Fine Margins for Wilterlynd Inalien & Amateur Underdogs SCU Heat

A lone penalty kick deep in second-half stoppage time was enough to see amateurs South Carolina United Heat past pro opposition in the First Round – and we caught up with a few members of the team to talk about the paper-thin margins separating success and defeat in knockout play.
By: Angelo Maduro

Time stood still when the ball left Wilterlynd Inalien’s right foot.

“The keeper was so huge; he was just the biggest dude,” said the 24-year-old attacking midfielder known around the South Carolina United Heat locker-room simply, and mercifully, as Will. “He faked like he was going to go the other way and that made me switch my direction mid-shot.”

Inalien hails from Broward County in Florida, and he came over from his birth country of Haiti with his parents when he was “three or four.” He admits to breaking the cardinal rule of penalty-taking with a chuckle – knowing it was a needed risk to help see his all-amateur SCU Heat past MLS NEXT Pros Crown Legacy FC with the whole game on the line deep in second-half stoppage time. “In the middle of me running up to the ball, I had to change up and go to the other side.

“He [the Crown Legacy goalkeeper] should have saved it, to be fair,” admitted Inalien of his penalty kick that sealed a previously goalless game in the dying seconds (1-0) and sent the Heat through to the Second Round.

To be doubly fair, no one in the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex in North Carolina seemed sure the ball had actually gone in. “All of us on the bench, we couldn’t really see,” said Heat head coach Asher Quave-Robinson. “From our angle, we couldn’t tell if the keeper kept it out or if it had gone in. Our hearts were in our throats and we couldn’t tell one way or the other.”

Goal or No?

“We were all looking at each other, like did it go on or didn’t it?” said Quave-Robinson of the spot-kick that Crown Legacy goalkeeper Chituru Odunze got a lot of hand to and nearly pushed wide.

But then Inalien – who’s not SCU Heat’s usual penalty taker – paused, turned to face his teammates crashing the box, and let out a scream. That was the moment the goal – and the start of an underdog run in the 2024 Open Cup – became real.

On his way to the corner to commence a party in honor of a place in the next round, the scorer took time to stare down the opposing goalkeeper, getting back up to his feet after being millimeters from keeping the ball out – and knowing that the game, at such a late stage – was gone. “It’s just stuff from the game, maybe it’s not the best thing to do, but it’s just the kind of stuff that happens out there on the field,” said Inalien about his reaction.

Inalien playing for Rochester NY FC in the 2022 Open Cup

The energy of a knockout game between a pro side and part-timers is hard to put into words. But Inalien’s wild celebrations at the corner flag summed it up as close as possible. 

It was the cue for all his teammates on the field – and the subs and staff on the SCU Heat bench – to join him in the party. “The adrenaline was crazy; the boys were buzzing. We just followed Will and you saw the energy there. We’re still buzzing,” said Quave-Robinson, who could have done without all the drama – but that’s just how Open Cup games go sometimes. “Oh it was high drama indeed. As a coach, that’s not how you want the last few minutes of a game to go.

“And now we’re just looking forward to being in another game in the Cup,” added the coach. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The last ten minutes of the game against Crown Legacy’s young pros showed how fine the margins are in the Open Cup. Five minutes before Inalien buried his effort (barely) from the spot, Filip Mirkovic had sent his own try from 12 yards ballooning over the bar at the other end of the field.

One door closes, another opens. Joy for one team is agony for the other. 

It’s a first Open Cup run for the Heat, out of Columbia, South Carolina. These amateurs, who play in the nationwide UPSL, are in the Second Round of the historic Open Cup for the first time in their history.

They have a wide range of players – some are youngsters of about 17 aiming to make their way up the ladder to the professional game. Others, like captain Kike Molina and Inalien himself – who’s played in the Finnish second division, the now defunct Rochester NYFC and spent three years in the Portland Timbers academy – have deeper wells of experience to draw on.

SCU Heat players celebrate after beating Crown Legacy in the First Round

What matters most in those moments when everything is on the line, according to coach Quave-Robinson, is guts. “Will is one of these guys who’s been around – he’s got experience overseas – and he’s the kind of guy you can count on to grab that moment. You could just tell he was up for it in that moment.”

SCU Heat might not be the most glamorous destination for a player trying to start, or, in the case of Inalien, restart a professional career. They don’t get paid to play. A lot of the players have side-jobs, some of them provided by the club’s co-owner Nick Lewis. “But this is one of the most organized UPSL teams out there,” Inalien said. “Training is always at a high intensity, the foundation is good.

“It’s definitely the in-between place for a lot of players,” he admitted. “But it’s one of the best places of that kind to be.”

Heat Aiming for History

Now SCU Heat are one of the darlings of the Open Cup. One of seven amateur sides to beat a Div. III pro team in the First Round, they’ve got the momentum and the Magic of the Cup is on their side. Up next – on April 2nd – is another third-division pro side in Charlotte Independence of USL League One.

“We’re just happy and humbled to be in the Cup, and getting something going,” said the coach. “We believe we belong here. There was a joke going around the internet that we’re just a bunch of pipe fitters and substitute teachers. We’re not that exactly but we aren’t full-timers either. A lot of the guys have other jobs. You see that in us when we’re out on the field, we’re hard-working people, blue collar in the way we approach life and the game.

“We’re staying true to ourselves and the spirit of the Cup too,” added the coach, who weaved his own Cup Magic when, playing with the Carolina Dynamo of the old PDL, he faced off with MLS side D.C. United. 

Inalien, one of the steady heads his coach is relying on, also feels the Open Cup and its mystical forces working on the club and the players. “The opportunity in the Open Cup is just massive,” said the scorer. “Coaches can see you, scouts can see you and – you know, you can make a sensation.”

No one knows better than the SCU Heat crew how narrow the margins between winning and losing in the Open Cup are. “We’re really looking to be something in this,” said Quave-Robinson. “The excitement is the thing that stands out most – the excitement of playing against bigger competition out on the same field with a chance to win.”

Inalien is on the same page: “We have a chance to go out now and show it wasn’t just a fluke.”

Maduro is a senior reporter at large for