Fire & rain: It’s Chicago’s cup & Charleston’s night

Fire & rain: It’s Chicago’s cup & Charleston’s night
The Chicago Fire celebrate -- quickly - with the 2013 Carolina Challenge Cup.

The Chicago Fire celebrate — quickly – with the 2013 Carolina Challenge Cup.

The Chicago Fire completed their undefeated run through the Carolina Challenge Cup, but this night-that-almost-wasn’t wound up belonging to a 21-year-old Cuban defector.

If you missed it — and judging by attendance, the odds are that you did — you missed quite a scene. So I’ll be updating this through the night.

But the highlights for now are pretty basic:

The Fire may be short on sizzle, but it’s strong on substance. “We’re not an easy team to beat,” said veteran midfielder Joel Lindpere after his squad drew the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 to win the 2013 Cup with 7 points. It wasn’t a spectacular performance — just an effective one.

Odisnel Cooper

Odisnel Cooper

The Charleston Battery’s first team went-nose-to-nose with the starters for the Houston Dynamo for 69 minutes of 1-1 hard-fought soccer and then won it on a set-piece header by substitute and trialist Austin Savage of Summerville in the 75th.

But the undisputed Man of the Match was goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper, who punched away a sharp penalty kick by Houston’s star midfielder Brad Davis to keep the game tied in the first half, and then fended off strike after strike. On a night when multiple Battery players logged notable performances and the team played smart, competitive soccer, Cooper’s turn in goal was just… heroic.

So file this away in your scrapbook of 2013 Battery memories:

On a night of soccer that came close to cancellation because of weather, a night that started 30 minutes ahead of schedule and skipped the pregame ceremonies in hopes of finishing both matches before the skies opened up, everything seemed bounded by the rain.

Man of the Match Odisnel Cooper signs autographs after Saturday's win.

Man of the Match Odisnel Cooper signs autographs after Saturday’s win.

So it felt significant when —  in the waning seconds of the nightcap, with Charleston clinging to a 2-1 lead and Houston attacking — the rain began to fall. Fans noticed. They murmured about it. And when the whistle blew, the fans didn’t need to wait for the public address announcer to know that they’d just witnessed something special in Cooper’s professional debut.

A few minutes later, when the young man left the field and stepped beneath the stands, the rows of fans waiting burst into a spontaneous cheer. They lingered in the lines, three deep, taking his picture, waiting for his autograph, many of them talked excitedly in Spanish.

All-in-all, a pretty cool preseason moment.

Anyway, check back for updates…

CHARLESTON BATTERY GAME NOTES

The Houston Dynamo may not have worn their regular-season game kits, but unlike the group that trotted out to face Vancouver on Wednesday, that sure looked like a legit starting lineup at the start of the final match of the tournament tonight. In fact, in each of Charleston’s three matches, their MLS opponents fielded mostly starters, not squad players and reserves.

Modern MediaWorks sponsorship box.Coach Mike Anhaeuser started Cooper in goal, with Colin Falvey and Cody Ellison in central defense, flanked by Quinton Griffith at right back and John Wilson at left.  Officially, the team featured four midfielders (Amadou Samyang and Nicki Paterson in central roles, with Michael Azira on the right and newcomer Jared vanShaik on the left) plus Jose Cuevas and Dane Kelly at forward. But for much of the game Kelly played up top while Cuevas took more of a withdrawn role, giving Anhaeuser’s nominal 4-4-2 something of a 4-5-1 shape. The only usual reserves in that lineup were vanShaik and Cooper, although vanShaik has been making a case for more time, and Cooper has been getting into game fitness while working behind starter Kevin Klasila.

The Dynamo did a good job of keeping possession in the early minutes, and Cooper’s night began inauspiciously when a goal by promising English midfielder Giles Barnes seemed to catch him flat-footed. But Kelly created the equalizer just two minutes later, latching onto a pass from the right, turning on it, moving left across the face of the goal and firing a shot that deflected off a Houston player en route to the lower left corner of the net

Charleston would mount a couple more threats before the break, but the main story of the rest of the first half was stout play in the final lines of defense. Cody Ellison made himself big over and over again, using his head to clear away several threats while trading collisions with Houston forward Will Bruin. But as Houston pushed the Battery toward the breaking point, it was Cooper who asserted himself with increasing confidence, coming off his line to smother one attack in the 19th, covering for a failed Ellison gambit with a brilliant save in the 25th, and making another valiant punch-save on a dangerous direct kick in the 29th.

