Florida Soccer Soldiers pose for a team photo before their game against Miami FC in the First Round of the 2019 US Open Cup. Photo: Orovio Photography
The Florida Soccer Soldiers found a way. Despite being the underdogs, despite a long trip up to Charlotte from Miami, despite going a man down in the second half and despite trailing by a goal in extra time, the Florida Soccer Soldiers finished off a second straight upset Tuesday night, beating Charlotte Independence 5-4 in a penalty kick shootout in the Second Round of the 2019 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
“This is huge, man,” said Florida forward Valentin Sabella, who scored the tying goal in extra time. “Coming all the way from Miami, first time playing a professional team in an official match, and being able to beat them the way we did is absolutely incredible.”
Florida’s dream run will continue with another road game in Round 3 at the winner of Wednesday’s match between the Richmond Kickers (USL League One) and North Carolina FC (USL Championship).
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It was an uphill road for the Florida Soccer Soldiers of the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). Charlotte controlled possession, especially in the first half, never trailed and had multiple chances to win the game in the final moments of regular time.
Independence defender Hugh Roberts opened the scoring off a 31st-minute free kick from Enzo Martinez. The free kick found Hassan Ndam at the far post and he headed it to the near post where Roberts punched it in to give the Independence a 1-0 lead. It was Roberts’ second career US Open Cup goal, his first since 2016 when he was a member of the Richmond Kickers.
Charlotte had a plethora of chances to double the lead. One of the best came in first half stoppage time, when Abdoulie Mansally found himself wide open in the box with the ball. But, after a short hesitation, he lifted the right-footed shot over the crossbar.
“Offensively we’ve got to be more clinical,” said Charlotte coach Jim McGuinness, whose team has just one win in 10 USL Championship matches. “You know, creating chances has been off the charts all season, to be honest with you. We’re up at 16, 17 shots every game, but we’re not making that count on the scoreboard and I think that’s really hurting us.”
The Soccer Soldiers also had their chances. The best in the first half came on a Sabella breakaway in the 42nd minute, but the speedy forward’s shot went just right of the goal.
The Soccer Soldiers finally broke through in the 78th minute, when Adolfo Suazo headed home a long cross to the far post from Daniel Meneses to knot the game at 1-1.
Then, everything seemed to go the Independence’s way.
Florida’s Antonioni Gonzalez was sent off with his second yellow card in second half stoppage time. A few minutes later, Florida keeper Bryant Martin made an incredible, game-saving save on a Dominic Oduro header. And in the dying embers of regular time, it looked like Ndam scored a game-winner off a rebound in the box, but it was negated by an offside call and the game went to extra time tied 1-1.
Charlotte pounced quickly in the first extra period. Enzo Martinez’s shot in the 92nd minute was saved, but the ball fell to the feet of Oduro just outside the six-yard box and he poked home the goal, giving the Independence a 2-1 lead. For Oduro, it was his eighth career US Open Cup goal, which ranks among the Modern Era’s top 20 goalscorers.
That goal seemed like it would be enough against the short-handed Soccer Soldiers. But the lead vanished the final minute of the second period of extra time. Sabella took advantage of a poor back pass by Ndam, beat Charlotte keeper Curtis Anderson and slid home the goal that tied the game at 2-2 and forced the penalty shootout.
“I know sometimes defenders tend to like playing it back,” Sabella said about the goal. “I read the play. I don’t know … it just happened. I can’t explain it. I don’t know how.”
The first four players for each team made their penalty. Then Florida’s Sabella came through in the clutch again, making fifth kick to put the pressure on Charlotte. Soccer Soldiers keeper Martin, who had nearly saved two penalties earlier in the shootout, guessed right, dove to his right and saved Enzo Martinez’s attempt to give Florida the win.
But the Soccer Soldiers aren’t done yet.
“There are nine games in this competition,” Sabella said. “We’re past two already. Seven to go. We believe in ourselves to get that far, trust me.”