So suppose you are a soccer fan and you live in Charleston. And this afternoon you said to yourself “I suppose I could go out to watch the Charleston Battery play against San Jose from Major League Soccer in the 100th U.S. Open Cup. But I’ve got to work tomorrow.”
And suppose you are an idiot.
But I repeat myself.
No, I don’t write tonight to make you feel better about your poor choices. I come to rub it in. I come to say what I’ve been saying for a while now: This year’s Battery team is special, and every time they step on the home pitch and you’re not there, you run the chance of missing something that you’ll spend the rest of your life pretending that you witnessed in person.
Here’s what a mediocre crowd of 1,954 loyal fans witnessed tonight…
In the 73nd minute, late in a back-and-forth battle between the defending USL PRO Champions and the defending MLS Supporters Shield winners, Battery midfielder Zach Prince won his second free kick in 60 seconds from essentially the same spot on the left side of San Jose Earthquakes territory. Like the previous free kick, the man who stepped up to take it was Battery attacking ace Jose Cuevas.
Cuevas’ previous attempted had curved wickedly toward goal, but as Battery centerback Cody Ellison tussled with Quakes forward Steven Lenhart beneath its bending arc, that particular skirmish in their night-long battle ended in victory for Lenhart.
North American soccer fans know Lenhart as the controversial West Coast villain of so many overwrought MLS morality plays, the blonde-haired member of the Earthquakes “Bash Brothers,” one of U.S. soccer’s most colorful bad boys. Battery fans know Ellison as a rowdy California cowboy, a lanky assemblage of muscle stretched across an angular 6-4 frame. The two had marked each other to a stalemate all evening, and with Ellison unable to break free, Cuevas’ tantalizing pass sailed harmlessly overhead.
But the Earthquakes had been unable to clear the danger, and just a few seconds later, Prince and Cuevas, working together, had managed to steal it back. Once again, Prince went down under a foul, and once again Cuevas stood over the resulting free kick and waited as the two teams jostled their way into position, marking up, straining for leverage, looking for channels to burst through towards goal.
As Cuevas waited for the right moment, Ellison returned to his spot in the Earthquakes’ penalty area, and the shoving and leaning resumed. Ellison is a defender, but on set pieces like this one, Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser likes to bring him up, hoping he’ll be able to climb high into the night and redirect a ball past the goalkeeper with one sharp snap of his neck. He’d come close a few times by this point, and the favored Earthquakes were learning the hard way that this Charleston Battery team was no wilting Southern flower.
Wherever Ellison went on free kicks in the box, they would follow.
What they probably didn’t know was that last winter, both Cuevas and Ellison were both called into camp by the Seattle Sounders. Cuevas was the 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year, and no one in the Charleston front office really expected that he’d be back. Surely MLS would pluck him from the Battery roster.
But Ellison was a bit of a surprise. He’d played well in 2012, but he wasn’t the best defender in the Battery lineup. That honor belonged to Charleston Captain Colin Falvey, a 27-year-old Irishman from Cork whose smart, fearless and charismatic style of play has transfomed the Battery back line into a stone wall.
But Seattle took its look at both in the offseason and let the pair go.
And now here it was, the 73rd minute against the San Jose Earthquakes in the Third Round of the Open Cup, and Cuevas stood over the ball while Ellison wrestled for position in front of goal.
Cuevas sees Ellison make his move, and his approach to the free kick is short and explosive, his leg whipping through the ball and and lofting it toward the penalty area. Ellison’s run looks promising at first — promising enough to attract lots of defensive attention. But as the ball begins its spinning, curving descent, it’s clear that once again the Quakes have marked Ellison out of the play. Another small victory in another little skirmish in a long night full of them.
Only in all that pushing and leaning and pulling an tugging and marking and shoving, no one accounted for Falvey.
Lost in the wake of Ellison and his big-bodied San Jose defenders, Falvey slipped in behind the play. As Cuevas’s crossing pass dipped beneath the frame in front of the San Jose goal, it was the seldom-scoring Falvey who rose to the moment, putting his forehead through the ball and striking it past the keeper in one of those bang-bang instants in which the fortunes of two teams cross and diverge in a millisecond.
Charleston 1, San Jose 0.
There’s a lot more to say about this game, and I’ll write about it by the light of day on Wednesday. And maybe, with the benefit of video replay, when I write about this moment tomorrow, I’ll describe things differently. Maybe. But that’s the way I saw this one unfold tonight, surrounded by delirious Battery fans in the East Stands.
This is why you go to soccer matches. It’s why you support your local club, the one in the non-glamorous league without the television contract. It’s why you come out in the middle of the week. Sure, you could watch only the top clubs from Europe and talk about how much better they are. After all, the entire league payroll of MLS this season is less than what Manchester United pays its starters. And you can watch them from the comfort of your home. On your video recorder. Whenever you feel like it.
But it won’t get you this.
In fact, the only thing that diminishes the moment in my memory now is this thought:
There should have been more of us there together to witness it.
TOP IMAGE: Shea Salinas and Steven Lenhart of San Jose battle Charleston midfielders Nicki Paterson and Jarad van Schaik for the ball in the early minutes of tonight’s 1-0 Battery win. Dan Conover photo.