CARY, N.C. – Over the course of a season there are always some teams that no matter the records when the sides meet somehow seem to give certain opponents difficulties.
For North Carolina FC this season, that team has been the Richmond Kickers, who once again proved troublesome to get past for the hosts at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday night before NCFC emerged with a 3-2 victory in front of a crowd of 8,004 fans to move into the top eight in the Eastern Conference standings on another pivotal night in the race for the USL Cup Playoffs.
The Kickers – who sat last in the league with a -45 goal differential going into to Saturday’s game – twice took the lead in the first half before Kyle Bekker helped lead the hosts back, finishing with two goals and an assist that included what proved to be the game-winner with 17 minutes to go.
“Everyone else seems to have an easy time with Richmond except for us, we like to make a meal out of it every single time,” said Bekker. “We were disappointed with what went down in the first half, we came in, talked about it and knew our season was on the line. It was a big reaction from the boys to go out there and turn it around.”
The Kickers had won the first meeting the season between the clubs back in late March and looked as though they might be on course to claim the regular-season series between the clubs when they scored twice in the opening half. Prince Agyemang put the visitors ahead with a sharp finish after Austin Yearwood’s cutback from the left side had deflected through a defender to reach the middle of the penalty area, and after Bekker had equalized for the hosts the Kickers regained their lead on a first-time finish by Heviel Cordoves off a through-ball by former NCFC player Brian Shriver to give Richmond a halftime lead.
Bekker led NCFC’s second-half response, however, consistently delivering dangerous service from a series of corner kicks that opened the second half that paid off when Austin da Luz headed home 11 minutes after the break.
“I think we’re very dangerous from corners,” said Bekker. “We got away from it a few games ago when we started playing everything short. We started delivering balls into the box again and we created chances off of it. Austin is unbelievable in the air and was able to score. His run was perfect and that’s something we’re always looking for.”
The Canadian midfielder then gave North Carolina its first lead of the game with a precise, angled finish from the left side that picked out the right corner of the net. The drama wasn’t over for NCFC, however, as while Richmond was reduced to 10 men when Cordoves received his second yellow card of the game the Kickers still got one golden opportunity to equalize off an NCFC mistake in its own end. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis came up with the big save to deny Yudai Imura to preserve a vital three points.
“He's come up big for us ... massively,” said NCFC Head Coach Colin Clarke. “Bad play by us to give the ball away in a poor situation. You think, ‘Here we go,’ and he stepped up and made the save. We were able to move on and see the rest of the result out.”
With points at a premium around the Eastern Conference playoff line, the fact that the side was able to emerge with victory was the thing that mattered most to Clarke, who was pleased with the resolve his side showed to rally from a halftime deficit for a second time against the Kickers this season.
“Just like everyone else, we wanted to come in here and win 4-nil, 5-nil, but that's not always possible in sports,” said Clarke. “You take your hat off to Richmond. I thought they came in here and went about their business very well. We gave up a poor goal, which was what they were looking for, and they get something to hold onto. Little bit more pride to play for, and we made it difficult for ourselves, but the response second half was superb. Down 2-1, and you're sitting there, as we talked about in the locker room, the season's on the line. The response was superb.”
With another crucial clash coming next Saturday against the New York Red Bulls II – who remained in the hunt for the postseason with a 1-1 draw on the road against Nashville SC on Saturday night – the road isn’t likely to get any easier if North Carolina is going to be one of the eight teams to reach the postseason.
“They've got some great young kids, lots of talented players,” said Clarke. “It's going to be another tough game. You're getting to that stage of the season where nerves and dealing with those ... but exciting times as well. We've been on a good run of results of late and put ourselves in a good position.”