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What NCFC could have done differently in U.S. Open Cup play

Steven Miller, center, of North Carolina F.C. celebrates along his teammates, Nazmi Albadawi, left, and Paul Black, right, after scoring the first goal. North Carolina F.C. played Houston Dynamo in a soccer game that counted for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup that took place at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Houston Dynamo won 3-2 in overtime.
Steven Miller, center, of North Carolina F.C. celebrates along his teammates, Nazmi Albadawi, left, and Paul Black, right, after scoring the first goal. North Carolina F.C. played Houston Dynamo in a soccer game that counted for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup that took place at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Houston Dynamo won 3-2 in overtime. newsobserver.com

For the past few months, North Carolina FC and its supporters have used the phrase “919 to MLS” online since the club announced its intentions to one day play in the United States’ top league.

On Wednesday, MLS came to the 919, but NCFC ended up falling 3-2 in extra time to the Houston Dynamo in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup at WakeMed Soccer Park in a game that took over four hours to complete due to an 88-minute lightning delay that began in the 88th minute of the contest.

With nothing separating the two teams, Houston scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in the 109th minute on a strike by midfielder Memo Rodriguez.

With the loss, NCFC’s run in the U.S. Open Cup is over. Since reaching the quarterfinals of the 2014 competition, the club has now lost three consecutive matches against MLS opponents.

“We weren’t clinical enough”

Despite Houston recording three more shots on target, NCFC certainly had several great chances itself, some of which were converted while others were not.

One of the biggest missed opportunities came in the 94th minute when forward Matt Fondy’s diving header, which was set up by a Lance Laing service, was saved by Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis.

Despite opening up the game with a goal in the fourth minute from defender Steven Miller and equalizing midway through the second half, NCFC coach Colin Clarke thought his team just couldn’t make the most of the opportunities that fell to them.

“We had enough chances to win the game and obviously go ahead in extra time, but we weren’t clinical enough in front of goal,” he said.

Houston’s high-pressure causes problems

Coaching without many of his players who normally start and play regularly in MLS matches, Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera wanted his team to pressure and “impose” themselves from the beginning of the game.

The Dynamo did just that.

From the get-go – and even after falling behind early – Houston put pressure on NCFC, especially in the midfield.

Eventually, that persistence paid off.

With the game tied 1-1, Houston took its first lead of the night in the 62nd minute when Dynamo defender Dylan Remick dispossessed NCFC midfielder Austin da Luz deep in his own half and subsequently put his shot past NCFC goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre.

Contrarily, Clarke thought NCFC didn’t put enough pressure on the Dynamo.

“We weren’t getting close enough to them pressure-wise in the first half,” he said.

Laing lethal on set pieces

As soon as NCFC won a free kick from just a few yards outside of the 18-yard box down by a goal in the 68th minute, everybody knew it was Lance Laing time.

The forward, a three-time NASL Best XI selection, scored from a set piece in NCFC’s recent 2-2 draw against the New York Cosmos and earned the league’s play of the week for his impressive free kick in an April win against FC Edmonton.

The Jamaica international’s latest effort didn’t disappoint.

Although he benefited from a slight deflection off of Houston’s wall, Laing curled a shot past Willis and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.

In addition to the goal, Laing was close to recording an assist on Fondy’s near-goal and also did a good job of tracking back defensively throughout the game.

Early exit

For the third straight year, NCFC failed to earn a win against MLS opposition the U.S. Open Cup.

While Houston might have had the better of the chances for most of the night, NCFC almost went ahead late in the contest and weren’t far off from advancing to the fifth round.

After NCFC’s win over the Charlotte Independence in the third round of the competition, both Clarke and midfielder Nazmi Albadawi talked about the excitement that can come from a run in the U.S. Open Cup.

Those sentiments are currently being felt by fellow NASL side Miami FC, who beat MLS’ Orlando City 3-1 Wednesday night. Unfortunately for NCFC, there are once again no triumphs over a top-flight opponent to celebrate.

Attendance

Wednesday’s attendance was announced as 4,325, which brings NCFC’s season average to 4,260 through seven home competitive matches.

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