Charlotte FC defeats Greenville in Open Cup Play
Charlotte's extra time win concludes an exciting day of soccer
Yes, there was soccer today, and the night ended with Charlotte FC winning its first U.S. Open Cup match in Greenville, S.C. with the debut of the team’s newest designated player, Kamil Jóźwiak.
First, my Bundesliga team, 1. FC Union Berlin, lost a heartbreaker in the semi-final of the DFB-Pokal (German Cup). After going up a goal in the first half, Union Berlin allowed an equalizer from Red Bull Leipzig early in the second half and gave up a last-minute goal in the second minute of stoppage time. Union doesn’t get to go back to Berlin, however; they play Leipzig again in regular league play this weekend.
In the most important English Premier League match of the day, Chelsea – rumored to be playing Charlotte in a friendly at Bank of America Stadium in July – fell to Arsenal at home, 2-4. Chelsea, of course, has even greater problems off the pitch right now.
Finally, in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Greenville Triumph Soccer Club hosted the Charlotte Football Club in a sellout match with 4,064 in attendance. Why the smaller stadium? Outside of the Cup, Greenville plays in the USL1, the third tier of US Soccer.
For the uninitiated, this is probably a good time for me to explain the U.S. Open Cup. In addition to league play (MLS, EPL, Bundesliga, etc), many countries have a knockout cup tournament that is slightly less prestigious than league play (for example, the Open Cup in the US, the Football Association Cup in England, and the DFB-Pokal in Germany).
A cup championship is often the gateway to international play; the U.S. Open Cup winner wins a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, which covers North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The only other way for an MLS team to make it into the Champions League is to win the MLS Cup playoff or have the best regular season record in one of the two MLS conferences.
For an expansion team like Charlotte to make it into international play, the Open Cup is a much more plausible path than having one of the best records in MLS play. MLS teams have an added benefit; they enter the tournament in the third or fourth round.
Back to tonight’s match. Charlotte deployed their B squad for the match, and it showed. There was no urgency in the first half-hour of play, as Greenville looked for opportunities against their MLS opponents. Charlotte dominated possession (62% to 38% in regulation) and passing (462 to 282 in regulation) but wasn’t doing much to attack the goal.
Starting in the second third of the match, Charlotte started playing to create opportunities. Midfielder McKinze Gaines was the focal point of Charlotte’s offense during the first half, and by the 39th minute Titi Ortiz scored Charlotte’s first open cup goal. For the rest of the first half, this looked like a Charlotte win in the making.
When the second half started, it was clear Charlotte FC left their motivation in the locker room. It only took 15 minutes for Greenville to find an opening, and their attack yielded a Jake Keegan goal in the 59th minute.
With two-thirds of the match gone, coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez made the necessary changes and brought in the starters. While Charlotte FC’s two most valuable players - goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina and striker Karol Świderski – were not on the roster for the match, Ben Bender, Brandt Bronico, Daniel Ríos and – for the first time - Kamil Jóźwiak all came on in the 64th minute. Ríos was so eager to get on the field that he jumped the gun and earned a yellow card before getting the chance to play.
Jóźwiak immediately made a difference at midfield, taking Charlotte’s first shot of the half in the 70th minute. Sensing the urgency, Charlotte used their last regulation substitution to bring in Christian Fuchs in the 85th minute; soon after, Charlotte had an amazing chance off a free kick set piece that was denied by Greenville defender Brandon Fricke on the goal line.
So, for the first time, the Crown Club went into extra time. In the U.S. Open Cup, that has proven to be a dangerous place to be for MLS teams, especially after USL1 team Union Omaha defeated Chicago Fire FC in an interleague upset on Tuesday night.
Charlotte was not as unlucky. Ghanaian defender Harrison Afful became the hero in the 105th minute of play. Afful ran down the field, passed to Jóźwiak, immediately got the ball back from Jóźwiak, and put an open shot in the back of the net. Afful was lucky to be on the field since he had an early yellow card in the first half; however, Ramírez rolled the dice and kept him in the game.
In the second period of extra time – there are no game-winning “golden goals” in U.S. Open Cup play – both sides were understandably tired, and Greenville had not yet used all their substitutions. The only people at the match who didn’t seem tired were the supporters, who continued to beat drums and chant late into the night. By the 118th minute, the sound of train horns mixed with drums as Charlotte FC flags continued to wave, leading to chaotic final minutes, an Adam Armour injury, and Charlotte advancing to the fourth round of the Open Cup.
Charlotte plays next in Colorado on Saturday night.