The Charlotte Independence celebrate winning the 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs after an extra time victory against Orange County SC. | Photo courtesy Emily Sullivan / United Soccer League
TAMPA, Fla. – As with all his Charlotte Independence teammates, Christian Flores went into Sunday’s 2023 USL Academy League Playoffs Final knowing there might be a moment that fell his way.
In the third minute of extra time in a hard-fought contest against Orange County SC at the Tournament Sportsplex of Tampa Bay, it arrived.
Off a corner kick from the right side, Isaac Scheer’s delivery found Sam ter Linde, who rose highest in the center of the penalty area to knock down a header. Independence teammate Ryan Sietz almost seized the moment, attempting a turning finish that glanced off his right foot, but the ball fell to Flores, who showed composure to control and finish from the top of the six-yard area to send his side to a 1-0 victory and the league title.
“We practice that in training,” said Flores. “Just always be ready for your moment. Capitalize in the moment. That’s what I did.”
“[It was] absolutely something we talked about prior to the game,” added Independence Head Coach Jeff Bilyk. “That would be a massive piece of any final where it’s tight. It was going be tight, two really, really good teams. Credit to Orange County, they’re a fantastic team, but it was always going to come down to that one moment and who was better in those little moments from a set piece. Those are the differences in matches like that where there's a lot on the line and a lot of pressure. Credit to our guys to execute.”
After the sides ended regulation scoreless, Orange County tried to find a way back into the game and almost did so a few minutes later through a set piece of its own. A sharp delivery by Tarik Hamideh from the right side found Ashton Miles in the center of the penalty area for a flicked header that went wide of the left post, while a cross from the left side on a counterattack by Ben Barjolo was sent high at the back post by Phoenix Watkins.
The second half of extra time, meanwhile, saw OCSC go even closer. A good move down the right involving Bryce Jamison came inside to Watkins, whose first-time shot clipped the top of the crossbar before going behind. With just over a minute to go, meanwhile Adrian Diaz was set up for a central shot from 20 yards out that was comfortably saved by Charlotte’s Hever Delgado-Melchor.
The Independence’s defense led by center backs Flores and Ryan Behrmann and right back Bryce McLean – all of whom went the full 90 minutes through extra time – held firm, sending the Independence into celebrations.
“It means everything to the players, it means everything to our club,” said Bilyk. “We put a lot of work in. We emphasize this and player development as a pathway and to be a part of this and believing this and to come here and have an incredible weekend, I’m so amazingly proud of the players, so amazingly proud of all the staff – the staff that weren’t here, the players aren't here.
“Everything that that we talk about at the Independence, this is just for everybody back at home in Charlotte.”
Both teams had chances to break the deadlock in regulation, with the Independence getting the first good look on goal in the 13th minute when Joshua Moore pulled a shot wide of the right post from 20 yards. Orange County grew into the game more as the half went on, meanwhile, as midfielders Ben Norris and Taj Eagleston both started to find more space in their rotations with full backs Oscar Trujillo and Joseph Buckley.
The defenses remained on top going into the second half, however, with Behrmann making some crucial challenges to stop OCSC opportunities in their tracks and both Miles and Buckley doing stellar work in Orange County’s back line. Buckley also showed his awareness with four minutes to go in regulation, almost catching Delgado-Melchor off his line with a quickly-taken shot off a free kick from just inside the Charlotte half that went just over the crossbar.
In the end, however, Flores’ moment proved decisive as the Independence capped a sterling season in which the side lost just once in the regular season and playoffs to claim the trophy.
“We always knew right from the start of the season that this was a pretty special group, and that they had big moments in big games in them,” said Bilyk. “You always set this as a goal, but trying to accomplish it is easier said than done sometimes. I now think that they’ll go on to have that confidence to know that they can win big, big matches like this and big, big tournaments.”