On Saturday evening, 146 days after North Carolina FC played its home opener against Louisville City FC, NCFC returned to Sahlen’s Stadium for its second home game of the year, beating Group G-leading Birmingham Legion FC 1-0 to move into third place in Group G with four points from three games.
The game marked the first time one of the professional sports teams in the Triangle has been able to host a home game since the start of the pandemic. Both the Courage and Carolina Hurricanes have also returned to play, however both have done so from within bubbles in Utah and Canada, respectively. In order to play at home during a time like this, there are a lot of extra protocols that go into a game day routine that would not normally be there.
“All of the protocols were not on the forefront of my mind or the player’s to be honest,” NCFC head coach Dave Sarachan said. “It is certainly a little strange coming into the building with masks, having a shorter time in the building. There are a lot of things that were very different. But when the whistle blew and the game started you wouldn’t have known. Other than the fact that there is nobody in the stands of course, which is very strange.”
The first and only goal of the game came from a beautiful piece of build up play from NCFC in the 51st minute. Pecka played the ball into forward Robert Kristo’s feet and, with his back to goal, Kristo played the ball around the corner to right back D.J. Taylor who was overlapping. Taylor played it across the box to midfielder Dre Fortune who confidently slotted it home.
Fortune has been one of if not NCFC’s best player since the restart, scoring in both games so far. Able to play in either an attacking or box-to-box role for Sarachan, Fortune looks likely to be an increasingly crucial part of NCFC’s midfield.
“He is still an important piece in possession and in the final third,” Sarachan said. “I’d give him good grades today but I wouldn’t give him an A+ and I think he wouldn’t give himself an A+ and that is okay. It is still a little early. He had a couple of unforced errors, it is unusual for him, however, he is driven to be an impactful player...He is committed to putting up good numbers but not in a selfish way.”
NCFC came out of the gates looking much better than it did at the beginning of its 2-2 draw against Tampa Bay. After coming out of the gates flat in that game, the team made a complete turnaround, scoring two in the second half to earn a point. NCFC kept the momentum from that second half going against Birmingham.
While Birmingham managed to make it into the half without NCFC finding the back of the net despite 10 first-half shots, things got significantly harder in the 34th minute when Legion midfielder Bolu Akinyode was sent off after a relatively soft foul on NCFC’s Steven Miller.
In his first start in an NCFC shirt, left back Akeem Ward was arguably NCFC’s best player in the first half. Ward had previously appeared in the 2-2 draw with Tampa, replacing Caleb Duvernay in the second half due to an injury. Ward combined with Miller and fellow new signing Hadji Barry on the left flank through the first half and the defender was constantly looking dangerous in and around the opposition box.
“I think Akeem had a really good night,” Sarachan said. “He did a good job defensively, got forward in spots that were dangerous. As a two player tonight, I thought his performance was very solid… One of the reasons we picked him up is he is young but an experienced player and I think he showed that tonight.”
Ward continued his impressive play into the second half but he was overshadowed by both Fortune and Taylor in the second 45.
NCFC’s next game will be Saturday, Aug. 8 against Memphis 901 FC at Autozone Park in Memphis, Tennessee.