Upward Stars put FC Carolina Discoveries to the sword Wednesday night, punishing the hosts’ mistakes en route to a 4-1 National Professional Soccer League win.
The victory clinched the South Atlantic Conference championship for Upward Stars (6-3-0), based out of Spartanburg. They scored twice in each half, taking advantage of sloppy giveaways by Discoveries (3-4-2) to break open a game that was otherwise closer than the scoreline would suggest.
“They’re a great team, we’ve had three great games against them and I hope it’s an ongoing battle of the Upstate,” said Upward Stars coach Paul Henson.
Discoveries needed to win both of their last two games this week to have a chance to play in the NPSL postseason. But Upward Stars’ third win over Discoveries this season put an end to that thought.
“A couple of gifts didn’t help, and missing chances,” said Discoveries coach David Carton. “But, looking back on it, I can’t blame the guys for tonight. The hunger was there, the desire was there, especially in the second half.”
Henson’s team had keeper Mitch McKay to thank for several point-blank saves that kept Discoveries at bay in the second half.
“Some of those saves he had no right to make,” said a smiling Henson. “He came up big when we needed him.”
Discoveries trailed 2-0 at the break but started the second half with renewed vigor. Carton brought on Winthrop Spaniards Alex Isern and Jordi Lluch during the intermission and the latter made a quick impact, scoring in the 53rd minute to make it 2-1. Thiago Andrade slipped a ball into Lluch’s run and the defender showed clinical cool to chip the ball over the onrushing keeper and into the top left corner of the goal.
A pair of substitutes stuffed Discoveries’ momentum about 12 minutes later. Upward Stars counter-attacked after a sustained period of pressure from the hosts and Andre Carle got free on the right, before cutting back to John Grant, who finished first-time into the left corner for a 3-1 lead with 65 minutes played.
That goal was deflating, as was a series of saves by McKay that staved off any Discoveries fight-back. In the 76th minute, the keeper kept out a strong header from Daniel Revivo, before denying a low Achille Obougou rebound. The loose ball fell to Stephen Nsereko, but he fired over the top. Four minutes later, Andrade swung in a left-footed free kick that Lluch met with a firm header, only for McKay to paw it off the crossbar and out. Obougou then fired a shot off the left post a minute later.
“He made a couple of saves... I don’t know how he made them,” said Carton with a shake of the head.
It was hardly surprising given the flow of the game that Upward Stars added a fourth in the 87th, such was their ruthlessness. Carle busted down the left flank, skipped past an Aaron Weldon tackle and lifted a delicate finish over keeper Guilherme Avilar to make it 4-1.
“(Discoveries) were really chasing, they needed a win and we knew that, so we kept on playing so we could catch them on the counter,” said Henson.
Discoveries were left to rue two soft first half goals that put Upward Stars in firm control by halftime.
The visitors' first warning shot came in the 23rd minute when Avilar got caught off his line. Tayeb Ahmedi poked the ball past Avilar, settled himself, but then fired off the crossbar.
It was Ahmedi who struck the opener in the 29th. Discoveries surrendered the ball cheaply in midfield and Haven Bruce fed Ahmedi, who fired in despite Avilar's touch on the ball for a 1-0 lead.
The hosts carved out a chance to equalize in the 37th. Former Winthrop midfielder Tomas Brennan played the ball from near midfield and continued his run into the box, receiving Revivo's flick-on before firing just wide left.
That miss stung even more when Bruce put Upward Stars up 2-0 just before the half. A miscommunication in the Discoveries rearguard resulted in an errant header back to Avilar. The ball floated over his head right to Bruce, who tapped into an open goal for a 2-0 advantage. It was the kind of goal that left the Discoveries sideline muttering under its collective breath, and eventually led to an ice water bath for Henson as his side celebrated a conference championship and a postseason berth.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T