Veteran midfielder Paul Nicholson found all the offense Wilmington needed in the third minute Saturday night when the rebound off an Odisnel Cooper save set up him for a stunning put-back, and the Hammerheads held on like grim death to take their biggest win of 2014.
The quick-hit opening couldn’t have been better scripted for the visiting Hammerheads (2-1-2), a defensive-minded team that had failed to score in three of their first four matches.
The Hammers often rely on set pieces, and referee Juan Colazo awarded Wilmington a juicy free kick just above the arc in the third minute after light contact between Colin Falvey and Wilmington forward Samuel Ochoa. Midfielder Danny Lovitz‘s straight-on strike beat the Battery wall and forced Cooper into a diving save to his left. His momentum took him out of the play as Nicholson calmly placed his counter to the far post.
That free kick and follow in the third minute would account for half the shots Cooper would face during the entire match.
Yet while Charleston (2-3-4) would dominate possession for the rest of the half and utterly control the game for the final half hour, the Battery were unable to do much of consequence with the ball. Defenders Yahaya Musa and Andrae Campbell did an excellent job of cutting out the Battery’s long passing game, and Wilmington’s midfield won more than its share of second balls and often succeeded in disrupting Charleston’s offensive flow. Even when the home side had good ideas, the final pass — or first touch — seemed just that much off.
In typical Charleston-v-Wilmington style, the match featured plenty of physical play, eight yellow cards, 25 fouls (13 by Wilmington, 12 by Charleston) and one ejection. Wilmington striker Manu Aparicio took a second yellow at the hour mark and went on an epic tantrum that included stalking the referee back onto the field, punching a hole through the side of the visiting dugout, and being escorted off the sidelines by police.
Charleston midfielder Amadou Sanyang required stitches to his face during the game, and his partner in central midfield, Jarad van Schaik, somehow managed to get his yellow card in the 74th minute — after being replaced in the 73rd. The strange caution came after a Wilmington player slid into the Charleston bench, where van Schaik had just taken a seat.
Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser made changes to open the second half, sitting Sanyang and forward/winger Adam Mena in favor of rookie winger Dante Marini and midfielder Aminu Abdallah.
But the biggest change was in style. Charleston played most of the first half in a two-forward look, but from the 46th minute attacked Wilmington with a formation that could best be described as a 3-3-4. The Battery pushed starting attacking midfielder Andre Lewis up into a wide forward position, with one fullback either overlapping to a 4th forward or taking the place of a midfielder — sometimes Zach Prince, but later substitute Maikel Chang — who had moved into the wide attacking front.
The result was a fusillade of crosses into the Wilmington box. But the short-handed Hammerheads rose to the challenge.
“We had to get the ball forward,” Anhaeuser said afterward. “We were sitting back for the first 10, 15 minutes for some reason, and not really attacking with our two guys up front. So we put Dante on there and tried to push Andre up, and it worked. Zach got the ball, and we had two or three good chances and good looks in the first 10 minutes.
“We just couldn’t get that goal. You gotta get that goal, and unfortunately when you don’t, it puts pressure (on you), and we’ve got a few young guys that started getting a little heavy because they haven’t played 90 minutes.”
After Aparicio’s dramatic exit at the hour mark, the game took on the look of a siege, with all nine Wilmington outfield player packed into the final third and Charleston throwing eight and eventually all 10 players forward. Wilmington got credit for just one shot in the second half, while Charleston officially attempted at least six — including a blast by substitute Heviel Cordoves, who rattled the South Goal at Blackbuad when his shot from range clanged off the crossbar.
“They got the goal, now they’re defending here,” Anaheuser said. “They put eight in the box and it doesn’t matter if they’re only playing with 10… You’ve got to move it quick, you gotta get it in the box and you’ve got to make runs and cause problems. We did it two or three times, but we didn’t do it six or seven.”
Charleston hosts the Panama City Beach Pirates Wednesday in its first taste of U.S. Open Cup action this year, then travels to Wilmington Saturday for the Battery’s final regular season match against the Hammers.
TOP IMAGE: Wilmington fullback Yahaya Musa takes down Battery forward Mamadou Diouf to end a promising attack in the first half. Dan Conover photos.