The Harrisburg City Islanders exploited a mental lapse by Battery goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper in the 38th minute and converted a controversial penalty kick early in the second half to end Charleston’s four -game 2013 home unbeaten run 2-1 Friday night at Blackbaud.
The loss, Charleston’s third of the year, dropped the Battery into a tie with Harrisburg for third place in the USL PRO table, and bookended the Battery’s busy May with a mirror image of the game that opened the month 30 days ago. On that night, it was the Battery who traveled to City Island and hung a 2-1 lost on their undefeated Harrisburg hosts. This time, it was the Battery who took the hit in front of a home crowd of 2,913 fans.
The loss comes in the midst of a five-game home stand in one of those dense stretches of play that defines what it means to be a USL PRO franchise. And it opened well enough for Charleston, with rotational starters Heviel Cooper and Ben Fisk generating creative havoc at the tip of the Charleston attack during the first 36 minutes.
Facing City Island defenders who came out playing the same kind of “Northeastern” tug-and-pull tactics Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser predicted on Thursday, the big Cuban and the fleet Canadian managed to create opportunities individually and in combination with each other. Cordoves spiced up his usual hold-up-turn-and-shoot game in the early going with a spin move that left his marker grasping at air. But it was Cordoves’ alertness on defense that almost opened the scoring in the 21st minute, when his high steal gave the Battery a 2-on-2 chance. Cordoves and Michael Azira worked the ball rapidly into scoring position, but Harrisburg goalkeeper Nick Noble came off his line to smother it.
Cordoves’ early effectiveness finally broke down the Islanders for a score in the 36th minute, when the center forward settled a pass and kicked out to Taylor Mueller, who passed ahead to Azira running right of the penalty box. With the defense pulled entirely out of shape, the versatile Ugandan midfielder centered back against the flow perfectly to Fisk, who finished calmly and clinically from the left half of goal.
Given the run of play to that point, Charleston’s textbook opening goal could have easily put Harrisburg on a greased slide to disappointment. With the Battery playing confidently in the 38th minute, the City Islanders looked like they were beginning to lose composure under the pressure.
But it’s at that moment that something inexplicable happened.
That ‘uh-oh’ feeling
A slow-rolling Battery back-pass after a Harrisburg turnover seemed to die on the grass as it approached Cooper. With forward Sainey Touray, Harrisburg’s leading scorer, suddenly closing on the ball at an alarming pace, Cooper moved up awkwardly to the top of the box to take the pass. Normally, a keeper in such a situation would boot the ball to safety.
Cooper didn’t. Maybe it was the threat of Touray blocking the clearance. Maybe it was a simple miscalculation. But rather than clear it long, Cooper took a touch and tried to control the ball before passing out to someone on the left.
Whatever the intention, it collapsed into stunning failure in about three seconds.
Touray opportunistically and expertly poked the ball loose, emerging from their tangle in front of an empty goal. He quickly buried his shot net before the Battery could react.
Sometimes it’s hard to spot the turning point in the game, but Cooper’s gaffe not only evened the score, it also pulled Harrisburg out of a downward spiral.
Charleston appeared determined to claw back its lead before halftime, and looked to be on the verge of doing so on multiple occasions. None was more dramatic than a flurry in the 43rd minute when an Islander contacted Fisk in the penalty area as he shot. The play drew no whistle, but Jose Cuevas pounced on the loose ball, getting off two consecutive shots, both of which were blocked by Islanders defenders. The second sent the ball looping oddly ahead to the left, where Fisk gamely took a bicycle kick shot that stayed on frame… but was, itself, blocked away.
Knowledgeable Battery fans cheered the exchange heartily.
Charleston put Noble in danger again in the 49th minute, when Nicki Paterson took an Azira pass at the top of the circle and was promptly chopped down by Harrisburg. The Scotsman took the free kick himself, but his wickedly bending strike curved just wide of the right post.
Harrisburg would have better luck.
In the 52nd minute, a sudden attack put the ball into the penalty area at the feet of a City Islander, and center back Cody Ellison went to ground to root it out. Though it looked like Ellison made contact with the ball, the referee blew the whistle and pointed to the spot. Defender Stephen Basso wrong-footed Cooper on the penalty kick, then ran to Section E-10 to taunt members of The Regiment.
As the game approached the hour mark, frustration rose to the surface like an oily sheen. Harrisburg would receive 14 fouls on the night to Charleston’s seven, many of them for pulling, pushing and otherwise irritating Battery players to exasperation. In the 54th minute, Touray went down in the Charleston penalty area, and began complaining to the official. Battery Captain Colin Falvey, sensing a violation of his unwritten honor code, responded by berating the seated Touray from close range.
