One important change that came with the Harrisburg City Islanders’ move to FNB Field last year was that they would be forced to squeeze in their home matches while the Harrisburg Senators were away. That’s why the City Islanders are sometimes called to play three matches in seven days, as they did this week. Luckily, it looks like the home field advantage has gone a long way in helping the City Islanders to get past their tired legs. Harrisburg was able to go above and beyond expectations during this home stand by defeating the Richmond Kickers 1-0 on Saturday night and then following that up with a gutsy 1-1 draw against the Charlotte Independence on Tuesday.
Richmond showed that they were keen to move out of the Eastern Conference basement, and they sent a strong squad to Harrisburg. Oscar Umar made his debut in the midfield after signing for the Kickers just a few days before the match. Richmond also had the services of Chris Odoi-Atsem, D.C. United’s 2017 first round draft pick, on defense. Harrisburg went with the same starting XI that they had used to defeat New York Red Bulls II just a few nights before. If it ain’t broke, as they say.
Both teams combined for an even first half, with neither side being able to dominate play. This remained true through the early part of the second half as Harrisburg’s offense tried and failed to find a way to break through. It looked like the scoring was about to start in the 59th minute when Harrisburg’s Jaime Thomas slipped a ball to Ropapa Mensah in front of the goal, but he mistimed his attack and sent the ball wide. Ropapa was upset at himself for the miss, and he was surely doubly frustrated as he had narrowly missed out on a goal in the last match as well.
Fortunately for Ropapa, he would have a second opportunity in the 76th minute. Thomas sent him another pass at the corner of the box. Ropapa quickly worked his way around the edge of the box and fired a low ball towards the far post. Richmond goalkeeper Matt Turner went full stretch but couldn’t get a piece of the ball. The goal put the City Islanders up 1-0 and it is currently in the lead for the USL goal of the week.
Richmond failed to respond to going down a goal, and they squandered much of their remaining time. Harrisburg was able to keep a fair amount of possession, and they started using classic time wasting tactics around the 85th minute. The Kickers did manage a few shots in added time, but they were either collected easily by Miller or they were sent way up and over the goal. The 1-0 victory for the Islanders was enough to jump them all the way to 8th place on the Eastern Conference table.
The City Islanders didn’t get much time to rest, as they were welcoming the red hot Charlotte Independence to Harrisburg on Tuesday night. With Charlotte’s win over NYRB II on Saturday night, they were riding a six match winning streak, and there didn’t seem to be any flaws with their current form.
Charlotte asserted themselves early by playing tight defense on the City Islanders, forcing them to make a lot of back passes in their own half in order to maintain possession. Charlotte’s main offensive weapons, Jorge Herrera and Enzo Martinez, were a threat throughout the first half, and Brandon Miller was called upon several times to come off his line to defuse an offense breakaway.
Harrisburg was forced to bend during the first half, but they were never made to break. When the Independence attacks were shut down, Harrisburg was able to work the ball wide and push it towards the Charlotte goal. At first this wasn’t creating many chances, although it did lead to multiple Harrisburg corners. The City Islanders were finally able to find the magic during first half added time. John Grosh worked the ball deep on the right side before firing a cross straight to Ropapa Mensah at the far post. Charlotte goalkeeper Cody Mizell was not able to adjust his position fast enough, and Ropapa was able to head the ball in to put Harrisburg up by one at the half.
Charlotte did not take kindly to being down at halftime, and they immediately seized the initiative when they came back onto the pitch. The equalizer came in the 51st minute as Martinez was able to dribble the ball almost to the side of the net before slipping a cross towards Herrera. A scramble with several Harrisburg defenders ensued, but it was Herrera who ultimately tapped the ball in to level the score.
Not satisfied with one goal, Charlotte continued to push for a second. Harrisburg had tremendous difficulty moving the ball out of their half thanks to Charlotte’s skills at dispossessing the City Islanders. A dangerous free kick was sent wide in the 61st minute, and Miller made a clutch reflex save in the 63rd minute to preserve the draw. Harrisburg wasn’t able to start winning back possession until close to the 80th minute. The City Islanders had just won a corner when a flash of lighting required a thirty minute break in play.
Play resumed right where it had left off, but Harrisburg was unable to score on their thirty minute long corner kick. The rain was falling now as each side was looking to use the changes in the weather to find a late winner. A through ball to Ropapa in the 85th minute was pounced upon at the last second by Mizell, although Mizell came up with a limp after the play. Harrisburg’s best chance for a winner came in the 88th minute, when a corner kick got loose in the box. But Rasheed Olabiyi’s shot was saved by the face of Callum Ross and the threat was cleared.
Charlotte’s final chance came on a tricky free kick that they attempted in added time. The taker sent a low ball towards the wall, but the Charlotte players in the wall split at the last second to create an opening. Luckily Brandon Miller had one more big save in him, and that stop ensured that the match would end level at 1-1.
So overall, Harrisburg was able to wildly exceed expectations during their July home stand. They needed to pick up the win over the depleted NYRB II team they faced. They were also finally able to get a win over Richmond in 2017 after having lost and tied their earlier matches this season. But it’s the point they got from Charlotte that might be the most impressive. The Independence are high in the standings, and they’ve been having their way with most of the Eastern Conference. But Harrisburg played their game and they were able to keep them contained. If the City Islanders can maintain their current form and composure, then it looks like a playoff return in 2017 is not out of the question.
- The injury bug made its presence felt quite severely during the Charlotte match. USL team-of-the-week starter Mo Dabo took two hard tackles early in the match. He attempted to return after getting his ankle taped, but had to be subbed off early. He was seen on crutches after the match. Abass Mohamed was also subbed off early after he ran into hamstring issues chasing down a ball on defense. Both of these players have been regular starters for Harrisburg, and they will both be missed if they end up missing significant time over these injuries.
- Injuries and yellow card suspensions caused the defense to be shaken up several times against Charlotte, but everyone involved held their own. Props to Shawn McLaws who slid over to center back in the starting XI and was frequently seen frustrating the Charlotte attack.
- Any teams that will be facing the Independence for the remainder of 2017 will need to be on their toes. Their combination of speed and aggressive play will be enough to keep any team on their heels. If they can maintain that energy into the playoffs, then everybody else is going to be in a lot of trouble.