But the play of the night came in the 34th minute, when the referee called a highly questionable penalty kick, and then booked Cuevas — apparently for pointing that out. With MLS star Brad Davis lining up over the ball, Cooper guessed left and punched away Davis’ shot to the extreme upper right-hand corner of the goal. Seven minutes later, Cooper made consecutive plays to smother consecutive corner kicks, then broke up two more threats in the 43rd and 44th minutes.

With the score still tied in the 69th minute, Anhaeuser was the first to pull the plug on his starters, replacing Falvey, Cuevas and Azira with defender Sean Ferguson and forwards Zach Prince and Evier Cordovez. Houston Coach Dominic Kinnear followed suit, and both teams substituted freely over the last 20 minutes.

The game winner came in the 75th minute, when former College of Charleston star Zach Prince sent a nicely weighted corner across the face of the goal and found Summerville native (and Clemson alumnus) Austin Savage.

“I just knew to go for the challenge,” said Savage, who had played only 20 minutes in the tournament before tonight’s action. “I just went in and the ball went right past them. Perfect timing, and I just headed it in.”

Charleston spent the rest of the night fending off Houston attacks, with Cooper either saving shots or smothering attacks in the 81st, 83rd, 85th and 89th minutes. And though it was just a preseason game, the relief at the end felt welcome and real.

“It’s important for morale and getting the boys going,” Falvey said after the match. “We didn’t want to lose three on a spin, especially on our own patch. It was important that we got a result tonight, and I thought in the second half we were immense — kept our shape really well, played on the counterattack. Obviously we knew they were going to have a lot of the ball, but I think it was a good performance. We’re getting fitter by the day, and I believe there’s good things to come this season with this bunch that we’ve assembled.”

 CHICAGO-VANCOUVER GAME NOTES:

There isn’t a flashy performer or marquee star on Chicago’s roster, but after watching them for three games at Blackbaud over the past week it’s easy to imagine that this group will compile a solid record if it can stay healthy. Frank Klopas‘ group returns most of its core contributors, but what stood out in this tournament was the value of three veteran acquisitions this offseason: defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz from Colorado, Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere from New York Red Bulls, and Maicon Santos from D.C. United.

Santos appears to be slotted into a substitute role, but he was money for this team in Charleston. Larentowicz came to town with reputation as an MLS tough-guy, and then expanded it. In the first half against Vancouver tonight he collided with Whitecaps star forward Darren Mattocks — a legitimate no-foul event, except for the blow he delivered to Mattock’s jaw. In the words of former NFL coach John Madden, Larentowicz “de-cleated” Mattocks, and left him rolling around on the turf counting his suddenly loosened teeth. The officials missed it, but players understand that you have to be aware of this guy’s location on the field at all times.

Midfielder Joel Lindpere (right, with the Battery's Nicki Paterson), could be in line for a bounce-back season in Chicago after his role diminished with the New York Red Bulls last season.

Midfielder Joel Lindpere (right, with the Battery’s Nicki Paterson), could be in line for a bounce-back season in Chicago after his role diminished with the New York Red Bulls last season.

To me, the most intriguing player in the bunch was Lindpere. A star in New York in 2011, Lindpere saw his role diminish in 2012 for reasons that were never clear — along with a lot of other things that never made sense around the dysfunctional Red Bulls soap opera. The Fire aren’t smooth yet, but in Charleston Lindpere played a central role, calmly maintaining possession while looking to get the ball into the attack. With Larentowicz behind him, Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka wide, and veteran forwards up top, Lindpere at times looked like an orchestra conductor, bringing everyone into the act.

“For me it’s a new team, new players coming in, and a lot of trialists coming in the whole month and a half,” Lindpere said Saturday. “You don’t have a full team together yet, not even today. So in one week we have a game, but the full squad is not there yet. We’re doing good. At least now we’re not an easy team to beat, and good results give you only confidence. And when the team plays better, you can try more things.”

It makes you wonder how good this team will be once he feel comfortable.