Charleston played with a man-advantage for much of the game Saturday, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way it finished. Wilmington kept the pressure on Charleston as time wound down. They searched for the equalizer, but it never came and the Battery escaped with a 1-0 win.
The Battery sat back and tried to strike on a counter with their speed up top, but could not find the second goal to seal the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a good result for Charleston considering how many games the team has played this month.
Saturday was the eighth game of May for Charleston, while Wilmington was coming in fresh after a week off from playing. The Battery outshot their guests 16-7 on the evening, but the goal came from a Justin Portillo penalty kick in the first half (his second this season) and Charleston was able to drag their tired legs to another three points.
Wilmington’s Sunny Jane nearly equalized it in stoppage time when his shot hit the post, but it was not to be for the Hammerheads. Charleston manager Mike Anhaeuser said he has to be glad with the points considering the circumstances.
“They should’ve scored right there so it should’ve been 1-1, but it wasn’t. We got three points and we’re going to get out of this hectic schedule that we have. Sometimes you have games and like this and obviously we’re fortunate we got out of here with all three points,” Anhaeuser said.
Forward Aaron Wheeler was sent off in the 36th minute after a two-handed shove on Shawn Ferguson, who had some words for Wheeler after he was clipped with a late challenge. It looked like Charleston would run away with it, but the Hammerheads never broke, as the defense did just enough to keep them in the match.
Anhaeuser has had to use his full complement of players throughout this run of games, so Saturday’s lineup was another mixed bag of starters and players that have been used regularly off the bench.
Despite that fact, the lineup was still an experienced one. All of the players have played a lot of minutes this year, so familiarity is not a problem. Charleston appeared to be playing in a 4-4-1-1 shape, and the backline in front of goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper was made up of three regular starters and one player who has been involved a lot lately: Forrest Lasso. The rookie from Raleigh made his third start of the season, and his second in a row. (He started in the U.S. Open Cup game on Wednesday.) Charleston has usually utilized its fullbacks as wingers this season, getting the guys with speed on the wings like O’Brian Woodbine, Quinton Griffith and Emmanuel Adjetey up the field.
The back four who played Saturday had a slight tweak. Lasso teamed up with Shawn Ferguson to play in the center, Ferguson’s usual spot. Adjetey played out on the left side while Taylor Mueller was put at right back. Usually, Mueller and Ferguson only go forward on set pieces, as they are the two tallest players on the field most nights, and the Battery is very vertically-challenged outside of the defense and Cordoves. But Mueller was more involved in the offense against Wilmington, making several long runs down the wings to free up space his teammates.
“I’ve got to love playing with Fergie. We have a very similar game, both obviously tall center backs. He’s an easy guy to play with,” Lasso said.
The midfield looked a little bit different than usual. In most games this season, the Battery has used Jarad van Schaik and Portillo as central midfielders and has two others play farther up and wider. Saturday had moments of that, but also stretches where it looked closer to a straight four-across midfield. Sebastian Thuriere, Portillo and van Schaik were all starting. Dante Marini also started, but I mentioned those three specifically because they have been used in the same positions for the most part.
Thuriere can go forward, but he has done well as a central midfielder. He’s physical and good at winning the ball back. He and Portillo played centrally on Saturday, and did a good job of helping the defense and providing passing options. Van Schaik spent a lot of time on the left side of the field, which is wider than he usually plays.
Heviel Cordoves started up top, and Ricky Garbanzo played underneath him, but a little ahead of the four midfielders. The lineup worked. Charleston largely dominated the first half and kept the ball in Wilmington’s half.
19th minute, GOAL Charleston (Portillo, penalty kick.)
The one-and-only goal of the game came right after the clock rolled over to minute 19. After Cordoves worked the ball down the wing, he laid it off to Marini, who sent a ball into the box towards Garbanzo. A Wilmington defender and Garbanzo got tied up and Garbanzo ended up on the ground, with the referee standing nearby pointing to the penalty spot.
It’s hard to tell what happened in the video, but it looks like Garbanzo was clipped when he tried running back towards the ball. He stayed down for a while and limped off the field, although he would return after the goal.
Portillo took the kick for the Battery and beat Andre Rawls in the lower left corner. He tried stutter-stepping a few times to get Rawls to move first, but the keeper stood his ground. It didn’t matter in the end, as he guessed wrong and Portillo easily scored.
Wilmington has been struggling this season, and the loss puts them in second-to-last place in the East on six points. The Hammerheads are now 1-6-3, with a goal differential of -10.
Despite their poor form this season, Wilmington probably deserved to leave Charleston with a point. If both teams had come into Saturday’s game on equal rest, Charleston probably would not have struggled to beat Wilmington, especially not with a man-advantage. But Battery fatigue finally took a toll in the second half, while the Hammerheads were able to keep pushing forward.
Charleston spent a lot of the second 45 minutes sitting back and keeping their defensive shape while looking for counterattacks. Dane Kelly came on for Cordoves to provide another speedy option up top. That was the same strategy Charleston used against Fort Lauderdale last week in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup, and it did a decent job of stretching out the defense. But the team was unable to connect on as many passes Saturday, so Wilmington would win the ball back quickly.
“You can see that the players have time to make decisions, but when you have heavy legs sometimes those decisions are hard to make,” Anhaeuser said. “We were off on our passing a little bit and when you’re up a man you’ve got to be able to keep the ball, so we’ve got to credit them. They came at us, put a couple guys in and caused us a problem. The defenders had a lot of minutes under their legs so they did a good job.
“They kept guys forward. They kept the two wingers forward and we just couldn’t get that final pass, make that final decision,” he said.
Lasso said Wilmington initially tried using Wheeler as a target forward, but once he was ejected from the game they tried a different strategy.
“After that they just started isolating our outside backs, mostly Taylor, and trying to take him one-on-one,” Lasso said.
Both Mueller and Adjetey did a good job of covering the wings, not allowing Wilmington to get off many crosses into the box.
It was military appreciation night at Blackbaud Stadium, so the Battery played in camouflage jerseys which were later auctioned off. The attendance was 5,455. Additionally, approximately 60 fans from Wilmington bused down for the match.
Those fans mingled with the Battery fans at the tailgate before the game and took part in a supporters competition. There were several games: video game FIFA, 5-on-5 parking lot soccer, cornhole, etc. and the side with the most wins got to keep this trophy.
The Battery fans won the inaugural edition, and the trophy was later placed over the bar in the Three Lions Pub, until the next time the set of fans meet up and contest it again. This kind of friendly competition is one thing that is really awesome about USL, and American soccer overall. In many places, you won’t see fans of opposing teams, much less geographically close teams like Charleston and Wilmington, hanging out together before a match. But here, where soccer has been a niche sport for so long, it’s fun to meet like-minded people who love the sport as much as you do. Here’s hoping it always stays that way.
Except for during the game, of course.
Top photo: Ricky Garbanzo takes a touch around Wilmington defender Tom Parratt in the first half of Saturday’s game. Credit: Charleston Battery.