North Carolina FC’s three-game unbeaten streak was snapped by Toronto FC II on Sunday, July 18 as a hotly contested match ended 4-2 in favor of the visitors. NCFC played the majority of the game down a man after Pecka was shown a straight red in the 34th minute.
Despite being down a man for so long, NCFC put up a really good fight and got some excellent performances off the bench from Cole Frame and Robbie Kristo.
“We were not very good overall, obviously,” said NCFC head coach John Bradford. I thought our defending was poor… To come back 2-1 down, you know, to make it 2-2, to continue to fight, that probably would have been something that we could be proud of to continue to go and keep it at twos. Then to come back down and have another defensive lapse moment where you're working so hard you give something else up, it's just really difficult to try to maintain that.”
NCFC went into the halftime break trailing 2-1 after an opening 45 minutes that truly had it all. Three goals, moments of individual brilliance, and cards of both the yellow and red variety.
Toronto opened the scoring in the 23rd minute, capitalizing on some defensive miscues from NCFC. Garrett McLaughlin got the goal at the end of it, but the tap in was far from his best, or last, goal of the night.
The lead did not last long however, as Thorn Simpson pulled NCFC level in the 26th minute. Shermaine Martina got on the end of a short corner routine and redirected the ball toward the goal. The Toronto keeper wasn’t able to hold onto the ball and Simpson pounced on the rebound, blasting it home from point-blank range.
“Thorn Simpson, who came in and we were really excited about trying to get goals and have an impact on the team, had some struggles,” Bradford said. “For him to get his first goal tonight I think is massive. So I'm really happy for him in terms of that and hopefully he can keep that going.”
Six minutes later, McLaughlin struck again. Rohan Goulbourne put in a cross just behind McLaughlin, who turned and pulled off a stunning bicycle kick to put Toronto back in the lead.
Just two minutes after the goal, NCFC’s Pecka was shown a straight red card. It was hard to tell what Pecka did leading up to the card, but following the call, the referee faced a barrage of opposition from both the NCFC players and fans.
“It's just soccer players being in soccer moments,” Bradford said. “There's nothing wrong with what's happening. It’s intense, emotional players that are just barely touching each other. You have to allow that to go on. You know? And you can tell in the first, literally the first minute of play, when Nelson Martinez gets a yellow card and she's talking through the whole thing, we could tell it was gonna be that kind of way. But for that to be given a red card is insane.”
Late in the half, Jay Tee Kamara nearly pulled off some individual brilliance of his own. The midfielder picked up the ball in NCFC half and took off for the Toronto goal on a counter attack, leaving more than one player in the dust. While Kamara was not able to get a shot away, his run demonstrated some of the individual brilliance NCFC would need to get back in the game.
NCFC got exactly that from Kamara and Frame in the 67th minute. Kamara played a stunning cross-field ball to the streaking Frame, who brought it under control and drove at the Toronto defense. Once inside the box, Frame cut in and from the middle of three Toronto defenders, slotted the ball home to level things up.
“What the game needed and what Cole provided immediately was great,” Bradford said. “The team that is behind him, basically in terms of when he's playing as a center forward, understands where his movements are gonna go, understands how he can be threatening in terms of getting on goal and so they're looking for those opportunities to find him. His immediate impact was great. He did great on the goal. He continues to prove and show that he deserves this environment and more.”
Just a few minutes later, Frame looked like he was in on goal again, but went down after some contact from behind. The referee said there was no foul and the fans erupted in protest.
“Most officiating you see, when they either recognize that maybe they made a mistake, or recognize that they don't quite have control of the game, they make sure that they're on top of the next one,” Bradford said. “And then when Cole Frame gets put in, clearly behind the last defender, clearly gets brought down and not even a call. That just shows me that we're just really far off from understanding what's actually going on in front of us.”
Toronto capitalized on their fortune in the 75th minute with Antonio Carlini putting the visitors up 3-2. Like McLaughlin’s second goal, sometimes you need to simply applaud a nice goal.
Down a man and a goal, NCFC pushed men forward in search of an equalizer and Toronto punished them for it, as McLaughlin completed his hat trick in the 83rd minute.
NCFC will have a short turnaround before its next game, taking on the Richmond Kickers on Wednesday, July 21.