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North Carolina Welcomes Wrexham
In the first part of a series, Soccer Sheet joins thousands of soccer fans at The Soccer Tournament (TST) in Cary, N.C.
Wrexham AFC was welcomed with loud cheers and open arms during their first-ever visit to the United States in the club’s 158 year history.
Supporters of other struggling clubs can’t help but be jealous of the newly-promoted Welsh club. Wrexham was bought by Hollywood owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who had the money to stack the roster with talent from better teams in better leagues, and the profile to win fans across the world with an engaging documentary series. After a little over two seasons at the helm, Rob and Ryan’s team won the National League and was promoted back into the English Football League after a 15-year drought.
“Welcome to Wrexham” has its own critics as well, but you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of fans attending The Soccer Tournament (TST) at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. Thousands of Wrexham faithful, old fans and new, came to TST to see the Wrexham Red Dragons, a 7v7 Soccer team made up of current and former Wrexham players and coaches.
They got their money’s worth, witnessing three wins in group play and an exciting exit in the tournament’s Round of 16.
TST has a unique format, with seven-player teams, smaller fields, slightly different rules, and a winner-take all prize of $1 million. Due to the nature of the tournament, most teams didn’t field teams of active first team players; Wrexham was no different. The Red Dragons’ captain, Lee Trundle, hadn’t played with the team in 20 years, but that didn’t deter the fans, or take away from the experience for Trundle.
“You look at the fans that are out here, even when I played in tier three, you never thought you’d come to America and have a following like this,” said Trundle in a post-match interview with Soccer Sheet. “The football club’s growing, and I’m proud of it.”
After going undefeated in group play with a goal differential of +19, Wrexham looked like a team to beat going into the knockout rounds of the tournament. Most of the other teams affiliated with a professional club didn’t make it out of the group stage, including Borussia Dortmund, Charlotte FC, Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves), Club Necaxa, and West Ham United.
In their fourth match, against the Conrad & Beasley United team led by former United States National Team stars Jimmy Conrad and DaMarcus Beasley, Wrexham finally met their match.
Wrexham scored early, with a penalty kick goal in the third minute by George Boyd, one of the few players on the TST team who hasn’t played for Wrexham’s first team. C&B United countered by scoring the next three goals, putting the Red Dragons in a precarious position due to TST’s rules: at the end of the two 20-minute halves in regulation, an extra time period begins with a “target score” one more than the leading team’s total goals.
Finally, in the 34th minute, Boyd scored another goal and Wrexham improved to 3-2 before the end of regulation. Wrexham would need two goals in extra time to win; C&B United would only need one golden goal.
Another feature of the TST format is that during extra time, a player comes off for each team after every five minutes. In the 5th minute of extra time, squads shrink to 6v6; in the 10th minute, they shrink further to 5v5; and so on.
Right before the first player was set to come off for each team, Wrexham earned another penalty. Paul Rutherford, who is featured prominently in the early episodes of “Welcome to Wrexham,” takes it and makes it. The score is tied at 3.
Watching Rutherford make the critical penalty was especially meaningful for Wrexham AFC fans. He played with the club for five years, and was part of the first team when Rob & Ryan bought the club. However, in his last match with the club he was shown a red card for a bad tackle, likely costing Wrexham a chance at making the promotion playoffs in 2021.
When Soccer Sheet spoke to Rutherford after the match, he couldn’t have been more grateful for the opportunity.
“Honestly, if you had told me seven years ago when I first signed for Wrexham that potentially my journey ends here in North Carolina in this amazing arena with so many fans who are so passionate about our football club, I would have laughed at you,” said Rutherford. “It’s been truly unique, it’s been special; the fans that have turned out in massive numbers have been nearly as passionate as the fans back at home, and that takes some doing.”
Five minutes after his goal, Rutherford came off as the squads shrunk to 5. Fewer than two minutes later, Jimmy Conrad would connect with Ricard Carvalho for a golden goal, and Wrexham’s first run in the United States would come to an end.
After the loss, Soccer Sheet also spoke with two current members of Wrexham AFC’s first team: goalkeeper Mark Howard, and coach David Jones. Both were playing with the Red Dragons in TST despite having just wrapped up their record-breaking promotion season.
“The promotion was amazing,” said Howard. “Luckily enough we notched up 111 points, a record in England that’s never been done in any league before.”
“It’s been brilliant,” said Jones. “It’s really good to connect with new fans all over the world.”
The veteran Wrexham players were equally happy with the team’s newfound success.
“Wrexham are a team that belong in the Football League,” said Trundle. “What the owners have come and done, Rob and Ryan, has been unbelievable, not only for the football club, but for the club as well.”
“In my opinion, that journey will only continue in an upward trajectory,” said Rutherford.
Wrexham fans who missed TST will have another opportunity to see their club when they play Chelsea FC on July 19 in Chapel Hill, N.C. in the first of multiple friendlies across the United States. Those matches are expected to have more stars from Wrexham’s first team, including the likes of Paul Mullin and Ollie Palmer.
Given all of the extra responsibilities that come with their first trip to the United States, do Wrexham players get a break between now and their first season back in the Football League?
“No, not at all,” said Jones.
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