Coming off a 3-1 win in their home opener, the Richmond Kickers looked to keep their momentum going as they traveled south to North Carolina to take on Wilmington Hammerheads FC. Away support for the Kickers was strong- the Red Army traveled well, creating a block of Kickers jerseys in Legion Stadium.
Last year, Wilmington finished at the bottom of their conference, but big changes in the off season resulted in better performances on the pitch. A new coach and fifteen new players make up the Wilmington lineup. Last week, they topped Orlando City B 2-1, shocking City in their home opener. With both Richmond and Wilmington having early success, the stormy Friday night match on the Carolina coast resulted in a hard-played but predictable stalemate.
The first twenty minutes saw mostly midfield play, with a lot of long balls and turnovers from both teams. A testy exchange briefly stopped play when Alex Lee and Wilmington's forward Qudus Luwal collided in the Kickers' half. No cards were produced, but referee Neil Barbulescu would reach into his pocket five times before the game was through.
As the first half continued, the Kickers saw the best opportunities, with Wilmington's offense relying on counterattacks and transitions. Alex Lee connected with Yudai Imura, but Imura's shot rolled just wide of the Wilmington goal. The Kickers' best chance for a go-ahead was with newly signed Brazilian striker Luiz Fernando. Again Lee nearly had an assist, squaring the ball off to Fernando, who danced around his defender and bent a shot into the Wilmington woodwork.
The beginning of the second half saw both teams fighting hard for possession, with a lot of back and forth play but neither team able to connect in the penalty area. The Kickers' back four looked strong, with William Yomby and Hugh Roberts stifling Qudus Luwal. The Kickers played a high line- an adjustment from last season.
As the game wore on, both teams backed off a bit, not wanting to commit too many men forward and risk the mistake that could cost a point. Still, Imura nearly had an assist with a solid cross to Roberts, but the defender's header was handled by Wilmington Keeper John Smits. Minutes later, Jason Yeisley followed up with another solid header, his shot passing just above the crossbar.
In the 74th minute, a Wilmington set piece in the Kickers' half nearly resulted in a Yeisley own goal, but it proved to be the Hammerhead's best chance at securing three points.
The 2016 Hammerheads team is the same in name only from last year's squad. Richmond stood strong in stifling the Hammerhead's home opener, but tough tasks still lay ahead. The Kickers' next match sees them back home at City Stadium Saturday, April 9th, to take on last year's USL champions, the Rochester Rhinos. Prior to the game, City Stadium is hosting the I Heart Carytown Craft Beer Festival. Gates open at 3:00pm.