CARY, N.C. – The Charlotte Independence clinched a place in the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs as a late goal by Valentin Sabella earned a 1-0 victory against North Carolina FC at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday night. The victory also moved the Independence ahead of Birmingham Legion FC for first place in Group G after Legion FC suffered a 3-1 defeat to Memphis 901 FC later in the night.
Needing only a draw to clinch a playoff place, the Independence nonetheless began the game on the front foot. The visitors almost took the lead in the 10th minute when Luke Haakenson fired a turning shot just wide of the right post after a good cross by Rey Ortiz, but their early aggressiveness helped temper NCFC’s ability to create scoring chances at the other end of the field.
North Carolina’s first good chance, in fact, came from a free kick in the 22nd minute as Ben Speas’ delivery from near midfield connected with Conor Donovan, but his header was comfortably saved by Charlotte goalkeeper Brandon Miller. The Independence also went close from a set piece five minutes before halftime as a corner kick from the right by Luke Areman was delivered to the back post and deflected goalward off Donovan as he battled with Charlotte’s Hugh Roberts, but NCFC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis was sharp to the danger and made the save.
The hosts created their best chance of the first half late in first-half stoppage time as D.J. Taylor threaded a pass through for Marios Lomis into the left channel, but Miller parried Lomis’ shot to the right corner before his defense cleared. North Carolina went closer early in the second half as Akeem Ward cut in from the left and fired a shot from just inside the penalty area toward the far corner than Miller palmed away for a corner.
That chance set the tone for the second 45 minutes as NCFC pushed to find the goal it needed to keep its postseason chances alive. Just past the hour-mark, Robbie Kristo hit the right post from a very narrow angle but the rebound into the center of the penalty area was cleared. Kristo then delivered a cross for Donovan in the 67th minute that the center back couldn’t direct on frame, while with seven minutes to go Daniele Proch fired a shot that forced Miller into another save.
The Independence ensured its postseason berth in the fourth minute of stoppage time, though, as Dane Kelly found Sabella on a counterattack for a shot from 20 yards that was just out of reach of Tambakis into the top-left corner. Kelly had a chance to add a second moments later, but Charlotte already had the goal it needed to book its first playoff trip since the 2017 season.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Brandon Miller, Charlotte Independence – Miller posted a four-save shutout to keep North Carolina at bay as he continued a strong campaign for the now playoff-bound Independence.