The Richmond Kickers defender leaned into Charleston Battery striker Dane Kelly as the ball dropped out of the summer night.
Who: Antigua Barracuda vs. Charleston Battery
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Blackbaud Stadium
Kelly arched his back and lowered his center of gravity as the ball hit the ground and bounced off of his chest.
The Kickers defender pressed a forearm into Kelly’s lower back in an attempt to push him off the ball, but the Jamaican wouldn’t budge. Kelly spun, catching the Richmond player completely by surprise, and started to sprint toward the goal. The Richmond player made one last attempt to stop Kelly, grabbing his jersey, but it was no use as the Battery striker took two quick steps and opened up a gap between the two players.
Kelly took three strong dribbles, waited for the Richmond goalie to commit, and then blasted the ball into the back of the net for the score. It was Kelly’s team-leading ninth goal of the season. Kelly raced toward the Battery faithful, arms extended, and then nodded to the Richmond player as he returned for the kickoff.
Two years ago, as a rookie, Kelly might not have been able to make that play under similar circumstances.
For starters, he probably wasn’t strong enough to hold off the defender and get away from the jersey tug. Second, he probably would have panicked and put his shot into the Blackbaud Stadium parking lot. And third, he probably would have gotten into a physical confrontation with the defender, which would have resulted in a yellow card or possibly an ejection.
Kelly, 22, is no longer the hot-headed 20-year-old rookie he was two summers ago. The same guy who was looking to fight every defender in the league that came in with a high tackle. That person is long gone, Kelly said.
“I’m older now, I’m more mature. I try not to let those things bother me as much as they used to. I know what the defenders are trying to do. They’re trying to get me to do something dumb that will get me a card or thrown out. I’m smarter now. I understand the game they are playing with me.”
A more mature Kelly, who leads the team with 20 points (nine goals, two assists), has meant more goals for him and the Battery. As Charleston heads into Thursday’s season finale, they’ve scored 45 goals, the most since moving to Daniel Island’s Blackbaud Stadium in 1998.
“Dane’s had a terrific year,” said Charleston Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser. “He has always created a ton of scoring chances for himself, but this year he’s done a better job finishing, especially late in the season.”
One the keys for Kelly’s production this season has been his patience around the net. Instead of immediately taking the shot that’s given to him, he’s waiting out keepers until the best shot becomes available.
“I’m not in such a hurry to shoot,” Kelly said. “I pick my head up and see where the keeper is going to be and then I take the shot.”
After a lull midway through the season, Kelly has been on a tear lately, scoring five goals in the last seven matches.
“Dane has been unbelievable the last month,” said Charleston midfielder Jose Cuevas. “His pace is unbelievable, so he creates so many chances, but it seems like he’s finishing off every chance he gets now.”
The Battery can nearly clinch a home game for the opening round of the playoffs with a win over Antigua on Thursday. A Charleston victory over the Barracuda would mean that Charlotte, which trails the Battery by two points in the USL Pro standings, would have to beat Tampa Bay and Orlando in regulation to clinch the fourth spot in the standings. The top four teams host a playoff game Aug. 24. The winless Barracuda have been outscored, 84-10, during the regular season.
“We need to take care of business against Antigua,” Anhaeuser said. “We’ve got to be professionals about it. Antigua has some dangerous players, so we can’t overlook them.”