Drew Ruggles, the Charleston Battery’s rookie defender out of Georgia Southern, wasn’t even going to join Charleston’s set piece in the dying seconds of his team’s match against D.C. United.
Then he heard Coach Mike Anhaeuser screaming his name and waving frantically toward the United goal.
In the wild seconds that followed, Ruggles’ opportunistic header off a corner kick by fellow rookie Justin Portillo of Coastal Carolina would level the score at 1-1, stunning resurgent D.C. United and writing a highly improbable ending to a quality match that seemed fated to slip beyond the Battery’s reach.
“There wasn’t much time left, and my role is to stay back on the corner kicks, so that’s where I was,” Ruggles said. “When I heard (Anhaeuser) yelling my name, I went up, and on the previous corner I’d heard him say ‘Someone get to the near post, and beat the near-post ball. And my guy was loose on me, so that’s where I ran.
“I don’t think that they were expecting me to be too much of a threat, not having been in the box at all. That was my first time up the whole game.”
On the scoreboard, the match ended knotted at 1-1, the most mundane score in soccer. But the story of this match was more like a three-act opera.
In Act 1, a veteran Battery lineup kicked off against a United XI cobbled together from reserves and trialists, and then pummeled the MLS unit for most of the first 45 minutes, doing everything it wanted to do to United… except score. Anhaeuser had asked his team to repeat the quality it had shown in its 1-2 loss to Seattle, and they did, with only the finishing touch lacking.
Act 2 was a stalemate that lasted from the start of the second half until the 67th minute, with the Battery subbing in six players — four of them rookie trialists — as the two sides experimented with new prospects and known players in new positions.
But in Act 3, United Coach Ben Olsen flipped the script, using preseason’s free-form substitution rule to replace most of his lineup with the starters who got the better of Houston in Saturday’s 2-0 United win. The infusion of All-Stars and U.S. international prospects turned the tide of the game, and when Louis Silva‘s 71st-minute free kick eluded everyone — including diving Battery keeper Andy Ramos — United had its first lead of the night.
With DC’s fresh-legged regulars clearly on the hunt and the Battery’s reserves reeling, United appeared to be on the verge of putting the match away. But Ramos came up with a huge diving save in the 77th minute, and then forward Eddie Johnson blasted a point-blank, undefended shot over the crossbar. Johnson’s miss gave Charleston new life.
Anhaeuser had promised before the match to give lots of players minutes, and even with his team trailing, he lived up to his word, subbing in 18-year-old S.C. United Battery Academy winger Avery Ryan for Battery leading scorer Dane Kelly in the 80th minute.
But with Ryan creating chances and rookie attacking midfielder Dante Marini continuing his preseason run of good form, the Battery found themselves pushing for an equalizer in the waning minutes. Aided by some heads-up play from veteran defender Taylor Mueller, whose throw-ins and quick reactions produced Portillo’s game-winning corner, the Battery seemed to catch United with its guard down.
Though it won’t show up the box score, the Battery benefited from a stellar 90-minute performance from midfielder Jarad van Schaik, supported by defensive mid Amadou Sanyang in the first half. Outside midfielder Zach Prince was active and effective in 45 minutes of action. And first-time starter Maikel Chang, who played on the left wing, played at least three crosses into the Battery box.
But the most dynamic player on the field for much of the match was Kelly. Though he has yet to score in 2014, the pacey forward repeatedly cracked the United back line Wednesday, forcing former teammate Andrew Dykstra into saves and uncomfortable positions.
Game wrap on Thursday.
TOP IMAGE: A Battery ball boy joins rookie trialist Drew Ruggles in celebrating his last-second equalizer. Dan Conover photos.