By Joe Walsh
A stormy CSA OrthoCarolina SportsPlex played host to a Friday night battle between Charlottetowne Hops FC and the visiting Apotheos FC, the top two teams in the NPSL’s Southeast Conference. Thunder and lightning delayed the game, which kicked off at 7:50 pm under cloudy skies and on wet turf.
Apotheos FC came to Charlotte with a record of 5-1-3 with the top spot in the regular season table already clinched. Hops entered the action with a record of 4-3-2 and a hold on a guaranteed playoff spot, but were playing to seal their own fate as a host for the first round of Southeast Conference playoff games on Wednesday, July 12. Apotheos beat Hops 3-1 in the reverse fixture, the first of the season for both teams.
The teams felt each other out for the opening 15 minutes, before a Hops counterattack was sparked by Vuk Martinovic’s one-touch header to Amari Salley, whose run split two defenders. Salley charged down the left flank and into the box, where he was met and pushed to the ground by Apotheos center back Ebrima Dampha, earning Hops the penalty.
Hops striker Tyler Trimnal stepped to the spot, and while Apotheos goalkeeper Henry Pleitez guessed correctly, diving to his right, Trimnal drove his chance low and into the corner to open the scoring.
Hops continued to find success on the flanks, as Salley and Gabi Lopes combined with Martinovic and Eli Pilcher to create several good chances over the next 20 minutes. Twice they forced Apotheos defenders to jump into the fray for goal-line clearances in support of their beleaguered goalkeeper.
In the 41st minute, very much against the run of play, Pleitez saved, and then distributed an excellent throw to Apotheos forward Patrick Okonkwo. Then Okonkwo drove forward before playing a pinpoint through ball between three retreating Hops defenders, onto the feet of streaking winger Geovanni Rios, whose shot beat Hops debutante goalkeeper Xander Wyatt-Ingram. The entire move, from Pleitez’s save to the ball hitting the back of the net, unfolded in less than nine seconds.
Apotheos had found their confidence, and the game would turn dramatically before the intermission. In the 45th minute, an Apotheos corner was initially turned away when Pilcher got his head to it. However, Hops were only able to clear as far as Rios. A bout of sustained pressure from Apotheos culminated when midfielder Emmanuel Alerte’s slaloming dribbling run found him near the byline, at a narrow angle to the goal, and about nine yards out. His cross found the head of Okonkwo, who made a brilliant run from near the penalty spot to the near post, and deflected the ball past Wyatt-Ingram and into the net.
Immediately after the ensuing kickoff, Apotheos built a blitzkrieg attack up the right flank, resulting in a cross to the feet of midfield dynamo Blake White. He took a touch just inside the box, put the ball onto his right foot, and drove it in. This was the third goal from Apotheos FC in just five minutes.
The second half took on an air of anticlimax as Hops threatened on occasions, but never looked likely to break through. Apotheos were content to keep a foot on the ball and were very effective at killing the game. Both teams rotated late, perhaps in anticipation of the midweek playoff action awaiting them.
Photo Credit: Laura Stroud