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THE MORNING TEA – Can Independence Solve North Carolina FC Riddle?

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 08/26/20, 7:30AM EDT

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Louisville eager for LIPAFC matchup; Hartford’s Steeves, Swartz trace friendship in path to pros

Five games highlight the Championship schedule tonight, including two major rivalries and a major group game in the Eastern Conference. Ahead of kickoff, we’ll dig into one of the key questions that has only been amplified since the season’s restructuring for the Charlotte Independence. Here’s your Morning Tea for Wednesday.

 

THE BIG STORY

In professional soccer, success usually comes down to whether or not solutions can be found to a few key questions.

For the Charlotte Independence, one of those questions is – and has been for some time now – whether or not it can solve for the imbalance in its rivalry with North Carolina FC. Because the reality is, as a rivalry, it’s been about as one-sided as you can get since NCFC joined the Championship in 2018. Here are the stats: Five meetings. Four NCFC victories. One draw. A +9-goal differential. And several gloating tweets.

In fact, there’s only been one time in the Independence’s history when they’ve held the upper hand on their in-state foe, and that was five years ago in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup when Ryan Finley’s 81st-minute goal sent the Independence to victory and a date with the New England Revolution in the Fourth Round.

(Longtime Independence fans might recall what happened next. Hip, Hip, Jorge!)

That victory was so long ago, the side the Independence beat that night was called the Carolina RailHawks. Since then it’s been one-way traffic in favor of the club from WakeMed Soccer Park, and it hasn’t been particularly close.

But now, there might be a new hope for the Jacks. For one, the team has made a strong start to its season. It has a two-point edge on NCFC – which has played one game fewer – in the Group G standings. There is the optimism of a front line that can potentially catch fire with the likes of Dane Kelly leading the way with four goals this season, and Enzo Martinez playing in a free, playmaking role.

It’s an opportunity for the Independence to assert themselves as they look for their first playoff berth since the 2017 season, and one that Head Coach Mike Jeffries believes will be won by the side that sets the tempo of the contest.

“Our games against North Carolina FC always come down to a possession battle – both teams like to build and play,” said Jeffries. “We need to be capable on the ball and move them defensively; if we are able to do so, we are confident in creating opportunities against them.”

What it may come down to even more, though, is confidence. The aura that North Carolina built while handing out L’s to the Independence over recent years has been hard to overcome. If the Independence believe they can go toe-to-toe with their in-state rival, it will give them a start that previous lineups haven’t quite seemed to have.

Can the Independence solve the North Carolina question?

We’ll find out Wednesday night.

 

TONIGHT'S ACTION

Charlotte Independence vs. North Carolina FC

(2-2-3)
Group G

7:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Sportsplex at Matthews

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: CLT Wins 36% | Draw 26% | NC Wins 37%
(2-3-1)
Group G
The Gist: The Independence and NCFC meet for the first of four meetings this season that appear key to deciding which side will have the best shot to advance into the USL Championship Playoffs. Historically, North Carolina has held the upper hand in the prior meetings between the clubs with a 4-0-1 record in league play since NCFC joined the Championship in 2018. The Independence currently hold a two-point edge in the standings, however, with new arrivals such as Dane Kelly and Duke Lacroix making an impact on the side’s fortunes. Both teams will be hoping to rebound from defeat last time out, with North Carolina having suffered a 3-0 loss to the Charleston Battery last Wednesday night, and Charlotte a 2-1 setback to Miami FC on Sunday.
Discipline: None

Charleston Battery vs. Miami FC

(4-2-2)
Group H

7:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: Patriot's Point Soccer Complex

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: CHS Wins 35% | Draw 26% | MIA Wins 38%
(1-3-2)
Group H
The Gist: The first meeting between the Charleston Battery and Miami FC marks a key moment in the race for the playoffs in Group H, with Miami looking to close a nine-point gap between itself and the second-placed Battery in the standings as it heads to South Carolina. MFC is coming off its first win in the Championship this past Sunday when Tomas Granitto’s late goal earned a 2-1 victory against the Charlotte Independence at Riccardo Silva Stadium. Charleston is coming off a solid victory of its own, however, having dispatched North Carolina FC 3-0 on the road last Wednesday night, a result that left the Battery undefeated in its last four outings. If Charleston can hold serve at home, the road to the playoffs would become that much steeper for Miami to climb in future encounters.
Discipline: None

Louisville City FC vs. Indy Eleven

(4-3-1)
Group E

8:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Lynn Family Stadium

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: LOU Wins 35% | Draw 29% | IND Wins 36%
(6-2-1)
Group E
The Gist: The second edition of the Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest this season also provides a key point in the playoff race in Group E, with LouCity having the chance to move within touching distance of its first-placed rival with a victory on home turf. Louisville and Indy played to a 1-1 draw when they first met this season as an early goal by LouCity’s Speedy Williams was cancelled out by a second-half strike by Indy’s leading scorer Tyler Pasher. Louisville has come into better form in recent outings with back-to-back victories against Loudoun United FC and Sporting Kansas City II – the latter seeing Corben Bone score his first two goals in LouCity colors. If the hosts can claim all three points on Wednesday night, they would move three points back of Indy with a game in hand ahead of their two encounters at Lucas Oil Stadium in September.
Discipline: Indy - Ayoze (Suspended)

Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC vs. Austin Bold FC

(1-4-2)
Group C

9:00 p.m. ET |
Venue: Weidner Field

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: COS Wins 27% | Draw 25% | ATX Wins 49%
(3-2-2)
Group D
The Gist: Austin Bold FC will look to continue its drive toward the playoffs as it visits the Switchbacks for an intergroup contest at Weidner Field. Austin is undefeated in its last four outings and moved into second place in Group D after a 3-2 win against Rio Grande Valley FC on Saturday night that saw Alassane Ates Diouf record two goals and one assist before Bold FC held off the Toros’ late comeback attempt. The visitors will need to break down a Switchbacks defense that last time out held El Paso Locomotive FC scoreless, with Colorado Springs in serious need of all three points as well for its own playoff chances. The Switchbacks remained seven points behind Locomotive FC after their scoreless draw on Saturday, with this contest marking the game in hand Colorado Springs holds over El Paso.
Discipline: None

Portland Timbers 2 vs. LA Galaxy II

(0-7-0)
Group A

10:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: Providence Park

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: POR Wins 36% | Draw 23% | LA Wins 40%
(3-3-0)
Group B
The Gist: The Galaxy II will try to get their playoff hopes back on track as they head to visit a Timbers 2 side that is still looking for its first points of the season. Portland opened well against Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday as it took an early lead at Papa Murphy’s Park, but eventually succumbed to a 2-1 defeat that left the side without a point through seven games this season. Los Dos is trying to rebound as well after suffering back-to-back defeats to Phoenix Rising FC and Orange County SC in the past week, with those two clubs the teams LA is chasing for a playoff place in Group B. A win on Wednesday night would move Los Dos back into third place and still in with a chance at the postseason.
Discipline: None
 

THE SOCIAL CIRCLE

 

THE USL LOWDOWN

- Las Vegas Lights FC continued its recent uptick in form with a 3-1 victory against Orange County SC on Tuesday night that brought to an end OCSC's undefeated start to the season. Las Vegas native Blake Frischknecht and Junior Sandoval both scored late goals to send the hosts to victory at Cashman Field in another strong home performance by the side.

- As the final minute ticked away in the club’s 4-1 victory against Sporting Kansas City II, Louisville City FC Head Coach John Hackworth was already starting to think about Wednesday night’s rivalry clash with Indy Eleven. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Dominque Yates has more on a crucial matchup in the rivalry’s history on Wednesday night.

- Hartford Athletic’s Mac Steeves and Harry Swartz aren’t just teammates now, but were friends and teammates growing up in Connecticut. The duo spoke to NBC Connecticut’s Gabrielle Lucivero about reuniting in the professional ranks after making their way through the youth and high school ranks together, and following their fathers into the game.

- North Carolina FC’s Nazmi Albadawi misses the fans in the stands and other pieces that gamedays what they are. He spoke with CBS17.com’s Laura Smith about what life has been like returning to play in the current climate ahead of NCFC’s visit to the Charlotte Independence on Wednesday night.

- Another top college player signed with a USL Championship squad, and this time it was a homecoming. Previously a USL Academy signing at Indy Eleven, Josh Penn joined the Boys in Blue and became the first player to sign with the club professional after previously suiting up as an Academy signing. TopDrawerSoccer.com’s Travis Clark has more on the former Indiana University freshman standout’s move.

- Saint Louis FC Head Coach Steve Trittschuh said the official news that Saint Louis FC would no longer be part of the Championship in 2021 was bittersweet, knowing that Major League Soccer’s St. Louis City SC will be arriving in the city in 2023. Speaking to the Alton Telegraph’s Pete Hayes, Trittschuh said “I had hoped (STLFC) would be around longer, maybe another year or so, but it didn’t work out that way.”

- New Charlotte Independence addition Christian Chaney doesn’t see himself as competition for fellow forward Dane Kelly, but more as an alternative option if the team needs to change styles over its busy upcoming schedule. “I am just going to try to learn and feed off what [Dane] has,” Chaney told the Charlotte Post’s Ashley Mahoney. “He is the number one here so whenever he is tired or can’t do something, I’m going to try and impact the game as much as possible.”

- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC Head Coach Bob Lilley is expecting a chess match when his side takes on Hartford Athletic for the first time this season on Friday night, but isn't going to show everything he has up his sleeve in the encounter between the top two teams in Group F. “Will we show everything? No, we won’t,” Lilley told reporters. “But this first game is a lot more important to us right now, based on where we are in the standings and where they are. We have to be aggressive, and we have to be assertive, and if we have to go to the well early to show certain cards, we will. But we’re not at a shortage for ideas as a staff either.”

- El Paso Locomotive FC will get to play in front of a limited home crowd for the first time this season on Saturday night when it plays host to Real Monarchs SLC at Southwest University Park. “While state and local directives have allowed fans to attend prior matches, we opted to wait until now to open the gates to guests,” said club President Alan Ledford. “Our staff has worked diligently and in conjunction with local community and health authorities to create a plan for a safe and healthy environment in which to welcome our fans back.”

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