Featured photo: Carolina Core defender Kai Thomas (#4), Vermont Green defender Zach Barrett (#28), and Carolina Core goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg (center, purple kit) fight over a ball at Carolina Core’s net in the first half. (photo courtesy Carolina Core FC/Luke

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

In the second round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, two of North Carolina’s three remaining teams faced stiff challenges from semi-pro teams with first round upsets under their belts.

On Tuesday, April 2, the South Carolina United Heat battled the Charlotte Independence to a penalty shootout at American Legion Memorial Stadium in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood.

The next day, in Burlington, Vt., two teams playing in their first Open Cup met in the snow at Virtue Field. Carolina Core FC fell behind Vermont Green early due to a penalty, but prevailed thanks to two goals in the second half.

Caroline Core forward Josuha Rodriguez, who replaced Luis Lugo at halftime and scored the decisive goal for Carolina Core FC. (Courtesy Carolina Core FC/Luke Stergiou)

While the two North Carolina teams survived the second round, the Core will face North Carolina FC in Cary next week as the USL Championship squads enter the tournament in the third round of the national competition. The matchup guarantees at least one team from the Tar Heel State will make it to the next round, but it also means at least one squad will join Crown Legacy FC and Asheville City SC on the sidelines of the Open Cup.

No North Carolina team has ever made the final round of the Open Cup, but with three clubs left in the competition, the dream is alive for now.

Core overcomes the cold

Carolina Core defender Kai Thomas (#4), Vermont Green defender Zach Barrett (#28), and Carolina Core goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg (center, purple kit) fight over a ball at Carolina Core’s net in the first half. (Courtesy Carolina Core FC/Luke Stergiou)

At kickoff, the temperature at Virtue Field in Burlington Vermont was two degrees from freezing, but you wouldn’t know that from the loud, sellout crowd of over 2,500 Vermont Green supporters. Amplified chants of “Come on, you boys in green!” rang throughout the stadium and were clearly audible on the live stream.

Things only got colder – and snowier – from there as the Core faced a frustrating first half against an energetic team itching to be this year’s Open Cup Cinderella story. Though the Core would control possession throughout the match, and launch seven shots on target to the Green’s two, the MLS NEXT Pro side made costly mistakes in the first half the Green exploited.

Halfway through the first half, Core defender Ibrahim Covi missed a clear chance to score the first goal of the match as his header bounced high above the crossbar. Then, in transition less than 90 seconds later, Covi fouled Yaniv Bazini inside the box, sending him to the ground with a push.

Bazini went on to take the penalty for Vermont. Charlotte native Andrew Pannenberg, making his debut for the Core in goal, was unable to save the penalty but let nothing else get past him for the rest of the night.

Carolina Core goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg (r) hugs reserve goalkeeper Alexander Sutton after the Carolina Core emerged victorious in the snow. (Courtesy Carolina Core FC/Luke Stergiou)

Vermont goalkeeper Nathan Schnur’s acrobatics, as well as the woodwork, would keep the Core scoreless in the first half despite some powerful shots from the North Carolina side.

However, the Green also squandered chances to expand their lead, as they did against Lexington SC in the first round. Near the end of the first half, Vermont midfielder Pearse O’Brien had an open shot on goal, and missed wide to the left. Then, less than five minutes into the second half, forward Jacob Labovitz would have another one on one chance but hit the right post instead of the back of the net.

The game changed for Carolina in the second half, and Josuha Rodriguez proved to be an impact substitute after entering the match at halftime. After dominating the attack for the first 15 minutes of the half, the Core got the opportunity to equalize when Rodriguez drew a foul from Vermont’s Zach Barrett in the box. Papa Ndoye converted the penalty for the Core and evened the score 1-1 in the 60th minute.

Caroline Core forward Josuha Rodriguez (r) is challenged by Vermont Green defender Zach Barrett (l). (Courtesy Carolina Core FC/Luke Stergiou)

From there, it was the Core’s match to lose. Vermont would get one more solid chance: an excellent cross from Sydney Wathuta found its way to a sliding Bazini in front of the goal in the 67th minute, but Pannenberg fell to the ground to save the shot.

Two minutes later, the Core would have a set piece opportunity from a corner kick. The short kick made its way to Jathan Juarez, who blasted a shot on target. The Green’s Schnur saved the shot but didn’t catch it, and it bounced straight to Rodriguez on the right corner of the goal box who converted the opportunity for the decisive goal.

Pachittoo Polanco would have a couple more chances for the Core, and the Green would have more corner kicks – the set pieces that were so valuable for them in the first round – but neither side would score after Rodriguez’s 70th minute winner.

