[Watch]Chester Yamikani slips a shot past Rangers goalkeeper for early 1-0 lead for North Carolina FC.

NC FC: 2
Swope Park Rangers: 0

North Carolina FC were the opening feature in a double-header along with the North Carolina Courage, played under the sunny Saturday skies of WakeMed Soccer Park.

North Carolina FC came in ranked sixth in the USL Eastern Conference table, having handed the Tampa Bay Rowdies their first league loss of the season last weekend.

However, North Carolina were also paying their third match in a week’s time, coming off a 4-0 loss at New York City FC that ousted NCFC from the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

A date with Swope Park Rangers, sitting at the bottom of the league standings, was exactly what the weary Whales needed.

Two early goals by Yamikani Chester and Dre Fortune paced North Carolina FC to a 2-0 victory Saturday, pushing NCFC into a tie for second-place in the conference standings.

“These are tricky games, because if you pay attention to the standings and let your foot off the gas pedal, you can get punished,” said North Carolina FC manager Dave Sarachan. “Getting the early goal was important today, and then obviously we got the second and I thought we let up a little bit. We made a few tactical adjustments at halftime, but overall it’s been a busy stretch for a number of guys … But at the end of the day you win your games at home, and we did.”

North Carolina FC asserted themselves at the outset, when forward Robbie Kristo gathered an errant pass in the Swope Park backfield, then played a through ball ahead to a streaking Chester.

The Malawi international slipped his shot past Rangers goalkeeper Eric Dick for the early 1-0 lead.

“In the scouting, we realized [Swope Park] is a team that likes to play and taking some risks out of the back,” Fortune said. “So we planned to put them under pressure in different spots and see if we can win it back in good areas and punish them from there.”

Carolina doubled their advantage seven minutes later when Fortune, recently named the USL player of last week, intercepted another wayward Swope Park pass, took a couple of touches, and slotted a poke shot below Dick to make the scoreline 2-0.

It was the third league goal this year for Fortune, a Raleigh native.

“We had just lost [the ball, and [Sarachan’s] always telling us when we lose it to try and press and win it back as soon as possible,” Fortune said. “I saw an opportunity to step in and win the ball, was driving towards the goal and saw an opening. I shifted it to one side and put it in the corner.”

An ad hoc training exercise comprised the remainder of the first half, with both teams basically knocking the sphere around to hone their technical XP. The scoreless play continued through the final whistle, punctuated only by scrum in front of Swope Park’s goal in the 80th minute that saw three NCFC shots saved.

North Carolina FC (7W-5D-2L, 26 pts.) moves into a tie with New York Red Bulls II for second position in the USL Eastern Conference, four points behind conference-leading Tampa Bay. While North Carolina visits Saint Louis FC next Saturday, June 22, the Dead Whales will host three of their next five league matches and five and their next eight.

“It’s tough to deny that we’re doing well, but we’re not satisfied because we want to push for that number one spot,” Fortune said. “We want to play all the playoff games we can, so we want to keep going and continue to capitalize with three points from all the games.”

During the North Carolina FC preseason, Sarachan claimed he wouldn’t have a good feel for the quality of his squad until roughly eight or nine games into the season. With NCFC now 14 matches into the USL season, Sarachan says he’s happy with his team but “we’re still learning.”

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