After splitting their 2013 home-and-away series, the first playoff meeting between the Charleston Battery and the L.A. Blues came down to the most basic of soccer tasks: Finishing.
Though Saturday night’s closely contested match seemed a study in contrasting styles, in the end it boiled down to nothing more than this: Dyanmic scoring ace Matt Fondy couldn’t convert two excellent chances for the Blues, and Battery midfielder Michael Azira put his one shot of the night into the back of the net.
Battery scoring leader Dane Kelly broke the game open in the 24th minute with a gritty goal set up by Nicki Paterson’s cross from a bold run down the right sideline. But despite probing each other for 70 minutes, neither team had been able to generate another score.
Not that the Blues hadn’t come excruciatingly close. Fondy missed high from in front of goal early, struck the far post in the 21st minute, and only a leaping save by Battery goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper in the 39th kept Los Angeles from equalizing. Another attack by the talented forward split the Battery defense in the 64th, yet Fondy’s scoring touch — the best in the league since July — simply deserted him.
The Battery had their own woes. Quinton Griffith repeatedly created opportunities with his first-touch and pace down the left sideline, but his own strikes sailed over the crossbar, and forwards Kelly and Jose Cuevas were unable to put away the passes he played inside to them.
So when Azira launched a counterattack in the 71st minute, played it wide to Griffith and continued his run into the box, Griffith’s sizzling return pass found the hyper-efficient Azira in a spot that had bedeviled both squads. But where others had doinked it, Azira — who turned 25 on Thursday — calmly redirected it past veteran Iranian goalkeeper Mohammad Mohammadi for what would prove to be the game winner.
Azira’s finish changed the nature of the game, allowing Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser to send in the first of three defensive substitutions (plus forward Heviel Cordoves) just a minute later. And though the Blues struck back in the 84th minute with a grass-clipping sizzler from substitute Mohammad Roknipour, the lead meant the Battery could bunker down, send in taller, more physical defenders and midfielders (Jarad van Schaik, Bryce Alderson and Taylor Mueller), and choke out the Blues’ comeback aspirations.
In their first meeting, the Battery limited the high-scoring Blues to just eight shots, doubling that number themselves as they surged to a 3-0 shutout. Even in their 1-2 road loss at Los Angeles on Aug. 8, the Battery dominated the attacking third, out-shooting the Blues 16-7. But in this decisive third meeting, the Blues and Battery fought to a 10-shot-apiece draw.
Anhaeuser had emphasized limiting the larger team’s set piece chances in their first meeting on July 27, and flipped L.A.’s size advantage by getting runners behind the back line. On Saturday night, the Blues generated multiple set pieces, and went direct against the Battery time after time.. Their defense managed to keep Kelly and Griffith in front of them, catching the Battery offsides seven times.
The Blues also kept the Battery in check through physical defense, particularly on Kelly, Griffith and Cuevas.
The win puts the Battery on a collision course with the Orlando City Lions at the Florida Citrus Bowl, where Charleston has yet to win. The Lions secured their second home playoff match with a 5-0 dismantling of the formerly hot Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The Lions will host the Battery on Friday, Aug. 30th.
In the other semi-final, the Charlotte Eagles — 3-1 road winners at No. 4 Harrisburg — head north to Richmond, which got by the Dayton Dutch Lions 1-0.
Check back Sunday afternoon for the big game wrap, with quotes from Azira, Anhaeuser, Paterson, Sanyang and Captain Colin Falvey,
TOP IMAGE: Forward Dane Kelly settles an entry pass from midfielder Nicki Paterson in the 24th minutes. Moments later, after fighting his way left under heavy pressure, Kelly found enough separation to unleash a left-footed strike and score the night’s first goal. Dan Conover photos.