The Richmond Kickers sought their first road victory Friday night against the Charlotte Independence, but it wasn't meant to be. Last year, Richmond outlasted Charlotte by one point to earn the final spot in the USL playoffs; it was a score the Independence were out to settle. Stormy conditions early in the game made for a dangerous pitch, and the match proved aggressive and fast-paced on both ends. The Kickers thought they had done enough to earn a draw thanks to an 89th minute goal, only for a very controversial penalty kick deep in stoppage time handing Charlotte the three points.
Miguel Aguilar and Jalen Robinson both played the full 90 minutes. Aguilar was assigned the right wing taking all of the Kickers' corners and Robinson as right back handling most of the throw-ins. Action in front of goal started early when an Aguilar corner in the 3rd minute was headed away. Charlotte drove back down the field with former D.C. United attacker David Estrada taking a shot from right side of goal to the far post, rolling just wide.
Not long after, Kickers ace Yudai Imura went down with a leg injury and was immediately subbed out for Fred Owusu Sekyere. Imura is the Kickers' leading scorer with three goals in four matches, but was on the sidelines before the game really began. Sekyere is formerly of the Charlotte Eagles, the franchise which became the Independence.
Charlotte came out attacking, with a shot by Colorado Rapids loanee Caleb Calvert just over the bar. Richmond answered with an attack of their own. Sunny Jane, getting his first start of the season, collected a pass from Brian Ownby way outside the box and fired a rocket into the top right corner of the Charlotte net. Jane played for Wilmington Hammerheads FC last season and proved Coach Leigh Cowlishaw correct in including him in the starting eleven.
Keeper Ryan Taylor had several critical saves for the Kickers, not the least of which in the 28th minute when a bending shot from Enzo Martinez nearly caught him off guard. A late save by Taylor deflected the attempt from goal.
The dying moments of each half that saw the most action. In the 42nd, after being held off for the majority of the game, Charlotte found its way onto the scoreboard. Mike Callahan was beat in the left corner, and Charlotte forward Brian Brown squared up Calvert on the far post, who easily tapped in the goal to draw the Independence even.
Aguilar was solid in the second half, making several penetrating runs and cutting in towards goal, only to be dispossessed by Charlotte's swarming defense. Cowlishaw upped the ante in the 60th minute, subbing out the lone Kickers goal scorer Jane with Luiz Fernando. Immediately after, Jason Yeisley headed a ball to Ownby in front of goal, whose shot was cleared off the line by defender Patrick Slogic. Both teams were clearly playing for the win, not sitting back and absorbing pressure. The Kickers came roaring back again in the 70th as an Aguilar cross found Yeisley, who headed the ball to an open Fernando. Again, the shot was blocked just in front of goal.
Even with the skies clearing, conditions on the pitch were slick. In the 72nd, Ryan Taylor stepped backwards to punch away a Charlotte corner, landing awkwardly on his left leg. After going to ground, he was subbed out immediately, allowing Academy keeper Sawyer Gaffney to see his first minutes of the season. Gaffney has a long history with Richmond, playing in the club's youth programs since he was 12 years old; he is still in high school and will be attending Davidson in the fall.
Immediately after entering the fray, Gaffney was tested by Martinez, who fired a rocket from outside the box. There was no stopping the shot into the top right corner, and the young keeper conceded his first goal not even two minutes after coming onto the pitch. He redeemed himself in the 82nd minute, stopping a cracking attempt from Calvert.
Down 2-1, Kickers all-time leading scorer Matthew Delicate came in for Mike Callahan and immediately added a spark to the Richmond attack. Defender Hugh Roberts threw a long ball into the Charlotte danger area, which was bounced back by Yeisley to a wide open Delicate. The veteran striker didn't miss from such close range and put the Kickers level in the 89th minute.
Five minutes of stoppage were added, though, and the Independence weren't done. In the Kickers' penalty area, defender Braeden Troyer tangled with Jun Marques Davidson, who went down just in front of goal. Referee David Erbacher quickly awarded a penalty kick, even though it appeared that Davidson simply slipped in the wet conditions. Nonetheless, Jorge Herrera's ensuing PK saw the Kickers fall behind again, and there was no time to level the scores.
For the second week in a row, Charlotte walked off triumphant with a score of 3-2. Injuries to Imura and Taylor could be devastating to the Kickers if they miss substantial time. On a positive note, Aguilar and Robinson received a full game of experience in tough conditions on the road.
The Kickers are happy to return home after a difficult road trip, playing Toronto FC II at City Stadium Saturday, April 30.