Deadlocked at 1 with the Chicago Fire as the clock approached 90 minutes, it appeared that the Charleston Battery would remain in contention for the Carolina Challenge Cup title heading into Saturday’s third and final match day.
A superb goal in stoppage time from Brazilian forward Alex changed that, however, as the Battery dropped a 2-1 decision Wednesday night at Blackbaud Stadium.
Houston used a pair of second-half goals to down Vancouver, 2-1, in Wednesday’s first match, meaning all three MLS teams still have a shot at the tournament title.
Chicago is in the driver’s seat with six points; the Whitecaps and Dynamo have three.
“We did well defensively — a lot better than the other night — and the overall performance was very good,” said Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser. “It’s just disappointing at the end because (we) really should be coming out of here 1-1 with a point and still a chance (at the title).”
Both teams had scoring chances in the ninth minute. Chicago forward Dilly Duka sent a header just over the bar before a lofted ball to speedster Dane Kelly at the other end was just out of the Jamaican’s reach.
In the 11th minute, though, the Battery broke through. Nicki Paterson threaded a diagonal ball in front of reigning USL Pro rookie of the year Jose Cuevas, who slid to arrive ahead of Fire goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi and direct the ball into the far corner for an early 1-0 lead.
Chicago equalized 16 minutes later on Austin Berry’s fortunate-yet-not-unearned goal. Joel Lindpere’s inswinging free kick was headed down by the 6-2 defender, who followed the bobbling ball into the net.
The game remained tied until Alex’s late strike, an outside-of-the-foot laser just out of the reach of Charleston goalkeeper Kevin Klasila.
The Battery did sustain quite a bit of pressure — and understandably so. Chicago head coach Frank Klopas called on a veteran-heavy squad that included an impressive midfielder corps of Lindpere, Duka, Jeff Larentowicz and Patrick Nyarko for the opening 45 minutes before turning mainly to reserves in the second half.
“That could be their starting team,” Anhaeuser said in reference to the Fire’s March 3 regular season opener at Los Angeles. “It was good for our guys and we played great for the first 10 to 15 minutes. We caught them, had a couple chances there (and) got a great goal by Jose.”
Anhaeuser took a similar approach to Klopas and made two changes from the starting lineup used in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Vancouver. Captain Colin Falvey received the nod in central defense for his first appearance of the preseason and Kelly, who scored a highlight-reel goal as a substitute against the Whitecaps, started up top.
Chicago will face Vancouver at 5 p.m. Saturday while the Battery will take on Houston, the 2012 MLS Cup finalist, in the nightcap at 7:15 p.m.