For 45 minutes, the best the Charleston Battery had to offer went toe-to-toe with the veteran starters for Houston Dynamo and the two sides slugged it out to a scoreless draw.
But when Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser opened the second half of final match of this year’s Carolina Challenge Cup with two rookies in the lineup — this is preaseason, after all — momentum shifted toward the team in orange.
Dynamo winger Tony Cascio — a newcomer who enjoyed an excellent CCC — notched the first goal in the 54th minute after Houston finally managed to stretch Charleston’s defensive shape far enough to poke a hole in it. That effectively put the game beyond reach — Charleston seldom threatened to score Saturday night — and forward Giles Barnes‘ score off an accurate but all-too-easy cross from strike partner Will Bruin in the 63rd minute was merely insurance.
But the biggest loss for Charleston likely wasn’t the one of the scoreboard.
Dane Kelly, the Battery’s leading scorer from 2013, left the field in the aftermath of Cascio’s goal with a severe limp, and said after the game that it was his hamstring.
And Mike Azira — the team’s breakout success from last season — spent the whole evening in the stands with his wife, Callaghan, accepting the congratulations of friends and Battery teammates. Though he had no comment about why he was in the stands instead of playing for either the Battery — which holds his contract — or Seattle — the team he’s been training with for the past month, Anhaeuser confirmed that “it looks like Seattle is going to keep him.” Players in that situation often sit while agents and front offices work out the details of getting contracts and transfers finalized.
It was night in which several men in Battery stripes played like hellions, particularly Austin Savage, Zach Prince, Taylor Mueller and Jarad van Schaik. Faced with one of Major League Soccer’s most disciplined and veteran teams, the Battery sent its attackers to pressure the ball whenever it turned over, and to chase down plays from behind. The tactic caused Houston problems, but it was also the closest thing the Battery had to an attack for much of the night.
On the other hand, while the Dynamo kept possession in Charleston’s half of the field for much of the opening stanza, that advantage seldom produced well-executed chances. The back line of Colin Falvey and Shawn Ferguson in central defense, with Mueller and John Wilson on their right and left flanks, kept starting keeper Andy Ramos relatively clean for the first 45. Houston’s best chance came off a 30-yard rocket from left back Corey Ashe in the 45th minute, but the ball caromed off the goal frame.
Saturday night was also a memorably dominant performance by Houston’s new centerback, MLS veteran David Horst. The 6-4, 210, defender owned whatever arrived above chest high, and basically blew up every Charleston attack that entered his jurisdiction. Over the past week, Horst has been in a competition with Eric Brunner for the vacancy left by the departure of Bobby Boswell for D.C. United, and not only did Horst play sometimes-spectacular ball Saturday, Brunner also left the field with an injury.
In the early game, Spanish fullback Cristian Fernandez of D.C. United drew straight red for a reckless tackle against Seattle’s DeAndre Yedlin, and a 10-man United squad held on long enough to preserve a 2-2 draw and claim the 2014 Challenge Cup trophy. Both Seattle and D.C. finished level on 5 points, with United earning the title via the strength of its goal differential. Seattle’s 4 points were good enough for 3rd place. Charleston was last with a single point earned in Wednesday’s dramatic 1-1 draw with D.C.
Saturday night also marked the on-field debut of the first two players to arrive in Charleston on formal affiliate loans from Vancouver Whitecaps. Eighteen-year-old Canadian centerback Jackson Farmer subbed on for Ferguson to start the second half, and Honduran Marlon Ramirez replaced Mueller just before Houston scored its second goal.
Check back on Sunday for a Game Wrap, gallery and CCC review.
TOP IMAGE: Battery forward/midfielder Austin Savage can’t get around Houston centerback David Horst. Neither could his teammates on Saturday. Dan Conover photos.