Old Rivals Meet Again In USL PRO Semi-Finals Saturday Night
At 7pm Saturday night two of the longest running professional soccer franchises in the United States will meet in Richmond’s City stadium in the USL PRO semi-finals as the Charlotte Eagles and Richmond Kickers renew their 21-year-old rivalry for the third time this year. This time it is for a berth in the USL PRO finals.
The Eagles and Kickers are no strangers to the playoffs as they both have been perennial playoff teams throughout their long and storied history. Recently, however, the paths of the two clubs have taken distinctly different turns. The Kicker have continued to be successful from year-to-year while the Eagles have missed out on the playoffs for the last three years. As the 2013 campaign began the Eagles appeared to be in a rebuilding mode after losing a significant portion of their 2012 roster. For the Kickers 2013 was to be the year they had to find a replacement for long time goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale following his retirement at the end of the 2012 season. Early in their search the Kickers got not only a replacement for Pascale but they found a gold mine as following the announcement of the MLS/USL PRO partnership Richmond struck an affiliate deal with the D.C. United of the MLS. As part of the affiliate agreement the D.C. United were required to supply a minimum of four players to the Kickers. Presto the Kickers had their new goalkeeper in the person of MLS loaner Andrew Dykstra. Along with their new goalkeeper the Kickers got six more MLS loaner players, five players from their MLS affiliate and one other form the Houston Dynamo. Included in that group were Joseph Ngwenya from D.C. and Brian Ownby from Houston.
With their new-found wealth of talent the Kickers set out on their 2013 campaign that culminated in their sixth regular season championship and the #1 seed in the playoffs. The MLS loaners accounted for over 27% of the Kickers goals throughout the season, led by Ownby with seven goals. Ngwenya, who has spent time with both the Houston Dynamo and DC United among other MLS clubs, was Richmond’s leading goal-scorer with nine. The defense was anchored by Dykstra in goal.
While the Kickers were cruising courtesy of their MLS talent the Charlotte Eagles were building a young roster that featured some of the quickest and athletic players that had ever suited up for the Eagles. Combined with several returning veterans that provided valuable veteran leadership the Eagles put together one of their most successful seasons in recent memory. Led by veteran midfielder Jorge Herrera with his 10 goals and 4 assists and rookie forward Christian Ramirez and his 8 goals and 5 assists the Eagles went on two extended unbeaten streaks on their way to finishing as the #5 seed, making the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Along the way the Eagles proved themselves as one of the leagues best road teams which became even more evident as they travelled to Harrisburg and won their first round playoff game 3-1.
The two regular season matchups were tight hard-fought matches. Early in the season the Eagles travelled to Richmond and held a 3-2 advantage at the end of 90 minutes. However, the Kickers were able to score the equalizer as a result of a melee in front of the goal in the closing seconds of stoppage time to preserve their unbeaten streak. Late in the season the two sides matched up again and played a tight match. Richmond’s Ngwenya’s header in the 72nd minute off a corner kick proved to be the only goal as the Kickers won 1-0.
The two teams have previously met three times in the playoffs with Richmond hold a 3-0 advantage. In 2006 the Kickers won the USL-2 Championship with a 2-1 win over the Eagles. In 2007 the Kickers won 2-1 in the USL-2 semifinals and in 2009 the Kickers won the USL-2 Championship 3-1 over Charlotte. Saturday night the Charlotte Eagles will try to win their first playoff game again Richmond.
The Eagles reached the semifinals by “upsetting” 3-1 Harrisburg on the road, while Richmond struggled to dispatch the #8 seed Dayton Dutch Lions 1-0. The Kickers have been living on the edge as they have just done enough to get by with the draw or win for much of the season as they have relied heavily on their MLS loaners to get them over the hump. If the two regular season meetings were any indication this semifinal match will go down to the final whistle. This time I think the Eagles will step up, hold off the Kickers and get the win.