Featured photo: Charlotte Independence goalkeeper Austin Pack (l) puts his head in the way to stop a header from Rhode Island FC’s Mark Doyle (center, yellow) in the second half of Charlotte’s 4-4, (5-4) win in the Third Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. (photo by Sam Spencer)

This story was republished from Soccer Sheet, a reader-supported publication focused on soccer by Sam Spencer.

The Third Round of the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the country’s longest-running soccer competition, narrowed the number of Carolinas teams in the field last week, but two teams from North Carolina and one from South Carolina will advance to the Round of 32, the fourth round of the Open Cup.

Last Tuesday, the Charlotte Independence survived three goals in regulation, one in overtime, and a second penalty shootout in a row to advance over Rhode Island FC at home. Then on Wednesday in Cary, North Carolina FC defeated Carolina Core FC as the Piedmont Triad team competed in its first Open Cup.

On the Palmetto State side, the Charleston Battery of South Carolina will enter in the Round of 32; as a higher-ranked USL Championship squad, they had a bye in the initial rounds. 8 USL Championship and 8 Major League Soccer squads enter the competition in the Round of 32; each Third Round winner must play a team entering the tournament. The Round of 32 matches will be played on May 7th and 8th.

The Charlotte Independence did not apply to host in the Round of 32 or the Round of 16, so after drawing MLS side Atlanta United as an opponent the Independence will travel to Georgia for their next Open Cup match. The winner of the Charlotte/Atlanta match will travel to play the winner of the Charleston Battery and South Georgia Tormenta FC.

Additionally, North Carolina FC will host defending USL Championship winner Phoenix Rising in the Round of 32.

As for the other teams from the Carolinas, SC United Heat was defeated by the Independence in round two of the tournament. In the first round, South Carolina United FC fell to the Triumph, and North Carolina teams Asheville City SC and Crown Legacy FC lost to One Knoxville SC and the SC United Heat, respectively.

Charlotte Independence goalkeeper Austin Pack makes the decisive save during a penalty kick shootout to eliminate South Carolina United Heat from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. (Sam Spencer)

Déjà vu all over again for Austin Pack

The scoring never stopped on Tuesday, April 16th, at American Legion Memorial Stadium. Including penalty kicks, 17 shots found their way to the back of the net during the Charlotte Independence’s 4-4, (5-4) win over Rhode Island FC. By reaching the Round of 32, this year’s run is the furthest the Jacks have advanced in the Open Cup since their inaugural season in 2015.

While the penalty shootout may have been similar to Charlotte’s 0-0, 4-3 second round win over the SC United Heat – with Pack coming up with multiple big saves to secure a win – regulation and overtime were anything but.

Rhode Island’s Clay Holstad, Gabriel Alves, and Mark Doyle celebrate after Holstad’s goal put Rhode Island ahead 2-3 in the second half. (Sam Spencer)

The Independence went down early, scored an equalizer and a go-ahead goal, and then traded goals. Rhode Island’s Clay Holstad had one of the best goals of the Open Cup tournament so far to put his team ahead 2-3 in the 50th minute, sending an impossible-to-save blast into the right corner from above the penalty box. Luis Álvarez equalized for Charlotte in the 72nd minute with a shot from the far left corner of the penalty box, making the score 3-3 at the end of regulation.

Juan Carlos Obregón won man of the match honors for the Independence with a brace, first making a penalty kick to equalize 1-1 in the first half, and then putting Charlotte ahead 4-3 with a 95th minute goal in the first overtime period. However, despite letting in four goals, Pack was a clear contender for the honors after facing 26 shots and saving two or three penalty attempts.

A ball gets past Austin Pack (r) during the second half, but an offsides flag would deny Rhode Island the goal. (Sam Spencer)

“I am tremendously proud. It took a lot of character to go down twice in the game and find a way back,” said Independence head coach Mike Jeffries after the match. “They showed the confidence to stay in the game and get it done. We talk a lot about the mentality needed to win, and the guys showed it tonight.”

