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Atlanta, Charlotte end top of division clash with 2-2 draw

Tiffini Turpin scores another one in the Atlanta Silverbacks' 2-2 draw with the Charlotte Lady Eagles on Saturday night at Charlotte Christian Stadium. (Photo Copyright: Steve Bruno)

CHARLOTTE, NC – The Atlanta Silverbacks (6-0-1) fought back from an early two-goal deficit to finish 2-2 in their first meeting this season with division rival Charlotte Lady Eagles (7-0-2) in a 2-2 draw.

The teams met Saturday night each having played the previous night: Charlotte on the road in Columbia and the Silverbacks hosting Tampa. The Lady Eagles were anxious to erase the memory of Friday’s match against CSC Cobras, their first draw of the season, but would have to do it without Brazilian wunderkind Leah Fortune, who suffered a minor ankle injury at the end of Friday’s game.

Atlanta came into town riding high after a five-goal victory over VSI Tampa Flames featuring goals from five different players — three of them substitutes — but were still without goalkeeper Ashley Baker, off with the England U-23 team, center back Ronda Brooks and injured midfielder Jamie Pollock.

An enthusiastic crowd packed the stands of Charlotte Christian Stadium for “Mustache Night”, as paper mustaches were handed out at the entrance, but it was the team from Atlanta who donned unrecognizable disguises in the opening minutes.

The Lady Eagles got off to a flying start, catching an unsuspecting Silverbacks’ defense napping and scoring in 50 seconds as forward Gloria Douglas drove down the right flank, firing a far-post strike past Silverbacks’ goalkeeper Connie Organ’s lengthy stretch.

Head coach Chris Adams later accepted responsibility for the team’s slow start.

“The first goal was really just us not being ready,” Adams says, adding that some of the midweek practices may not have been up to par for the team. “I put that on myself. We had, I don’t want to say a ‘slack’ week, (but) we didn’t maintain a standard this week.”

As the half played on, any hopes the Lady Eagles would be suffering from exhaustion following their 90-minute thriller in South Carolina were quickly dashed as Charlotte outplayed the Silverbacks over the first 30 minutes. Generally beating Atlanta at its own game, the Lady Eagles won every ball in the midfield, connected well moving up the field and used the full width of the park to their advantage. Charlotte’s back line communication was a constant chatter of positioning and motivation, snuffing out any attack Atlanta could muster, while they fed an offense which kept even the Atlanta forwards near the center line.

Charlotte struck again in the 17th minute as a mix-up in the backfield found Connie Organ far out of the net, but unable to corral the ball which Charlotte forward Amanda Naeher lofted into the back of the net.

“Connie’s done a great job for us and just made one mistake,” Adams said of his goalkeeper’s missed attempt coming out for the ball. “We all make mistakes, it’s just theirs get amplified a little bit by the nature of the position that they play. (I) thought she did a good job of bouncing back from that.”

In less than 20 minutes, the Silverbacks had given up more goals than their previous six games combined. It was a shocking turn of events for the reigning W-League Champions. As the season potentially hung in the balance, the moment called for some shrewd changes by the coaching staff if they were going to rescue a point.

Adams and his staff recognized some tired legs in the midfield were allowing Charlotte to dictate play through the center of the park. As the game reached the 30-minute mark, he subbed out Stacey Balaam and Nicole Locandro, both of whom started the previous night’s match. Bringing in Chloe Roberts and Rachel Garcia, Adams hoped to increase the speed of his attack to test Charlotte’s defense.

“We weren’t stretching them enough,” Adams said of his substitutions. “We thought if we could get Rachel up high and stretch them a little bit that the game might open up. In the very beginning, their midfield was doing such a good job that maybe we wanted to bypass the midfield and play directly into our targets.”

To accommodate Garcia center forward Libby Guess dropped back to her more-favored center mid role, partnering with Roberts to win back the midfield.

The substitutions had an almost immediate effect, as the balance of play seemed to even out for the rest of the half.

Still down by two goals at the half, Atlanta had cauterized their bleeding goal and negated Charlotte’s powerful midfield. A regroup in the locker room allowed head coach Chris Adams to build on the positives that came after the first 30 minutes:

“It’s a character check,” he said. “They’re intelligent players, they knew the mistakes and knew what needed to be corrected and, to be honest, we had corrected the mistakes by the time we had made it to half. It was more about moving on, putting it behind us, dealing with the adversity and coming up with a game plan that would get us back in the game one goal at a time. We needed that time to swallow the pill and realize ‘Okay, what’s done is done, now what can we do to execute and draw the game level?’”

Robyn Jones scrambles for the ball as it slips past her and into the net. (Photo Copyright: Steve Bruno)

Captain Rebecca Nolin also stepped in and offered her two pence:

“I just simply said ‘We’re a championship team for a reason. Just because we’re 2-0 down, doesn’t mean it’s done and dusted,’” she said. “Individually, this team, it’s full of very good players that are the best players on their teams and have been the best players on their teams, so there’s absolutely no reason why, individually, we couldn’t step up and then compete as a team.”

Atlanta came out of the locker room a different team, pressuring Charlotte from the outset and continuing to boss through the middle.

“They took it, they listened and we turned on the gas,” Nolin said of the rejuvenated team. “We were then first to everything coming out in the second half… it unsettled them.”

