday, hoping to move to 2-0 in the league. That’s what our focus is now, getting results in the league and making sure we stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.”
The third round US Open Cup match for the Independence is against familiar foe North Carolina FC in Cary on May 31st. Last time they met back in 2016’s Cup, the then-Railhawks and Jacks played a scoreless first 90 minutes before the NASL side put up five goals in the added 30 minutes to win 5-0.
The Eagles’ next match is Saturday night at 7 p.m. against their PDL rival the Carolina Dynamo who were also eliminated from the US Open Cup tonight.