Things fall apart: RSL 5, Battery 2 in OT

Things fall apart: RSL 5, Battery 2 in OT

Ralph-Lundy-soccer-sponsorship-message2The Charleston Battery took an early 2-0 lead and held the upper hand for almost 80 minutes at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, but their valiant run in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup ended like a raggedly retreating tide Wednesday night.

Hosts Real Salt Lake clawed their way back to level in the second half by dominating possession and placing Charleston under relentless pressure. But with the visitors successfully fortifying goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper’s penalty area for most of the first 90 minutes, it took an act of generous officiating to grant the MLS side its equalizer. The match went to overtime on the strength of a 79th minute penalty kick by Joao Plata that arose from what initially appeared to be an inconsequential bit of contact in the box.

Charleston battled to a 2-2 draw through five minutes of stoppage time, but overtime belonged to RSL. The home side found the match-winner seven minutes later when rookie center forward Devon Sandoval got his head on a nice pass from Plata, and the rout was on. Real Salt Lake would get another score from the run of play, plus a second penalty kick, and advanced 5-2.

Lost in the overtime rubble was a stunningly efficient Battery performance in the first 18 minutes. Like a fighter who absorbs a flurry of punches from an invigorated opponent, the Battery withstood Real Salt Lake’s opening barrage in the first four minutes, went toe-to-toe with them over the next 10 minutes, and then rocked them with a shocking counterpunch in the 15th minute. Left back John Wilson passed long after winning possession, and after what was either a “dummy” or an assist by midfielder Nicki Paterson (I couldn’t tell for sure) the ball wound up at the feet of forward Dane Kelly. With only the keeper to beat, Kelly pushed ahead on the left and shot back calmly to the far post for the early lead.

Just three minutes later, Paterson put back the rebound when winger Quinton Griffith’s rocket from distance bounced off the left post, and Charleston was up 2-0. And though Real Salt Lake didn’t wait for the half to push back, the Battery stayed in the hunt throughout the first 45. Charleston’s counter attack in the waning seconds of the first half put the ball at the tip of a three-on-one break, but Paterson and Kelly were unable to sustain their advantage.

Charleston would keep Real Salt Lake off the board for more than an hour, but as the second half wore on, Charleston’s game devolved to a tight perimeter and whatever clearances they could muster. Though hard to penetrate, thanks in part to aggressive defending by the Battery’s midfield, Charleston’s defense eventually succumbed in the 67th. One of RSL’s best extended possessions of the evening ended with a deft entry pass from Plata to rookie sensation Sandoval.

With the run of play trending toward the home team in the final minutes, it was hardly a surprise when Sandoval scored his second of the night in the 97th. Substitute Khari Stephenson’s long-range screamer in the 105th minute was insurance. Javier Morales’ penalty kick in the 108th was salt in the wound.

So what have we learned?

There’s no sense is going over the details. The Battery traded punches with one of the better teams in Major League Soccer, and eventually the deeper, better rested home team broke them.

And who else have the MLS teams in this year’s tournament broken? Well, all but two: The Carolina Railhawks of the NASL, who — judging by the Twitter pundit panel, anyway — were considered the favorites in their home match against reeling Chivas USA; and the mighty Orlando City Lions, who sat their loaned stars from Sporting Kansas City, made the trip to Missouri, and still beat their MLS affiliate 1-0.

What have we learned? Well, that Charleston’s back line is top quality — but that any team can be broken, given enough possession, enough time … and maybe a bit of home cooking from the officials. And while Charleston had proven over its last four matches against MLS squads that veteran USL PRO players can be as good or better than the average guy on an MLS roster, a quality MLS team playing its best available talent is simply going to have an advantage.

Real Salt Lake didn’t try to sneak past Charleston. They put out a thoroughly legitimate squad Wednesday and played relentless, quality football. They were the better team this time, and they deserved to win. But they weren’t better by much.

And with Charleston now out of the 100th U.S. Open Cup, what do we know about them?

That they played their hearts out in Utah. That Nicki Paterson has now scored a goal in a record 5th consecutive Open Cup tournament. And that smart soccer people all across America recognized that beneath that 5-2 score lies the story of a team that took a top-tier squad to the limit.

Charleston started this season with the publicly stated goal of making a deep run in this year’s Cup. I’d say that 120 minutes in Utah probably counts.