If Reggie Jackson was Mr. October for the New York Yankees, then midfielder Mike Azira must be Mr. August for the Charleston Battery.
Dane Kelly scored in the first half and Azira added the game-winning goal in the 71st minute to lead the Charleston Battery past the Los Angeles Blues, 2-1, Saturday night in the quarterfinals of the USL Pro playoffs before a crowd of 2,708 at Blackbaud Stadium.
With the victory, the Battery will travel to Florida to take on Orlando City, a 5-0 winner over Pittsburgh, next Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in the USL Pro semifinals.
A year ago it was Azira, who had not scored during the regular season, recording the only goal in the Battery’s 1-0 win over the Wilmington Hammerheads in the USL Pro title game.
With the Battery leading 1-0 Saturday night, Azira struck with 20 minutes to play when he fed midfielder Quinton Griffith down the left flank. Griffith dribbled deep into the six-yard box and crossed to a trailing Azira just above the 18-yard box. Azira settled the ball and then blasted it into the open net for the score.
Azira’s goal gave the Battery a 2-0 lead and turned out to be the game-winner as the Blues scored in the final five minutes of regulation.
“Mike just has a knack for scoring big goals for us,” said Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser. “He’s very solid defensively, but he has that little bit of quality to push forward and create scoring chances, not only for the other guys, but for himself. It was a beautiful goal from a fantastic cross from Quinton.”
Unlike most road teams that like to play for a tie or even take their chances in overtime in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Blues came out attacking with the long ball.
The tactic caught the Battery by surprise as it took the home team the better part of the first half to get organized.
“I think the game was a little bit cagey in the first 20 minutes, we were feeling each other out,” said Charleston midfielder Nicki Paterson. “They played the long ball game; it just took us about 10 or 15 minutes to figure that out, but once we did we played well.”
It took Kelly’s goal to finally settle things down for the Battery in the 25th minute. After a long ball was played to Paterson, the Scottish midfielder crossed the ball to Kelly just outside the 18-yard box. Kelly sidestepped a Blues defender and blasted a shot past Los Angeles keeper Mohammadi Mohammad for the score.
It was Kelly’s 12th goal of the season.
“They were pretty physical on me because they knew I was faster than everyone on the pitch,” Kelly said. “They were trying to take me out of my game. Nicki played a nice ball to me, and I turned and saw the net and went for it. We didn’t come out like we normally do at home.”
Mohammad Roknipour got the goal for Los Angeles in the 84th minute as the Battery held on against a relentless attack from the Blues.
“I was sweating in the final 10 minutes,” Anhaeuser said. “They put us under a lot of pressure.”
The Battery will have little time to celebrate their victory as they face second-seeded Orlando City in the next round of the playoffs.
“We’ll have to play better against Orlando,” said Charleston captain Colin Falvey. “But I don’t care how we play these next two games as long as we win.”