CHARLOTTE, NC (Aug. 30, 2016) — The Charlotte Independence (11-7-6) is back in action Wednesday night, welcoming expansion club FC Cincinnati (12-5-7) to Ramblewood Stadium. There are just six games remaining in the USL regular season and every point makes a difference in the Eastern Conference playoff race, as seventh and third place are separated by just four points. Cincinnati currently sits in fourth place in the conference standings, while Charlotte fell to seventh place last week. The top eight teams qualify for the postseason.
Cincinnati over the weekend clinched a playoff berth despite a 2-0 loss to New York Red Bulls II (though final standings are still to be determined). The result ended a five-match unbeaten run for FCC, which began following an earlier loss to the same NYRBII squad back on July 20. Cincinnati is a well-balanced team with a +10 goal differential. Their 33 goals scored are tied for fourth overall in the East while their 23 goals allowed are tied for third.
Offensively, FCC is lead by Sean Okoli with 11 goals and three assists. Three additional players — Andrew Wiedeman, Omar Cummings and Jimmy McLaughlin — also have tallied double-digit points this season. On the other end of the field, Mitch Hildebrandt has been a steady presence in goal, recording a 0.91 goals against average and .750 save percentage over 24 games and 2081 minutes.
Charlotte also had an opportunity to secure its place in the postseason on Saturday night, but a controversial “no goal” call against Charleston put that plan on hold and instead ended a six-match unbeaten run for the Independence.
After a scoreless first half, the Battery broke through the defense in the 50th minute when an open Maikel Chang slotted home a cross by Ataullah Guerra from six yards out. Charlotte appeared to have equalized three minutes later as second-half substitute Yann Ekra’s right-footed strike hit the underside of the crossbar and seemed to come down over the goal line before bouncing out, but the referee did not award the goal. The Independence created a few more chances but the game ended 1-0 in favor of the Battery.
Despite being shut out in Charleston, the Independence still has the third highest scoring offense in the Eastern Conference with 35 goals for. Enzo Martinez and Brian Brown have recorded seven each, with Caleb Calvert (6) and Jorge Herrera (5) not far behind. Charlotte boasts an average of 5.5 shots on goal per game compared to that of 3.8 for their opponents. In addition, the Independence’s 24 goals allowed this season are tied for fourth-fewest in the Eastern Conference.
The Independence will have another chance to clinch a playoff berth on Wednesday against Cincinnati. Charlotte needs a win over FCC or losses by Bethlehem (at Harrisburg) and Wilmington (at Montreal) to get in.
When Charlotte and Cincinnati first met at Nippert Stadium in Ohio back on April 9, it was FCC who came away with a 2-1 victory. In the fifth minute of play, Okoli got on the end of a cross at the top of the eighteen. His touch brought the ball up just enough for him to send a right-footed volley past Independence goalkeeper Cody Mizell. Momentum stayed with the home side in the second half, as Austin Berry found the back of the net with a diving header in the 52nd minute. The Independence countered two minutes later as David Estrada buried a rebound shot to pull back within one. Charlotte had one final chance to equalize in the 88th minute when Christopher Hellmann received a cross from the right side, but he sent the ball soaring over the crossbar.
Wednesday night’s rematch in Charlotte is scheduled for a 7:00pm kickoff at Ramblewood Stadium. The match will determine the inaugural winner of the Queen City Cup Challenge, a friendly competition created between the USL clubs and their cities’ respective mayors. Should the game end in a draw or victory for Cincinnati, they would take home the trophy. Charlotte needs a shutout victory or win by at least two goals to claim the title for 2016.