On a night that sometimes looked more like a waterfront bar brawl than an advertisement for beautiful soccer, the Charleston Battery’s fortunes turned on the opportunistic play of the team’s most soft-spoken player.
Michael Azira, a versatile second-year midfielder from Uganda, scored his first two USL PRO regular-season goals Saturday as the Battery beat the hard-luck Pittsburgh Riverhounds 2-0, logging their second consecutive clean sheet and improving to 2-1-0.
“Love it, love it, love it,” said Battery skipper Colin Falvey, who led a defense that banged its way through three hours of scoreless footy during Charleston’s first two 2013 home games. “That was great. You have to roll up your sleeves. It wasn’t pretty… but we’ll take a two-nil shutout.”
Last month, Falvey singled out Azira as the returning player who was most likely to surprise fans with his improved play. In his third consecutive start and his second match filling the role usually reserved for offensive star Jose Cuevas, Azira proved him right by making the most of his chances against a defense that surrendered few of them.
After a few minutes of measuring each other, Charleston dominated Pittsburgh for the rest of the first half, not only winning the possession battle but keeping the ball in Pittsburgh’s third. The Riverhounds, playing their second match in 24 hours after a 0-2 loss Friday in Charlotte, deployed in a compressed a 4-4-2 that routinely kept six to eight players packed deep. But persistent Battery pressure would eventually break them down.
In the 24th minute, a long pass from the Battery back line set up Nicki Paterson, who took the ball deep into the right corner before switching the field. After relaying across the center of the pitch, the ball reached veteran left back John Wilson.
“Johnny crossed the ball and then there was kind of a deflection,” Azira said afterward.
The redirected pass blooped oddly over the head of former College of Charleston goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap, who had moved up to intercept Wilson’s cross on its original trajectory. Though marked tightly by veteran centerback Andrew Marshall, the 5-10 Azira slipped behind the frozen Gilstrap, elevated to the ball and gently headed it into the empty net for the 1-0 lead.
Though the Riverhounds teetered on the edge of disarray immediately after the goal, the visitors reestablished their defensive structure and returned to the defiant, physical tone they’d set from the beginning. But the Battery never backed down. Right back Mark Wiltse fought through a hard tackle and the referee’s whistle and came up bunny hopping with the ball between his knees. Falvey took at shot on an aerial 50-50, attempted to rise, couldn’t, and went back down. But he waved off the medical staff, and stayed in the match.
Azira came close to helping create a second goal in the 45th minute when he found Zach Prince open wide left. Prince, who made his first start of the season in place of the injured Ben Fisk, laid out for a strike from 20 yards out, but the shot sailed.
Pittsburgh started the second half with two substitutions, but Charleston initially seemed to pick up where it left off. Two minutes in, Prince found hard-working forward Dane Kelly with his back to the goal, and the Jamaican held off two Pittsburgh defenders before getting off a shot that faded just left of the post.
But from the 50th minute onward, the tenor of the game began to shift, with Pittsburgh’s aggressive midfielders winning balls and dictating possession. They would come within an eyebrow of an equalizer.
In the 52nd minute, former USL PRO leading scorer Jhonny Arteaga found space on a corner kick. The veteran forward rose above the crowd and headed sharply toward the back post from inside the six-yard area. With no way to react , Battery starting keeper Odisnel Cooper could only watch as Arteaga’s shot smashed off the crossbar.
But as the Riverhounds pressed higher and opened their game in a push for a road point, the Battery managed to create chances on long balls and counterattacks, like a quick Paterson-to-Quinton-Griffith-to-Kelly break that fell apart only only at the last moment. But at the hour mark the flow of the game was shifting ominously toward the visitors.
It took the best play of the night to thwart Pittsburgh’s momentum, and the man who finished it was also the man who started it.
Moments after the Riverhounds snuffed out a Battery possession, Azira stepped up cleverly to pressure a short pass to one of Pittsburgh’s centerbacks.
“Mike got a toe on it and picked it off,” said Prince after the match. “And when he picked it off, I kinda stepped to it and I was able to get past a couple of guys.”
Prince quickly pushed the ball upfield, taking defenders all the way to the goal line inside the box on the left before spotting Azira trailing the play.
“The second (goal) just really was Zach,” said Coach Mike Anhaeuser later. “He created that one down the wing and laid it back right into Azira.”
Prince’s pass back to Azira directly in front of goal in the 61st minute set Azira up for his second goal of the night. “I just saw what Zach was going to do, because we always watch each other when we make runs in the box,” he said.
He finished smoothly for a 2-0 lead that was far too much for the Riverhounds to match.
Not that they didn’t try.
“At the end they put the two subs up front and the extra guy, and really were catching us on our left side defensively,” Anhaeuser said afterward. “I think they overloaded that side. (Pittsburgh Coach Justin Evans, a former Battery player) knew to maybe try to take advantage of Johnny (Wilson) getting a little tired, and they did get down there and they had some crosses. But we held tight. Cooper covered the crosses and the defense did great.”
Though placed under something of a siege, the 35-year-old Wilson held up brilliantly, turning in the virtuoso play of the night in the 74th minute. When another pass into his area found a winger in the corner, Wilson charged him, boxed him in, poked the ball free on the goal line and kept it in play. Though barely in bounds himself, Wilson kept possession, worked his way around and to the outside of the befuddled Riverhound, and five or six seconds later emerged from the duel with the ball on the touchline right in front of the E-10 Supporters Section. Wilson then calmly cleared it past midfield as appreciative Battery fans cheered the effort.
Though not as fluid as Charleston’s 4-0 home-opening win against Antigua, which saw the Battery get off 27 shots, Saturday’s performance was probably a better test, according to Anhaeuser.
“I think in the end you want to say it was a better defensive and more organized team that created more chances,” he said of Pittsburgh. “So we were under pressure more, which was good. That’s a game we’re going to see all season. We’re going on the road for two, we need to defend like that and maybe come away with a 1-0 win, and that’s the great part about it. Because at the end we were under pressure, we’re up 2-0, (and) we held on.”
Said Paterson: “They came in with a game plan to be physical and make it an ugly game, which it ended up being. I think it’s a credit to the guys. We conceded zero goals again, which is what our main goal was, and scored a few. And at that point… you don’t need to take risks. You can just manage the game. And I thought we did well with that.”
There’s lots more to talk about from this match, so be sure to check back later for the full game notes column. But for now, it’s late, and I’m tired. — dc
Weather: Clear Attendance: 3262
CHA: Mike Azira 24′
CHA: Mike Azira (Zach Prince) 61′
PIT: Mike Seth 21′
PIT: Alfonso Motagalvan 28′
PIT: Jhonny Arteaga 54′
Referees: Dustin Thorne, Wayne Pavlischek, David Erbacher, Mike Catlett
TOP IMAGE: Man of the Match Michael Azira slaps Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s hand during the coach’s pre-game ritual. Anhaeuser touched each player’s hand after warmups. Dan Conover photo.