In his previous match, Falvey went 90 minutes against Steven Lenhart, the most infamous head-gamesman in Major League Soccer, and he spoke respectfully about their running battle afterwards. But Touray’s on-field antics clearly annoyed the Irishman.
Falvey would keep the Battery in contention in the 57th minute, tackling the ball in the box to give Cooper a chance to come up and take it. But from the hour mark on, as Anhaeuser began making full use of his five allowed substitutions, the game began to get increasingly ragged. Anhaeuser guaranteed on Thursday that fans would see his full roster over the next three matches, and he went deep Friday as he managed the fitness of his squad.
But the notable substitution tactic of the night came from Harrisburg Coach Bill Becher.
Nursing a 2-1 lead in the 67th minute, Becher replaced scrappy midfielder James McLaughlin with talented striker Lucky Mkosana. In all, Becher would pull two midfielders and one forward… and replace all three with attacking players. In the final minutes, Harrisburg at times looked to be deployed in what resembled a flat five-man back line behind a two-man central midfield with two or three strikers waiting up top to apply high pressure and pounce on long-ball clearances.
This resulted in multiple chances for Harrisburg. With Charleston pressing for an equalizer, the Battery’s gambling kitchen-sink attack left acres of space for the City Islanders’ forwards whenever a defender found room to hoof the ball long. Cooper managed at least one late save, and another Harrisburg shot rimmed loudly off the left post.
What the Battery’s late-match lineup lacked in cohesion it made up for in valor, generating at least four chances — including two corner kicks — in stoppage time alone.
But honestly, had the Battery pulled back a miracle goal in the dying moments, it would have been against the run of play.
The mood on the field afterward didn’t seem as bitter as the other loss I’ve experienced with this team (at Charlotte), but Coach Anhaeuser wasn’t ready to concede that the recent schedule might have caught up with the team Friday, or that the breaks just didn’t go his way.
Did accumulated fatigue figure into it? Yeah, probably. It looked that way from the stands. But did they lose because of tired legs? Probably not. Did they lose because one player made a mistake? Meh. I noted several players who made uncharacteristic mistakes Friday night, some of which the City Islanders punished, others they didn’t. Cooper wasn’t the only guy who sputtered.
Did they catch some bad breaks? Maybe, but that’s also kind of a meaningless idea on a night like this one. It’s just the kind of thing you say to be polite.
And did the Battery lose because of the officials, as some suggested? Not for my money. Without reviewing the tape and listening to actual, knowledgeable soccer experts discuss it, I’d testify that I thought the penalty kick called on Ellison’s tackle was the wrong decision. But soccer is full of calls like that one, good and bad. And while Harrisburg played the more annoying role, consistently banging on Battery players like it was part of their game plan, two thirds of the fouls called on the night went against the City Islanders.
I didn’t like the City Islanders tonight, but damn if they weren’t effective. They scored two goals under unusual circumstances to beat the Battery at home, and I give them credit for closing the game out once their opportunity presented itself.
The good news
Call me an optimist, but I’m just not particularly upset about this loss. Though it would have been nice, I never seriously considered the possibility that the Battery would finish 2013 undefeated at home, and as good as I think this team is, it’s still a team that’s going to lose some games between now and August.
And there were some heroes for the Battery tonight. Jarad van Schaik doesn’t get enough attention on this site because he’s the least-flashy guy on the field, but he made great tackles in midfield time after time. Paterson went 90 minutes — again — and suffered for the shirt. How can I not feel good about the way Cordoves and Fisk looked in the starting lineup? Or the effort we saw from Cuevas? The calmness displayed by Azira?
You want to know what I’ll remember about this night? The 80th minute. Because that was the first minute in the 12 matches the Battery have played this season that wasn’t played by Falvey. My hat’s off to him.
Plus, there are reinforcements on the way. Pending official word from the league office I have to expect that Amadou Sanyang will be back from suspension for Wednesday night’s home match against Charlotte, and unless Dane Kelly‘s injury is more serious than it sounded, he won’t be on the sidelines for long. Quinton Griffith has now missed six matches dating back to May 14, but he looks to be coming back around.
So it’s on to Charlotte at Blackbuad on Wednesday.
And this time, it’s Charleston with revenge on its collective mind. As if these guys needed extra motivation.
TOP IMAGE: Center forward Heviel Cordoves battles Coady Andrews for a ball on the sidelines Friday night. Dan Conover photos.