Close loss doesn’t dampen Charlotte FC home opening party

FC Charlotte keeper Kristian Kahlina leaps into the air to make a first half save on a shot from Mark Delgado during Saturday night’s game against the LA Galaxy at Bank of America Stadium (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

CHARLOTTE — The much-heralded home debut of Charlotte’s new Major League Soccer Franchise was a rousing success Saturday.

Everywhere but the scoreboard.

A crowd of 74,479 jammed Bank of America, the second-largest to see a soccer game in the world this year and the biggest ever to see an MLS game, provided a festive atmosphere as it chanted, sang and cheered its new team on. 

But the visiting LA Galaxy spoiled the party by scoring in the 77th minute to defeat Charlotte FC 1-0.

“I believe they can feel proud today because most of the time we were better than LA, a multiple-time champion with top players,” Charlotte coach Miguel Angel Ramirez said of his upstart team. “In the second half, we were much, much better and at the end, with the last chance, we had possibilities to score. So I am very happy.”

Ramirez would have been even happier had Charlotte been able to get the goal that, in his words, would have allowed the party atmosphere to continue after the final whistle sounded.

As it is, the expansion club was a vastly improved version of the one that lost its first ever game 3-0 on the road against D.C. United last week.

FC Charlotte’s Christian Fuchs gets a shot off as he’s taken to the ground by the LA Galaxy’s Sega Coulibaly during Saturday’s MLS game at Bank of America Stadium. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Not only did its defense keep Galaxy stars Chicharito and Douglas Costa in check, but it was also able to split possession time with its more established opponent almost evenly. Although the scoring chances were heavily in favor of LA, which held a 21-5 advantage in shots attempted, possession time broke down to just a 50.5%-49.5% split.

The difference in the game came down to one nearly perfect strike of the ball by midfielder Efrim Alvarez.

Taking a pass from teammate Raheem Edwards down the wing, Alvarez threaded a high bending ball from distance out of the reach of keeper Kristian Kahlina into the top far corner of the net.

“I think it was something between a cross and a shot, because it was not a straight ball,” said Kahlina, a native of Croatia. “It was a little bit over me and it went to the post for the goal. I don’t know what more I can say.”

The decisive goal was especially demoralizing for Charlotte FC since it came on a counterattack less than a minute after one of its best offensive chances of the night. 

Veteran back Christian Fuchs got loose on the left side of the box, but he appeared to be pulled down by a Galaxy defender as he attempted a left-footed shot that was saved by keeper Jonathan Bond.

Fuchs pleaded for a penalty on the play but didn’t get a whistle. As play continued, a second attempt at the franchise’s first ever goal also resulted in a near miss when substitute striker Benjamin Bender fired the rebound off the left goalpost from a sharp angle.

Charlotte FC had one final scoring opportunity late in stoppage time when Alan Franco sent a cross into Daniel Rios for a close-range header that was saved by Bond.

Daniel Rios leaps between two LA Galaxy defenders to head a shot on goal during stoppage time of Charlotte FC’s home debut on Saturday. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Despite his team’s lack of scoring, Ramirez said he isn’t concerned.

“I think scoring comes in phases,” he said. “Sometimes you will have good phases and other times you’ll go through bad phases. But no phase lasts forever. We just have to keep training and working hard. I would be much more concerned if we weren’t creating scoring chances at all. On another day, those chances we missed go in.”

Even without a goal, Ramirez called the game one of the best experiences of his soccer career, thanks to a boisterous crowd that included such Charlotte sports luminaries as Steve Smith and Jimmie Johnson.

“We play football because we want to win,” he said. “But today I believe I am the happiest coach in the world. It was amazing. I cannot describe in words the energy, and I would like to thank everyone who joined us in this party, because it really was a party.” 

“If we’d won, we would continue the party now. Thank you North Carolina, South Carolina, Charlotte, everyone that came today. My request is that I would like to see all (the fans) back for the next game.”