Recently dubbed the “maskiest mask place ever” by a fond visitor, Asheville, NC is one of North Carolina’s better-kept secrets.
That goes for its fun vibe, beautiful mountain backdrop, and underrated downtown, of course, but it also applies to its soccer scene.
Nowhere is this more evident than at an Asheville City SC home match, where locals stream in to get their USL League Two and WPSL fix.
And I do mean stream in. This Tuesday, I traveled from Charlotte to see a weeknight USL2 matchup, and tickets were totally sold out. Not only was every bleacher space filled in on all five bleachers across the spectators’ sideline, but many fans came prepared with lawn chairs and blankets and filled every possible space on that field.
There was a tifo set up on a hill, a food truck, a merch tent, and even the supermarket shirt sponsor of ACSC was there with promotional activities.
It was a true fan experience at the fourth division of American soccer, and that’s just rare. I know a few USL Championship clubs who’d be envious of the crowd Asheville drew (heck, throw in Houston Dynamo for extra credit).
And it wasn’t just a strong crowd in number. The South Slope Blues were in full voice and carried horns, megaphones, banners, and face paint. With the SG leading the charge, the whole crowd was in tune with how the match was going. It was a crowd that knew what it was watching from a soccer perspective, a crowd that knew its players by name when the starting XI was announced.
Simply put, it was a top-tier supporter experience.
Oh, and all this at a temporary field for this season; they’re using UNC Asheville’s soccer field instead of their typical stadium home downtown.
All this to say, Asheville City was something special from a supporter’s perspective. On-field success is a different battle, though, and it was a fascinating battle to witness.
It was clear from the start that there were two separate ideologies between the two sides.
Independence came out of the gate with a somewhat surprising possession spell. Their opening 10 minutes were past my expectations, as they moved the ball around well, controlled the midfield area, and quelled anything Asheville put together.
They came into the match in mid-table, with just one win from four matches. They played like a top-tier side out of the gate, though, and looked the more likely to score at first.
It took the home side 10 minutes to find their footing, and they didn’t do so in possession. They were quick to send long balls forward and find the feet of their talented attackers. With the speed and ball skills the wingers and central striker had, I don’t blame them.
They looked the more likely to score on multiple occasions in the first 45, accruing 4 first-half corners, but Independence had a greater quantity of half-chances. That sent us to a 0-0 halftime score in the mountains.
The second half started much like the first, with Independence grabbing possession quickly. This time, though, they turned a half-chance into an opening goal when Chase Gilley latched onto a pass outside the box, maneuvered his way past two defenders in blue, and found the back of the net to make it 1-0 Independence.
Fear not, though, Blues supporter. Fear not. After conceding in the 47th minute, Asheville came roaring back to equalize in the 48th, finally finding their reward for the attacking soccer they’d played to that point. It was England-born striker Jack Stainrod who leveled the score, tapping it into an open net after Ross Fitzpatrick hammered the crossbar from outside the box.
You got the sense that the last 40 minutes would be open and goal-filled, as both teams were intent on taking the three points. After a 4-0 thrashing of East Atlanta last week, Asheville knew they could claim second place with a win.
Both sides played with passion and plenty of whistles pierced the Asheville air. Chances kept coming from both sides, but obstacles came in the form of a pair of great saves from the Independence keeper, stalwart tackling from the ACSC back line, and an offside call on each side.
Charlotte ended the second half much like they started, pushing forward dangerously and earning their ninth and tenth corners of the evening in stoppage time. The go-ahead goal wasn’t to be for either side, though, as the match ended 1-1 with the spoils shared.
In the end, it was a fair result for two teams with totally different tactics and equal quality on the night. Both will feel they should have displayed a bit more finishing ability on a couple of occasions, but it was a good performance put on for the flocks of faithful Ashevillians.
One particular stat that stood out was the collective 18 corner kicks between the two sides. That’s not a number you see often, and it speaks to the amount of attacking we saw from both sides down the stretch. 11 of those corners came in the second half alone.
The biggest standout of the night by far, though, was the support of the local fanbase and the community businesses that partner with the club. It’s so refreshing to see such a cool club doing soccer right when there are so many others who just aren’t.
If you ever have the opportunity, no matter how far you have to travel, make the trip to Asheville. It’s worth it for the beauty of the city alone, but the soccer experience is top-notch and the best I’ve seen in the state so far. I’ll be at a WPSL match on Friday and I’m looking forward to being back at Greenwood Field for some perspective on the women’s side of things.
Wherever you’re at, make sure you support local soccer! It’s well worth it, speaking from experience!