Sunday, June 05, 2016

Wilmington Hammerheads - Charlotte Independence (10-05-2016)


I left my meeting in DC early so I would be able to make this rare event, a Tuesday evening game, on the coast of North Carolina. Battling traffic in DC and Virginia, I arrived in Wilmington, NC, just 15 minutes before kick-off. Starving, I hoped for decent food in the stadium. I was wrong!


Legion Stadium is a regularly renovated small stadium from 1938, which has two stands on the long sides, but they are not very deep. It is home to the Wilmington Hammerheads, which was founded in 1996, and plays in the United Soccer League (USL), the Third Division in the US. I pay $13 for a General Admission ticker and enter the stadium.

The stadium holds 6,000 people and, in this light, I guesstimate that some 500-750 people are here this night. The official attendance number is 2,776, which is very certainly a huge exaggeration. They are a broad mix of the usual middle class families (moms with little kids) but also some 100 “ultras,” mostly college bros and hipsters, trying to be like the Timbers Army.

The game starts relatively slow. I start to get a bit distracted, which leads me to miss a foul, in the 14th minutes, which gives the Hammerheads a penalty kick.

The player takes the penalty very cool. The goalkeeper goes into the wrong corner: 1-0. Time to celebrate for the “ultras.”

In the 23rd minute the hosts have a good attack, which leads to an odd pass in, which is tipped in from 5 meter, but saved by a defender, and then the rebound is beautifully saved by the goalkeeper. Only in the 30th minute the visitors have their first real chance: after a corner, a soft header bounces and the goalie tips the ball over.

The quality of the game is a bit deceptive. It looks ok, but tactically it’s a mess and there are very few good passes. The players are mostly running and hitting long balls. Halfway the first half the passing and control become terrible. In the 38th minute a good individual effort of the Charlotte striker might have ended with a goal if he would have passed. Three minutes later a corner leads to terrible defense, which is punished: 1-1.

It turns out that there are some ten away supporters, who made the relatively short (roughly 200 miles or 320 km) trip. They celebrate pretty much inside the Hammerheads “ultras’ section. 1-1 is also the half time score.
The second half starts with the same type of play. In the 51th minute a good shot of the hosts from about 20 meters goes just over. In the 76th minute the visitors get an enormous chance, because the goalie hesitates and come out too late, but the striker hesitates too, and gives a difficult pass that is shot soft at the defenders.

The last 15 minutes sees various attacks on both ends, with Charlotte mostly countering, but the final passes are bad. In the 87th minutes two good tackles by a Wilmington defender deep in the Charlotte half lead to a chance for the Hammerheads. A direct counter of Charlotte leads to a shot at goal from about 12 meters, but it is soft and at the goalkeeper.

Despite this soft chances, the pace and quality of the game remain low. In the 90th minute a Hammerheads header goes just wide. That is the last more or less noteworthy thing to happen. Final score: 1-1.

Most USL teams are closer to the Premier Development League (PDL) than to the Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Wilmington Hammerheads are no exception. They have a modest support, but mostly transient fans (i.e. families and college kids). Still, because of the nice setting of Wilmington, and the pleasant surroundings of Legion Stadium, the Hammerheads are worth a visit. Just come well-fed, as the offerings in the stadium are dismal.

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