Disclosure: Triad City Beat is the official media sponsor of Carolina Core FC.

Carolina Core FC’s first Open Cup goal was indicative of the high energy, fun environment the club is going for.

It was also just a tad bit unbelievable.

The play started as a 17th minute free kick for Carolina Core. The Core fired, but the attack bounced around without going anywhere, and it looked like their opponent, Northern Virginia FC, was going to do the simple work of playing the ball back to build up a new play.

NOVA fullback Michael Medina — whose yellow-card foul gave the Core the free kick in the first place — played the ball back to center back Nicolas Blassou, who prepared to boot the ball up the field.

Drake Hadeed, the Core’s 16-year-old attacking midfielder, was right in front of NOVA’s back line on the press, and threw his left leg up like a karate kick, connecting with Blassou’s attempted clearance to send it into the back of NOVA’s net.

The Core would go on to win 3-2 in a frenetic performance at UNCG, where the first-year team is playing as they await their permanent home in neighboring High Point. With the win, they advance to the second round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, facing Vermont Green in Burlington on April 3.

The first professional soccer team in the Triad

The Open Cup victory was the coda to a busy launch for the newest professional team in North Carolina’s Triad region. 

Announced on Nov. 10, 2022, the Core takes its name from a recent economic development branding effort that defines the “Core” region of North Carolina as Guilford County (Greensboro and High Point), Forsyth County (Winston-Salem) and the many surrounding counties in the Piedmont Triad.

Carolina Core is also the newest club in the MLS NEXT Pro league. NEXT Pro serves as a direct development league for Major League Soccer, and US Soccer considers NEXT Pro to be a “Division III” professional league, equivalent to USL 1 clubs like the Charlotte Independence.

Most of MLS’s “second teams” play in the league. However, Carolina Core is one of a growing number of NEXT Pro teams with no MLS affiliate.

The lack of a parent club with a multi-million dollar budget is not stopping the Core from making major investments in club infrastructure. On March 12, the club broke ground on a permanent training facility in High Point estimated to cost eight figures.

Five days later, 500 fans traveled with the team to the Sportsplex in Matthews, NC to see the Core face Crown Legacy FC — the second team of Major League Soccer club Charlotte FC — in the Core’s debut MLS NEXT Pro match. The team chartered buses to bring a couple hundred of those fans to the Charlotte suburb for the inaugural match.

“Having this many supporters travel to an away game is truly unique and shows the strength of our community,” said Andy Smith, CCFC President. “We do not take it for granted and are elated for the rest of the world to see our supporters’ pride and passion on display at the upcoming away game.” 

500 Carolina Core fans packed into the Matthews Sportsplex on March 17 to cheer on the Carolina Core. (Photo by Sam Spencer/SoccerSheet.com)

Fans were excited to travel to watch the Triad region’s first soccer club.

“I actually traveled all the way from High Point,” said Ulandis Caldwell, who attended the match in Matthews to support his nephew, Aryeh Miller, a player for Carolina Core. “I’m a big fan of soccer, so I’m proud of the team that’s here today, and proud of Crown Legacy and what they’re putting out on the field.”

Though the Core fell behind early in the match due to a 21st minute goal by Crown Legacy’s Nicholas Scardina, the Core’s supporters accomplished the rare feat of making more noise than the hometown fans at the Sportsplex as their team dominated the second half, resulting in an extra time equalizer from Pachittoo Polanco in the 91st minute, bringing the score to 1-1 at the end of regulation.

Under MLS NEXT Pro rules, regulation draws lead to a penalty shootout for an extra point, adding an extra bit of excitement to the competitions. Carolina Core would shoot first.

On the first pair of penalty kicks, Crown Legacy earned an early advantage thanks to a brilliant save from goalkeeper Chituru Odunze, stopping the hero Polanco’s shot.

On the next pair, Carolina Core and Crown Legacy were back to level after the Legacy’s Brian Romero sent his shot into the sky.

On the next pair, Core goalkeeper Alex Sutton got the block; Crown Legacy equalized on the fourth pair.

Both sides were tied going into the final pair of penalty kicks, 2-2. Each keeper had a save, and each group of penalty takers had a miss. 

Carolina Core defender Ibrahim Covi sent his kick into the back corner of the net, where even the talented Odunze had no chance of stopping it.

Carolina Core goalkeeper Alex Sutton carries water bottles off the pitch during halftime at the Matthews Sportsplex on March 17. (Photo by Sam Spencer/SoccerSheet.com)

Finally, Crown Legacy’s anchor João Pedro had the tenth shot. He approached the ball with a stutter step for an extra flourish of confusion and tension. His strike was on the ground, only slightly left-of-center. Sutton easily blocked it and jumped up to celebrate Carolina Core’s first MLS NEXT Pro victory.

Core head coach Roy Lassiter was impressed with his team’s performance against last year’s regular season champions.

“We’re playing against a seasoned team that’s been together for well over a year now and we’ve just been together for seven weeks. We’re a team that started from scratch,” said Lassiter in a post-match press availability. “I’m happy that we got our win against the Crown Legacy team.”

The fans who traveled 150 miles round trip shared his excitement.

“We are super excited to be behind all of the soccer, but especially Carolina Core soccer,” said Triad resident Julie Hill after the match. “We’re excited, and we’re super excited for the win.”

An investment in High Point and the Triad

The importance of the new team to the region — and to its future home in High Point — is hard to overstate, and the excitement has only grown since the team was first announced in 2022.

“The response we have received from fans and community members has been truly special,” said Smith. “Over the past two years, we’ve had the pleasure of watching it grow from a spark by a small contingent of fans to a fever pitch emerging behind the scenes.”

Soccer Sheet asked High Point Mayor Cyril Jefferson — a supporter of the effort to bring pro soccer to the Triad — what he sees as the impact of the club.

“When we talk about Carolina Core Soccer, we are not just talking about the economic impact of fans coming from throughout the core to attend games, visit restaurants or celebrate in one of our community gathering spaces,” said Jefferson. “We are talking about attracting top talent from all over the world to give a fantastic product to our community. We are also talking about a partner in Carolina Core FC that is providing a chance for our youth to have memorable experiences they would not have otherwise had through the Carolina Core Academy.”

The Core also fills an important niche in professional soccer. Soccer Sheet spoke with MLS Next Pro President Charles Altchek about how the team fits into the greater MLS ecosystem.

“[Independent teams] are a really important part of our plan to bring in new energy, new markets, new fans, new players, new coaches,” said Altchek. “They’re creating a lot of opportunities, a lot of jobs for the next generation of players, coaches, technical staff, and business staff.”

The team has already won its first Open Cup match, and will continue to play in the knockout tournament until they lose. Starting this year, a controversial rules change removed many top-level MLS teams from the competition, giving MLS NEXT Pro squads like the Core a better shot at winning.

“They’ve got that shot at going all the way and getting that Champions League berth,” said Altchek.

The Core’s kickoff winning streak came to an end when they lost 4-0 to Atlanta United 2 in Kennesaw, G.A. on March 24, the squad 

“In the future, I expect to see a winning team that is providing another amazing downtown offering in the heart of our community,” said Jefferson. “I also see a transformation of the experience that people in our region will have when they visit our great city.”

Sam Spencer writes about soccer in the Carolinas at SoccerSheet.com.

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