North Carolina FC took down the third-place New York Red Bulls II on Saturday night 2-0 behind goals from forwards Donovan Ewolo and Robbie Kristo.
The hosts have had a lot of success this season against the teams above them in the table, taking 19 of a possible 27 points from the top five teams in the table: Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Indy Eleven, Nashville, Red Bulls and Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The team’s success against the teams above it in the table bodes well for the club as the playoffs are just a few weeks away. The club mathematically clinched its spot in the playoffs on Monday and still has a chance to host a first-round playoff game depending on where it finishes in the table.
“I think you know we've been at this now 32 games into the season, a lot of months,” NCFC head coach Dave Sarachan said. “And I think we have a pretty good identity and a feel for what we're about and what it takes to, to get through games like tonight. I don't think it requires a lot from me as a coach to pump them up for games against teams that are in the top five or six in our league. I think our guys understand the ramifications of that and the challenges.”
With his goal, Kristo has scored in each of the past three home matches and four of the last five, only one of which he started. Kristo has eight goals and two assists in just over 700 minutes played this season as he is usually Sarachan’s go-to man on the bench. This match was no different as he was brought on in the 37th minute after Ewolo went down injured.
“I think one of the things about being a good team is that you've got all players ready and available,” Sarachan said. “And Robbie, once again, came in and did a job by getting us a goal but he also worked. He did a lot of defending work, you know, the slide tackle he made at the very end of that game. I don't think Robbie would have done that two months ago, and I think Robbie now understands that it's on both sides of the ball so it's massive when you have guys that can come in and give you a spark like that.”
Another player who impressed on the night was goalkeeper Alex Tambakis who made six saves on 25 shots faced.
“We talk about the field players but Alex, I still maintain, when he's in good form he's as good as any we have in the league and I think tonight he came up big,” Sarachan said. “So the clean sheet goes to the group in front of him, but certainly he was a big part of that as well, so we're going to need him."
NCFC started the game well with Manny Perez earning his side a penalty just six minutes into the match. Ewolo stepped up to take the penalty and put it low and to the goalie’s right. The keeper made a good save on it but the ball fell right back to Ewolo and he made no mistake on the rebound, hitting it on the volley into the open net.
The home team doubled its advantage in the 50th minute when former NC State men’s soccer midfielder Nazmi Albadawi broke into the box and got to the end line before cutting it back to Kristo who finished it brilliantly at the near post.
The assist was Albadawi’s 23rd of his NCFC career, enough to put him level with club legend Tiyi Shipalane who was honored at halftime along with fellow legend Kupono Low.
“Yeah, I mean, look Tiyi is a legend of the club,” Albadawi said. “Very much deserved recognition for him tonight for him and Kapono, two very, very close friends of mine. Two guys that I've looked up to as players and now I’m fortunate to call very close friends of mine. And the fact that I tied Tiyi’s all-time assist record tonight means a lot to me. Tiyi is one hell of a player. He's done so much for the club. He's given me a few assists in the game. And I think I've given him a few back. But to tie somebody like that really, really means a lot to me."
At halftime of the match, NCFC honored two club legends with framed jerseys to commemorate their time with the club, Shipalane and Low. Shipalane, a fan favorite, is arguably the most exciting player to ever put on the shirt and Low, nicknamed ‘Mr. Railhawk’, played for the team in its inaugural season 2007 and scored the club’s first goal.
Low is the longest-tenured player in the history of the club making a record 229 appearances and playing 19,779 for the Railhawks between 2007 and 2016. Shipalane played for the club between 2010 and 2018 and was one of the most exciting players to watch. Nicknamed the “Human Highlight Reel,” Shipalane had a lot of big moments for the club but one of the most memorable was scoring the winning goal in the Open Cup match against the LA Galaxy in 2012.
“I think it's great to have them back,” Sarachan said. “You know I didn't coach them but I certainly competed against them so I know what they meant to this club. I think it's very important as a club to stay connected to what I call the alumni, former players, they're part of a larger family which is NCFC, and I hope this is a tradition that we're going to continue for many years.”
NCFC will be back in action on Oct. 12 as it travels to Nashville to take on the third-place team in the league.