Tampa flips the script on Charleston

Tampa flips the script on Charleston

Ralph-Lundy-soccer-sponsorship-message2On a night when it looked like the heavens might finally be aligning to give the Charleston Battery a much-needed break, the team struggled to a disjointed 0-0 draw against visiting VSI Tampa Bay FC.

Tampa arrived in Charleston after its loss at Charlotte on Friday night dragging a statistical anchor. Teams playing back-to-back road games within 24 hours have fared poorly in second matches this year in USL PRO, and making matters worse, Tampa came to town riding a three-game losing slide.

Charleston, playing on four days rest after getting two away-draws on just such a road trip, looked positioned to take three points, open a six-point gap on Tampa, and move up the league table. Though several players were recovering from food poisoning, the only person unable to train with the team on Friday was forward Dane Kelly, who had returned to Jamaica to work on getting his Green Card.

And then there was the crowd. Saturday night was the first sold-out match of 2013, with official attendance of 5,111.

But in the opening minutes it was Charleston that looked half-a-step behind, and Tampa that looked energized. The Battery barely crossed the the midway line in the first seven minutes, and with Tampa’s wings and forwards tracking back into the midfield, the home side struggled to win balls, find space, and generate offensive flow.

Ninety-five minutes later, the match ended with the score unchanged.

Battery skipper Colin Falvey summed up the performance as neither clean nor sharp, and Coach Mike Anhaeuser kept his perspective on an even keel, acknowledging his team’s lack of precision and the role of Tampa’s veteran leadership. Even with three days of training at their home facility, the Battery were still battling the cumulative effects of fatigue.

But they certainly knew, as did most of the fans in the stadium, that the Battery had just whiffed on two valuable points. And with back-to-back matches against league-leading Orlando coming up next, points are not about to come easily.

Not a gut-check, but gut-wrenching

This wasn’t a must-win game for Charleston, or a gut-check, or any of those common sporting cliches. But this was one of those opportunities that good teams can take to make life easier on themselves down the stretch. And they didn’t.

Anhaeuser’s substitutes gave the team a late lift, but watching them push for a win in the final minutes blended hope with a gut-deep sense of the inevitable. Even though a win seemed almost within reach, a scoreless draw probably stands as the most accurate reflection of the night’s disappointing run of play.

I only talked to two Battery men after the final whistle, and both Anhaeuser and Falvey had interesting things to say, which I’ll share in tomorrow’s game wrap. But in terms of what happened tonight, there are a few things to talk about.

The passing didn’t connect

In a few games this season — particularly the home matches against Houston and Wilmington — the Battery not only controlled the midfield, but moved rapidly into the attack through sharp, crisp passes. Not necessarily long-ball stuff, but accurate, smart, mid-range passes that caught teammates in stride.

This rarely happened against Tampa.

Route One was closed

In his comments Friday, Anhaeuser had pointed out the difference between what the team can do with Kelly as its lone forward versus how the team needs to play with Cordoves up top. Kelly gives the Battery a fit, fast, feisty forward who can run down balls over the top of the defense. Cordoves, Anhaeuser suggested, has to pick his spots for those types of runs, and works best when teammates get him the ball at his feet and make runs off him.

Additionally, Cordoves had looked like a rapidly improving player in the past couple of weeks.

But while Cordo managed to get off one of his patented thunderfoot strikes in the first half, he largely struggled with first-touch control and precision passing Saturday. In one painful exchange in the 54th minute, Cordoves recognized an opportunity to redirect a pass back wide to Quinton Griffith on the right wing, but his one-touch chip ahead sailed into the East Stands rather than dropping at Griffith’s feet. Like many Battery players Saturday, he  had the right idea, but the execution just seemed… off.

Missed chances

Saturday’s draw was the Battery’s 7th clean sheet across all competitions this season, which is always a point of pride for Falvey and the defense. But to be blunt about it, they can thank Tampa midfielder Darren Toby for that.

In the 40th minute, during one of several stretches of play that seemed to open up for both sides, former Battery forward Tony Donatelli settled the ball centrally and passed through to Tampa midfielder Darren Toby, who stayed onside and ran down the ball at the edge of the six yard box with no one to beat but Battery keeper Odisnel Cooper. But Toby’s shot sailed harmlessly away.

Cooper, who recorded three saves on the night, appeared to get two of them in the 41st minute, when a weak clearance gave Tampa a shot on goal. Cooper managed to knock it down, but was unable to control it, allowing a second shot. He saved that one cleanly.

On the Battery side, Bryce Alderson, Nicki Paterson, Jose Cuevas and Falvey each had their opportunities (Falvey was just off on two set-piece headers), but what offense the team managed to generate tended to come off the legs and feet of Quinton Griffith.  He ended the night with credit for five shots, and almost scored by accident in the 48th minute when his sizzling low cross skipped across the grass just ahead of his teammates … and came within less than a foot of beating the keeper to the far post.

In the 80th minute, substitute Michael Azira passed ahead to Paterson near the top of Tampa’s box, and his through ball to Griffith found the Antiguan International one-on-one with Alex Horwath. Griffith took two touches to force Horwath off his line. With the keeper right where he wanted him, Griffith then proceeded to shoot over the crossbar.

The final threat of the night came in stoppage, when Paterson’s bending free kick from the left side about 25 yards out beat Tampa’s five-man wall, but was destroyed by a diving save by Horwath at the far post.

We’ll talk about it all some more Sunday. But for now, take your points where can get them, and sleep well…