CARY, N.C. – A 93rd-minute goal from J.J. Williams helped No. 10 seed Birmingham Legion FC to a stunning, last-gasp 3-2 victory over No. 7 seed North Carolina FC in the Eastern Conference Play-In Round on Wednesday night at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Legion FC advances to face No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
The hosts controlled the early stages of the contest as Dre Fortune forced a save out of Birmingham goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel with a low-right footed shot from distance in the 13th minute and North Carolina would go on to open the scoring just six minutes later through Nazmi Albadawi after a lovely passing move.
Marios Lomis produced a great bit of hold-up play to work the ball to Steven Miller, who waited for DJ Taylor’s overlapping run on the right wing before playing him the ball and the defender cut it back neatly for Albadawi to side-foot past a helpless Van Oekel into the bottom-left corner.
North Carolina’s lead wouldn’t last long, however, as Legion FC took advantage of a right-wing free kick to equalize against the run of play in the 35th minute. Daniel Johnson’s initial delivery was kept in play by center back Kyle Fisher and Prosper Kasim picked up the loose ball on the left side of the box before firing a low drive across the six-yard box, which found its way to Femi Hollinger-Janzen to tap home past NCFC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis from close range.
Van Oekel made a pair of important saves on either side of halftime to keep the game level, denying Fortune’s first-time right-footed drive from the top of the box three minutes before the break and showing off a strong left hand to palm Albadawi’s effort to safety shortly after the second-half restart.
Birmingham started to look the more dangerous side early in the second half as Anderson Asiedu found Kasim in some space on the left and NCFC midfielder Graham Smith made an important challenge to throw off the forward’s timing as he tried a low shot from the left side of the six-yard box. Kasim found himself in a shooting position again moments later, but just dragged a left-footed effort wide of the far post.
North Carolina FC's Steven Miller and Birmingham Legion FC's Daniel Johnson battle for possession. | Photo courtesy Rob Kinnan / North Carolina FC
North Carolina took advantage of the visitors’ wastefulness and reclaimed the lead just shy of the hour-mark as Fortune played a neat give-and-go with Albadawi just outside the Birmingham penalty area before unleashing a right-footed shot past Van Oekel into the top-left corner.
This time the lead would last just seven minutes as Legion FC found another response through Zach Herivaux, who reacted quickly to slot a right-footed shot past Tambakis from five yards out after the NCFC netminder had parried Akeem Ward’s long-distance effort back into traffic.
Both sides searched for a winner in the final 10 minutes of regulation as Williams created a yard of space to shoot on the left side of the box but just blazed his right-footed effort wide of the near post in the 82nd minute and NCFC substitute Robert Kristo was denied in close by a brave, sliding Van Oekel on the other end two minutes later.
The contest looked destined to head to extra time as the final seconds of the three added minutes ticked away, but there was still time for one last twist in the tale as Williams cut in from the right wing and outmaneuvered a pair of defenders before picking out the top-left corner with a lovely left-footed strike from 20 yards out to send Birmingham through and leave the home crowd stunned.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Zach Herivaux, Birmingham Legion FC – Herivaux recorded a goal and an assist, completed 85 percent of his passes, won 6 of 8 duels and 2 of 2 tackles in a strong two-way performance to help Legion FC spring the road upset.