Five minutes into the half, a rash takedown on Libby Guess near the center line set up a free kick by long-distance specialist Bailey Powell. As a crowd gathered in front of the net, Powell sought out and found aerial ace Nolin. With her back to goal, Nolin popped it up and toward the goal mouth, setting up a confusing fray in front of Charlotte ‘keeper Robyn Jones.

“It was a great ball by Bailey Powell,” Nolin said. “She plays a great, lace-driven ball that’s very hard to defend against and I just wanted to get my jump early… I knew I was behind the back post so I just wanted to head it across the goal and hopefully someone was there.”

Chaos broke out in the scrum for the ball, which settled to Burton who, according to Nolin, seemed to deflect it off the hip of a Charlotte defender. Jones scrambled after the ball as it went to her right, but couldn’t get a hand on it as the ball nestled comfortably in the corner of the net.

“I’ll take it,” Nolin said of the ugly goal. “I don’t care how it goes in the back of the net, we just want to score.”

First tweeted by the Lady Eagles as an own-goal on defender Hannah Gmerek, it was later awarded to Burton, who, much to her chagrin, adds to her portfolio of “right place, right time” goals. Regardless of the goal’s lack of grace, it was exactly what the team needed and continued Burton’s incredible scoring streak of six goals in six games. The goal ties her for third in the W-League with Charlotte’s Fortune and the New Jersey Wildcats’ Maya Hayes. Burton also shares the fourth position amongst the league leaders in points with Fortune, each having 13.

As is often said in the game, a two-goal lead is a dangerous one. Adams has preached this to his team all season, albeit usually from the more enviable side of the scoreline. Unable to put the Silverbacks down for good and surrendering a goal early in the half, Charlotte was on their back foot as Atlanta pressed harder to level the game.

Although she didn’t show up on the score sheet, the game was largely swayed by former Tar Heel Libby Guess’gritty work in the midfield. Probably the most vital off-season pickup for Atlanta, Guess dominated throughout, winning virtually every header available and constantly tormenting any opposing player who came in her area. Her experience, fitness and determination have been a more-than-adequate replacement for Megan Tomlinson, with the two-time NCAA Champion also unofficially taking on Tomlinson’s leadership role at the head of the spine.

Disrupted from their game plan, Charlotte’s back four, who played so superbly in the first 45, began giving up more possession. Whereas the defenders comfortably passed around and built the attack in the first half, the second half saw many urgent, desperate clearances under pressure. As Atlanta got more possession of the ball in the Charlotte half, the Silverbacks’ back line pushed up, squeezing the Lady Eagles into a 50-yard pressure cooker.

Ten minutes after the Silverbacks landed the first punch, a second blow was dealt by the irresistible force named Tiffini Turpin.

In the 61st minute, Turpin drove into the box on a breakaway with the ball at her feet. As two defenders closed in on her from either side and with goalkeeper Jones charging out to meet her head-on, Turpin stayed cool, punching the ball over Jones while deftly hurdling the ‘keeper who collided with defender Sarah Ann Waugh.

The goal silenced the crowd as the Lady Eagles had improbably given up their second two-goal lead in as many days. Even the normally subdued Turpin pumped her fists as she turned away from the goal. Leading the celebration was Nolin, who knows better than anyone what it means to play Charlotte.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” Nolin said. “Charlotte (is) such a competitive team. They were up for it because they tied last night, so they knew they had to try and get three points and we wanted to get the three points to set them back.”

With 30 minutes left in the game, it was both teams’ for the taking, but neither could assert themselves with a decisive goal. Organ came up with some huge saves as Charlotte created a few dangerous chances on goal. As the game neared its conclusion, all coaches were off their respective benches, desperately screaming instructions and trying to spur their players to get the decisive goal.

Adams was pleased with the performance of all his players to “grit it out” and come away with a point.

“Before the game if you had told me, ‘Would you take a tie?’, eh, I don’t know,” the coach mused, “but when you’re down 2-0 at the half, I think you’d sign on the dotted line.”

Deadlocked at the end of the game, the two teams shared a huddle on the field for a post-game prayer. It speaks to a respect the teams, players and management included, have for each other.

“They do everything right, just like the Silverbacks,” Adams said of the Charlotte organization. “When you look at the groups that have been able to consistently perform at a high level, it starts at the top of the organization and the Charlotte Eagles do a fantastic job. Just a very classy bunch.”

The draw sets up a tasty rematch in Atlanta this Friday. Fortune is expected to be back for Charlotte, but will likely have to get past returning No. 1 Ashley Baker and center back Ronda Brooks if she wants to continue her goal-scoring form. Adams also anticipates a return to health for Jamie Pollock, who suffered a leg injury earlier in the season.

Nolin felt the game was a good learning experience for some of the younger players who, thus far, have had a fairly easy time with the first-year teams.

“Absolutely this was our first test, no disrespect to the expansion teams,” Nolin said. “We’ve got quite a few players on this team that haven’t played against Charlotte before and, even though the seniors were reiterating how important it was… I don’t quite think they realized it.

“Knowing that it’s going to be us and Charlotte battling it out for the conference title, it’s a good feeling because we like the challenge and there is that ongoing rivalry,” said the captain, adding with a smile, “but it’s never a game I look forward to.”

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