North Carolina FC’s ambition to one day play as a member of Major League Soccer is no secret.
But in the meantime, the club will now get to see how the its current squad fares against an MLS side after defeating the Charlotte Independence 4-1 in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Wednesday night at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The victory sets up a fourth round home match with the Houston Dynamo on June 14.
Here are five things to note about NCFC’s win over the Independence and what lies ahead with Houston’s visit to Cary later this month.
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A blossoming rivalry
Although they’re in different leagues, NCFC and the Independence are becoming quite familiar with each other.
Wednesday’s game marked the third time in as many years the two teams played each other in the U.S. Open Cup, with NCFC now holding a 2-1 advantage in the series.
NCFC midfielder Nazmi Albadawi, who scored twice against the Independence, thinks the matchup is definitely a rivalry because of the high stakes – the winner of the NCFC-Charlotte game has gone on to host an MLS team each time now – and the fact that several Charlotte players previously played for the then-RailHawks.
“It is a rivalry,” he said. “Both of us are vying for MLS teams, and that plays a little part of it. You look at our fan groups talking trash on Twitter all week. We read that, you know.”
Houston a tough draw
Certain MLS clubs don’t place much importance on the U.S. Open Cup, with some viewing it as a distraction from the league campaign.
The Dynamo doesn’t appear to be that type of team.
Houston has a winning record all-time in the competition (11-10-1) and has won its four most recent U.S. Open Cup openers. Since 2009, Houston has only lost once to a non-MLS team and the Dynamo reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup in 2006 and 2009.
Through 13 league games, Houston is second in MLS’ Western Conference with 20 points (6-2-5).
Houston’s most recognizable player is former U.S. National Team fixture DaMarcus Beasley.
A former No. 1 pick out of Duke, Andrew Wenger, is also on the team.
Three Dynamo players will have an ax to grind against NCFC: defenders A.J. De La Garza and Leonardo were both starting for the L.A. Galaxy along with Robbie Keane (and late substitute Landon Donovan) when the then-RailHawks knocked them out of the 2014 Open Cup by a 1-0 score. Houston’s top scoring threat, Erick Torres, was a sub for Chivas USA that same year and had lost to the RailHawks one round prior on penalty kicks.
Regardless who is actually in the starting XI when the Dynamo visits in two weeks, NCFC head coach Colin Clarke is expecting to face a strong opponent.
Competing against the best
Albadawi was just a rookie in 2014, but he played a key role as the RailHawks knocked off MLS clubs Chivas USA and L.A. Galaxy to reach the quarterfinals of that year’s U.S. Open Cup.
He knows firsthand how talented certain top-tier teams can be, but at the same time, he doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the competition.
Albadawi argued that though one of the main differences between MLS and NASL clubs deals with the former’s ability to attract superstars, there isn’t as big of a gap in skill between the average player in the two leagues as one would think.
Instead, he said NASL players embrace the opportunity to show their worth against some of North America’s top players.
“I think the quality is very similar; I think there are small differences,” Albadawi said. “I think MLS teams have certain players that are being paid millions of dollars and those are usually the ones that make the difference.”
Taking the cup seriously
Both Albadawi and Clarke expressed how important the U.S. Open Cup is to the club.
If further proof is needed, there are two large banners at WakeMed Soccer Park commemorating the club’s unbeaten record against the L.A. Galaxy.
Clarke talked about the joy felt in the past when his teams have hosted MLS clubs and the excitement those types of matches bring to the fan base.
Additionally, the winner of the U.S. Open Cup earns a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, North America’s biggest competition.
“We take this very seriously, and I love this tournament,” Clarke said. “It gives us a chance to play against MLS teams, and it gives our players a chance to put themselves up against the best in this country, and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Wednesday’s attendance was 2,052, NCFC’s lowest of the season.
The game was was the team’s first weeknight home match of the regular season, and NCFC is now averaging 4,294 spectators through five home matches.
The current season-high for attendance (6,058) came on March 25 in the season-opener against Miami FC.