It was in the leadup to a 90th minute Green corner kick that two of the players who were already going home with regrets – Covi and Labovitz – got into an altercation in front of the goal. Covi instigated with a couple shoves and was shown the yellow after the fact, but Labovitz responded with more obvious violent conduct in front of the referee and was sent off.

Carolina Core forward Pachittoo Polanco (l) is challenged by Vermont Green defender Zach Barrett (center) as Core captain Jacob Evans (r) holds steady.

The result ended a strong run for the Vermont Green, a young team that nonetheless demonstrated they belong at this level of competition.

“The opposition was very good tonight. Their fans were engaged and supported them very well,” said Carolina Core head coach Roy Lassiter. “However, I thought our discipline was better and our fight was good. We showed a lot of intelligence in the match, and we knew it was our moment … Unfortunately, they scored a penalty on us, but the team responded well and showed resilience. All of our players and staff just keep going; we never stopped. We came back and saw the game out despite the weather and the crowd, going through the obstacles. The boys stuck together tonight to get the result.” 

Carolina Core FC has a much shorter distance to travel for the third round, and will face North Carolina FC at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. Since defeating the Independence to win the USL 1 title last year, NCFC moved up a division to USL Championship, where they currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a 1-2-2 record. The Open Cup action kicks off a week from today at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, April 17.

A stalemate in Charlotte

Charlotte Independence goalkeeper Austin Pack (l) fist-bumps SC United Heat goalkeeper Zachary Rowell (r) before the penalty shootout between the teams. (Sam Spencer)

The Charlotte Independence had a relatively easy path to the second round, despite having to travel to Pennsylvania to best Vereinigung Erzgebirge 0-2.

The USL 1 club – sitting on the third tier of the United States Soccer Pyramid – was denied a derby against cross-county rivals Crown Legacy FC by their eventual opponent, the Heat. After beating Crown Legacy FC 0-1 thanks to an extra time penalty, the Heat brought their same cautious, controlling approach to their match with the Independence. 

As in their match against Crown Legacy, the Heat  deployed a 4-4-2 formation that, at times, felt like an 8-0-2. Charlotte forwards Joel Johnson, Juan Carlos Obregón Jr, and Tresor Mbuyu struggled to create chances, and South Carolina goalkeeper Zachary Rowell only had to make two saves over 120 minutes. The Heat’s defense won all but two of their 25 tackles, and by the waning minutes of the second half, a penalty shootout seemed inevitable.

Charlotte Independence midfielder Luis Álvarez (center) makes a second half run in an attempt to break through South Carolina’s defense. (photo by Sam Spencer)

On the other side of the pitch, Charlotte goalkeeper Austin Pack had more to keep him busy, making six saves while facing seven corner kicks. Pack controlled distribution and often used captain Clay Dimick to build up plays as the Jacks dominated possession 65% to 35%, but superior passing and possession stats don’t win soccer matches.

The Heat entered the shootout with three times as many shots on target as the Independence, but Pack continued to be a brick wall.

“I don’t feel too much pressure in the shootouts. I just try to do my part,” said Pack in an exclusive, post-match interview with Soccer Sheet. “I know the guys ran for 120 minutes, and I’m just standing back [in goal], so I’m happy to kinda do my part in the penalty shootout.”

Charlotte goalkeeper Austin Pack makes a decisive second save during the penalty shootout. (Sam Spencer)

Though South Carolina’s Rowell had the first save of the shootout, Pack stopped two of South Carolina’s five penalties to deliver the 0-0, (4-3) win for the Jacks. It was Pack’s third shootout in his last six competitive matches with the club, including Charlotte’s heartbreaking USL 1 championship match against NCFC.

“[South Carolina United Heat] has a really good team and a lot of good players, so they have a lot to be proud of,” said Pack. “[I] was lucky to make two stops to help the team.”

Even before the shootout, Pack was the clear Man of the Match. In the first 20 minutes of the match, the Heat delivered an impressive attack as Charlotte’s outfield players looked lethargic despite the constant drumbeat of supporters groups Blue Furia and the Mecklenburg Reserves. Pack was there at every critical juncture, punching and kicking the ball out of the area and denying the Heat goals from dangerous chances.

“It was good to get past this round. It was a tough game for everybody,” said Pack. “[South Carolina United Heat] has given some other teams around the area some trouble, so we were lucky to have the week to prepare.”

Charlotte Independence midfielder Luis Álvarez (center) walks past members of South Carolina United Heat after successfully scoring in the penalty kick shootout. (photo by Sam Spencer)

The Jacks will host Rhode Island FC for their third round Open Cup match at 7:00 PM on Tuesday, April 16 at American Legion Memorial Stadium. Should they win, they will have their deepest cup run since the team’s inaugural year, when the squad beat MLS’s New England Revolution to reach the Round of 16.

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