On a rare Monday Night Futbol game in USL League 1, the Richmond Kickers took on the Charlotte Independence in a match with two teams playing very contrasting styles. The game, originally scheduled for Friday, was pushed back to Monday due to Richmond playing a mid-week US Open Cup game. The Kickers won against the NC Fusion U-23, the same squad that knocked out Charlotte in the previous round. From a Richmond perspective, the style of play in this game showed a team that looked like the recent amount of fixtures was starting to catch up with them. Coach Sawatzky's line-up had few significant changes from prior league matches, with only Leo Baima coming to the left-hand side for Matt Bolduc.
Richmond started this game off well with Leo's assist to Terzaghi, as the Kickers quickly countered to capitalize on a mistake made by the Independence. However, after this, the game became a little rocky. The Independence promptly started to dominate moments in the match by pinning the Kickers into their own space and not allowing them any moments to relax. Akira once again stood on his head as he made four saves in the first half, but couldn't make it five as Shalom Dutey was able to out-jump Nathan Aune for a header on a corner kick and tie the game up in the 37th minute.
Going into the second half, the Kickers came out with a clear plan; slow down Charlotte, who had dominated in possession, and make sure they were not splitting the Kickers down the middle. The Kickers once again were able to carve out a goal out of nothing as Barnathan was able to swing the ball left to Baima, who first-time crossed it across the box to Matt Bentley. Bentley then easily beat the Charlotte goalkeeper with a shot to the upper corner to make it 2-1. Ten minutes later, the Kickers would go up up a man as Tresor Mbuyu threw an elbow at Chris Cole and received his marching orders. Richmond more or less went into a defensive shell for the rest of the game as Charlotte was throwing more numbers forward, trying to score a late equalizer. The Kickers were able to hold on though and moved into joint first position with Chattanooga.
This game showed some very promising signs for the Kickers as they earned a tough road win, but there are still some things that can be tweaked with the two-week break coming up.
- Kickers showed they could turn draws into wins. One thing that hindered the Kickers last year was that they couldn’t turn draws into wins and losses into draws on the road. Last night's game had all the makings of a draw, but the Kickers played smart defensive soccer and scored a pivotal goal to finish off the match.
- The Kickers midfield has to be more alert to winning the “second ball” and cutting out the team's ability to put pressure on the back four. Charlotte made an effort to clog up the middle with as many blue jerseys as possible with the purpose of winning second balls. With a slightly more defensive mid pairing of Dakota and Zaca, the Kickers need to ensure that they can kill teams that can recycle the ball and apply pressure on Kickers.
- Improve the simple passes from playing out of the back. There were moments in last night's game where Kickers were trying to play out of the back, but because of a slightly rushed pass, Charlotte could recover and create another chance. Richmond has to be calmer on the ball if they want to be more dominant in games and cut out some of the turnovers.
- Backups are proving they can take the pressure off the starters. One of the big talking points around the team last year was the lack of goals coming from others outside Terzaghi. Matt Bentley has proven he has what it takes to play in USL League 1 with two goals and one assist (in the US Open Cup) thus far. Leo Baima has helped in the assist department as Kickers have finished off chances and created moments with four key passes in this game alone. Chris Cole, who has been playing more as a center back this year, came on in the first half for Stu Ritchie and held Koa Santos in check during the second half. If the Kickers are looking to have a deep run in the US Open Cup and in the league, then having QUALITY depth is key to that mission.
The Kickers right now sit at 2-1-1 on top of the USL League One table, tied with Chattanooga. The Kickers' next few fixtures will be challenging. The Henny Derby resumes against that Pink Team; a massive MLS draw occurs as Charlotte FC comes to City Stadium in the Open Cup, and to end the three-game home stretch defending champion Union Omaha comes to the Rivercity. Each of these games presents its unique challenges, but as the Kickers have shown, they are more than capable of solving them.