North Carolina FC continues Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup success

Some of North Carolina FC’s biggest moments as a club have come in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The then-Carolina RailHawks scored six wins against MLS opponents in the competition that spans the different levels of the U.S. soccer pyramid – three against the LA Galaxy – and reached the semifinals in 2007, the team’s inaugural season.

But to get a chance against one of the big clubs, you need to handle your business first. Playing against a third-tier opponent in its first game of this year’s cup, NCFC used three second-half goals in an 18-minute span to defeat the Richmond Kickers 4-1 Wednesday night at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.

With nothing separating the two sides at halftime, a pair of goals in quick succession from forward Robbie Kristo put the game away for NCFC.

Here are three takeaways from the match

A semi-pro opponent awaits

Entering the week, many figured an inter-state rivalry match awaited NCFC in the third round of the competition if it could get past Richmond, with it slated to face the winner of the Charlotte Independence and the Florida Soccer Soldiers, a semi-pro side based in North Miami Beach, Fla. But the Soccer Soldiers, down a man, equalized in the 119th minute during extra time before advancing past Charlotte, a USL side, on penalty kicks Tuesday.

The Soccer Soldiers visit Cary on May 29, and NCFC head coach Dave Sarachan said his team can’t afford to take their next cup opponent lightly.

“I mean, you pull for teams like that,” Sarachan said. “When we play them, I will not be pulling for them; we’ll look to beat them. But I think that just tells you about this tournament … anybody can enter and play well and win.”

Kristo takes advantage of first start

All it took for NCFC to pull away from the Kickers was a little bit of Kristo.

Making his first start of the season, Kristo used his best attributes as a player – size and physicality – to put NCFC ahead 2-1 in the 52nd minute. Once left back Caleb Duvernay played in a skying service from the left flank, Kristo rose high above Richmond’s Wahab Ackwei and headed into the back of the net.

“Just outmuscling the guy,” Kristo said. Being 6-5 makes it a little bit easier.”

Nine minutes later, Kristo added his second from the penalty spot to make it a 3-1 game, as he slotted his effort into the bottom left corner as Richmond goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, a former RailHawk, guessed the wrong way.

Sarachan comfortable with making lots of lineup changes

As a two-time Open Cup champion as the coach of the Chicago Fire, Sarachan said he takes the competition seriously.

But he was willing to make eight changes to his lineup from NCFC’s most recent USL match, with the average age of his 11 starters being 22.3 years old. In some ways, that paid off.

Midfielder Dre Fortune, an unused sub on Sunday at Ottawa, scored the opening goal in the 16th minute, his first since October 2017. Up top, Kristo did well in front of goal. At times, the group looked a step slow and off page with one another, as Richmond equalized in the 34th minute. Yet, Sarachan thought his players performed better as the match went on.

“I wouldn’t put a team out there I didn’t think could succeed, and I felt this was a group that earned the right to see this game,” he said.