Asheville City SC's historic run in USL League Two Playoffs comes to a disappointing and heartbreaking end as the Blues fall 2-1 to the NC Fusion. Despite the result, the club is incredibly proud of the improvements made in this season's journey, all of which made possible by the players and staff.
The game started as a back-and-forth affair as the two North Carolina outfits struggled at first to solidify their attacking schemes.
The Fusion used their quality counter-attacking prowess to score the first goal of the evening via Mason Duval in the 36th minute.
The game soon opened up with both sides putting in an extra effort in the steamy Florida evening to either hold or change the score before the break. This flurry of action saw multiple yellow cards, but no change in the scoreline before halftime.
Halftime came-and-went with City trailing, but Head Coach Scott Wells was not too concerned with the scoreline at the break. "We came in at halftime and we weren't too worried. Disappointed to concede, but we knew what was coming. We knew we would be on the front foot," said Wells.
This mindset was obvious for all to see as the Blues opened the second half pinning the Fusion back for ten minutes straight until ACSC found the breakthrough.
Captain Ryan Baer looked up to a streaking Dani Cerezo, who once again, was in after breaking through the opponent's backline. Cerezo headed the ball down before putting his marking defender on skates inside the box. Cerezo used his newfound open space to reset before hammering a left-footed shot, beating the Fusion keeper at the near-post.
"When we came out of the second half, Ryan Baer does exactly what Ryan Baer does: he leads by example. He was getting on the ball and dictating the tempo," said Wells. "And Dani, I would imagine that every blade of grass was covered by Dani Cerezo tonight. His shift was absolutely unbelievable. What a great, calm finish."
Pandemonium broke out on the Blues' bench and in the stands as Asheville City players, staff, and fans that traveled over 500 miles relished in Cerezo's impressive equalizer.
City were deservedly level with the Fusion, yet the Blues were still determined to win the match to stamp their place in the Southern Conference Final.
Blues oozed confidence moving forward, seeing multiple chances to take the go-ahead goal. This massive shift in momentum saw multiple yellow cards shown, all to Fusion players and staff who were flustered and frustrated.
As the game began to settle back down, the Blues were in desperate need for fresh legs. The first subs of the evening came in the 73rd minute when George Bediko and Haruki Yamazaki entered for entered for Josiah Blanton and Clay Obara.
Despite the class of Bediko in the midfield and Yamazaki's finesse along the wing, Fusion grabbed a shocking go-ahead in the 82nd minute. It was a bit of a rush for the City defense as the Fusion switched the field twice in quick order before finding Mason Duval for his second of the night.
In the last few minutes of the game, Oskar Lenz entered for Ryan Baer and Finn Ballard-McBride entered for Lucas Gonzalez in hopes for the equalizer.
ACSC left everything on the field but were not able to come up with the win.
Heartbroken, yet immensely proud was the feeling from the team and the staff following the loss. "To go toe-to-toe with last year's league runner-up's, a team with Fusion's quality and history, that's one thing. But to play them off the park the way we did was a joy to watch."
Coach Wells continued to reflect on the year, his first with the club. "This is our first year, this is just the start. This is testament to the club, to have this great culture both on the pitch and within the community, everybody that is involved one way or another whether they're fans, hosts, staff, those behind the scenes. Everybody buys in to what it means to be a Blue."
Asheville City is proud of the team's accomplishments this season regardless of the result from Sunday night's thrilling Southern Conference Semifinal. History was made, and the club firmly believes that history will continue to be made as we continue to Belong. Believe. And Be Blue.