It took a penalty kick in the 89th minute by U.S. international Brad Evans to separate the visiting Seattle Sounders from a determined Charleston Battery squad on the sold-out first night of the 2014 Carolina Challenge Cup.
The visitors dictated the pace of the game in the early going, and hung the first goal of the night on the Battery in the 25th minute. It began with a free kick from former Battery man Lamar Neagle, who sent the ball into the mixer. After pinballing around the box off several players, it fell to Seattle defensive midfielder and Designated Player Osvaldo Alsonso.
Alonso — a Battery legend before he became an MLS superstar — chested the stray ball down around the top of the 18 and volleyed a wicked shot that curled around Battery defenders and into the upper corner of the net, giving goalkeeper Andy Ramos no chance.
Rather than wilt, the Battery answered almost immediately. When the Battery drew a free kick three minutes later, Battery Captain Colin Falvey rotated up to take his turn on a set piece. The initial kick came in
“mid-high,” “in-between heights,”said Falvey, who figured the ball would be knocked down and gambled on a run that could put him in space if the ricochet went the right way. It did, and he pounded home the equalizer.
Charleston closed out the half level, and as the second half passed the hour mark, the flow of the game began to shift toward the home side. Though neither team was able to control the flow of the game throughout, the match opened up as the half progressed, with Charleston finally putting Seattle goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann under pressure. Hahnemann registered at least two saves, including an outstretched foot in the 76th minute that denied Battery trialist Dante Marini a score in his Battery debut.
Marini subbed into the game for Zach Prince in the 66th minute, just moments after Prince recorded a brilliant tackle on Neagle, running him down from behind to snuff out an emerging Sounders’ chance. The 2013 All-Conference CAA midfielder from Northeastern University immediately sparked the Battery, and in the final 20 minutes of play it was the USL PRO side, not the MLS favorites, who looked to be on the hunt.
For a moment in the 81st minute, it looked like Marini might have set Charleston up for the win. Running a central channel as former Coastal Carolina star Justin Portello crossed into the box from the left, the 5-3, 21-year-old Marini got a great first touch and was headed to goal when he collided with a Sounders defender and went to ground. Fans around the stadium jumped to their feet, but the referee didn’t point to the penalty spot.
Eight minutes later he would. Seattle substitute Sean Okoli made a run toward the Battery box and went down just across the penalty line. The official awarded the penalty, and Evans beat second-half Battery keeper Eric Shannon to settle the matter.
For what it’s worth, Falvey said after the match that he thought the foul on Okoli warranted a PK.
Shannon did great work earlier in the night when he dove to his left to pluck a serious strike by Sounders forward Kenny Cooper out of the air with two hands.
But the story of the night was almost certainly the 90 minute duel between Alonso and Mike Azira. Azira, who made what could be his only appearance in Battery stripes this season, is currently one of seven surviving Sounders trialists competing for a spot on the MLS team’s roster, and though he’s been seeing a lot of time at right back, he’s still very much in the running to be Alonso’s backup at the No. 6 spot.
Given the chance to compete against the players he’s been training with for the past month, Azira looked calm, focused and disruptive — bedeviling Alonso at times, and denying Seattle the ability to control the center of the pitch and dictate terms.
The Battery play D.C. United on Wednesday at 7:15 after Seattle takes on Houston at 5 p.m.
As always, I’ll have extended quotes from Coach Mike Anhaeuser and Battery players, plus photos and all sorts of goodies on Sunday in the Game Wrap.
D.C. United 2, Houston 0
In the first match of the day, a vastly improved D.C. United put away Houston in a game where both teams struggled to find their finishing touch.
Left midfielder Nick DeLeon — one of the few holdovers on a D.C. United squad that is perhaps the only team in MLS that’s been more radically overhauled than the Sounders — got United on the scoreboard in the 21st minute. After beating his man to the end line, DeLeon’s resulting cross found the back of Dynamo centerback David Horst‘s head and caroomed into the net.
Houston’s own-goal remained the only score for most of the match, and while the soccer wasn’t particularly pretty, neither was it particularly one-sided. The Dynamo generated plenty of chances and significant possession, but struggled with final touches and finishing. United posted two newly arrived gunslingers (USMNT forward Eddie Johnson and former RSL/NYRB star Fabian Espinola) at the top of their formation for the first 70+ minutes, but neither was able to break through against a veteran Dynamo back line.
After Houston and United both subbed out their entire outfield lineups in the 71st and 76th minutes (Yeah, it’s the preseason. Roll with it), respectively, United put the game away in the 88th minute when Michael Seaton buried a rebound off keeper Tyler Derick.
D.C. keeper Bill Hamid generally had a good match, recording several saves, but he came within an awkward mistake of gifting the Dynamo an equalizer. Faced with a ball bouncing near the top of his box, Hamid stepped up to take it, realized it was not going to cross the line to allow him to grab it, and with multiple players converging around him, stepped over the line and attempted to clear the threat with a leaping header.
Instead, the ball carried over his head, leaving an empty net. Only a hustling play by a D.C. defender preserved United’s lead.
TOP IMAGE: Seattle’s Jalil Anibaba, a third-year right back acquired from Chicago in the offseason, leaps in the air to celebrate former Battery star Osvaldo Alonso’s game opening score in the Sounders’ 2-1 win over Charleston Saturday night. Dan Conover photos.