After the eighth goal equalized the match, the penalty kick shootout would go seven rounds. Charlotte seemed to have an early advantage when Rhode Island’s Albert Dikwa missed the team’s first attempt. It was unclear whether Pack got the tips of his glove on the ball to deflect it, but either way Rhode Island was down 1-0.

At the top of the third round of PKs, Luis Álvarez sent his shot high above the crossbar, and Rhode Island equalized in response, 2-2. After trading goals in round four, Charlotte Independence captain Clay Dimick sent the ball too high, putting the entire match on the shoulders of Rhode Island’s Joe Brito and Pack. The tension was palpable.

Charlotte FC captain Clay Dimick. (Sam Spencer)

When Charlotte’s Open Cup dreams seemed dashed, Pack came up with another huge save. 

In the sixth round, both sides would trade goals; then in the decisive seventh round, Anthony Sorenson scored for the Independence, putting the ninth ball of the night past Rhode Island goalkeeper Jackson Lee after the goalkeeper attempted to psych out the Charlotte player.

Gabriel Alves stepped up to face Pack. He went right, sending his ball on the ground too close to the middle of the goal. Pack fell in the right direction and made the save, sending the Independence to the next round.

Charlotte’s victory was the lone “cupset” on Tuesday night, as Rhode Island was the first USL Championship side to lose in this year’s Open Cup.

“Certainly credit to Austin,” said Jeffries. “Not just the penalties, but he kept us in the game when we needed it.”

The Independence next travel to suburban Atlanta for their Round of 32 match against Atlanta United at Fifth Third Stadium in Kennesaw on May 7, at 7:30 PM.

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Foxes fall to NCFC

The Carolina Core had an impressive run in their first-ever Open Cup, but the Foxes finally ran out of steam against North Carolina FC on Wednesday, April 17th at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. The first competitive match of the I-40 Derby was doubly important for NCFC, giving them their first Open Cup win since 2019.

The Core was under assault from the first whistle, with 15 shots and 8 shots on target coming from NCFC throughout the course of the match to only 4 shots for the Core.

“The boys showed a lot of effort tonight; we came to play. We studied our opponents well, and we had a game plan coming into the game,” said Carolina Core head coach Roy Lassiter. “[NCFC is] a good, seasoned, and experienced team. We wanted to come in and put up a good fight. They got their opportunity and scored. I felt that we had our opportunities as well, with there being a couple of offside calls that could be questionable, but referees are humans, too.”

North Carolina winger Shaft Brewer Jr. challenges Carolina Core winger Papa Ndoye. (Courtesy Carolina Core/Caleb Livengood)

The 1-0 score line at the end of the match was a credit to the prowess of Carolina Core goalkeeper Alexander Sutton, who had seven saves on the day and miraculously kept a clean sheet for the first half. Core defender Ibrahim Covi was also impressive, stalling NCFC’s attack while avoiding the costly mistakes that plagued him in the Core’s second round match against Vermont Green.

“We really wanted to come in and compete to win this game today, and the boys gave a good effort,” said Lassiter. “These are games we have to learn from.”

On the other side, NC FC forward Julian Placias was a revelation in his first Open Cup appearance, scoring the lone goal of the match in the 60th minute despite multiple previous and subsequent attempts. Placias got his first goal for the team as Goalkeeper Antonio Carrera secured his first clean sheet for NCFC.

North Carolina FC and the Carolina Core face a set piece. (Courtesy Carolina Core/Caleb Livengood)

The loss ends the inaugural Open Cup run for the Carolina Core. Only one fellow MLS NEXT Pro team (NYCFC II) advanced to the Round of 32, so it’s safe to say the Core exceeded expectations as their focus returns to finding their first three-point victory in league play.

“The [Open Cup] is a good experience,” said Lassiter. “We’re playing teams that are a little bit more seasoned than us, and that’s okay. It’s a challenge, and I like the challenge, the players like the challenge, and none of us like to lose. We’ll use this game to learn from our mistakes. We’ll start with our upcoming match with Chicago on Monday. We will study Chicago, and then we will head there to compete and try to win the game.”

North Carolina FC will face fellow USL Championship side Phoenix Rising at home on Wednesday, May 8th at 7:00 PM.

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