Two nights after playing one of their better matches of the past month in a 1-2 loss at Orlando, the Charleston Battery fell to pieces at VSI Tampa Bay FC, surrendering three first-half goals in the space of 11 stunning minutes en route to a 4-2 loss.
Former Battery star Tony Donatelli opened the book with a goal from the run of play (7th), followed by a set-piece score from defender Josh Rife (12th). Then the referee carded right back Mark Wiltse for contacting Sal Bundu — another former Battery forward — in the box, and forward Chad Burt calmly converted the resulting penalty kick (19th).
The Battery started the second half with multiple substitutions, but whatever hope the squad had for a comeback collapsed when Bundu volleyed home from short range to put the match out of reach in the 59th minute.
Charleston managed to pull one back in the 63rd minute when forward Dane Kelly ran down a pass from Zach Prince and played the ball ahead to substitute forward Heviel Cordoves. Cordo chipped to the far post for his fourth goal of 2013, one behind team-leader Nicki Paterson
fifth goal of 2013, tying him with midfielder Nicki Paterson for the team lead.
Jose Cuevas closed out the scoring in stoppage when the referee awarded the Battery a penalty kick. The score was Cuevas’ second on the team’s winless two-game Florida road trip, raising his season total to four.
A weird lineup
The schedule gave Charleston a day to recover from its painful loss to Orlando, and as he often does on two-game road trips, Coach Mike Anhaeuser went to his bench for fresh legs.
Saturday’s lineup featured Kevin Klasila in goal and defenders Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson on the back line with usual starters Colin Falvey and Mark Wiltse. Defensive midfielder Jarad van Schaik returned to the left midfield spot he manned at the beginning of the season to make way for Amadou Sanyang, and backups Zach Prince and Bryce Alderson joined Nicki Paterson in the five-man unit.
Dane Kelly started in Anhaeuser’s lone-striker role after turning in 90 minutes of windsprints in Orlando on Thursday.
Whatever the mix-and-match lineup hoped to accomplish evaporated in the first 20 minutes. The Battery midfield struggled to maintain possession, and Charleston’s defense — the one reliable aspect of its 2013 season — disintegrated in confusion.
Tampa Bay’s livestream from Plant City was abysmal, so I can report with confidence only that the little white blobs from Florida generally outplayed the little red blobs from the Lowcountry. But I can also say that several of Saturday’s starters underwhelmed from the opening minutes, committing multiple unforced errors and repeatedly turning the ball over.
Anhaeuser started the second half with offensive sparkplugs Jose Cuevas and Heviel Cordoves joining the fray. Emmanuel Adjetey was also on the field from an early point in the second half, but with the low-resolution video and the inattentive Tampa Bay announcers, I really couldn’t say when he came on, or for whom. (UPDATE: Now that the USL PRO box score is up, I can tell you that Cuevas, Cordoves and Adjetey replaced Paterson, van Schaik and Mueller. Maikel Chang replaced Dane Kelly in the 68th minute, and Michael Azira came on for Bryce Alderson in the 85th).
Whatever the timing and combinations, the Charleston changes did nothing to reverse VSITBFC’s momentum, and the Battery’s goals came only after Bundu stretched Tampa’s lead to an insurmountable four goals.
The worst-case scenario
When I previewed this Florida road trip on Wednesday, I pointed out that Charleston could drop as far as a tie for the 8th and final USL PRO playoff spot should the Battery lose both matches. At the moment, Charleston and Tampa are tied for the 7th spot on 27 points, one above surging Dayton, which hosts league leading Orlando on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Richmond Kickers extended their improbable run of form, beating third-place Harrisburg on the road to climb into a tie for first, and Charlotte beat Wilmington, essentially clinching the 2013 Southern Derby Cup and climbing above Charleston in the league standings.
So while the worst-case scenario remains in play, Charleston still has an inside track on earning a playoff berth.
The Commissioner’s Cup, however, all but mathematically slipped beyond the Battery’s grasp this week, as did realistic hopes of earning a top seed.
By dropping both games on this Florida trip, Charleston lost two in a row for the first time since August 2012. It’s worth remembering that Charleston lost two or more consecutive games three times last season, entering the 2012 playoffs as the third seed despite atrocious 2-7-2 form in July and August. From there, the Battery got on a roll and won the 2012 USL PRO Championship.
So there’s that.
The Battery will host the Dayton Dutch Lions on July 19 in a match that looked mundane in mid-May, but now looks enormously important.