Battery, Bethlehem end in scoreless draw

Chastened by a three-goal nightmare last week at Charlotte, Charleston Battery’s defense returned to basics in its visit to Bethlehem Steel F.C. on Sunday afternoon, emerging with a scoreless draw.

Starting a rotational lineup that featured Odisnel Cooper‘s first start of the year in goal, Dante Marini‘s first start in midfield, the return from injury of midfielder Maikel Chang and fullback O’Brian “Obi” Woodbine earning his fifth consecutive start at fullback, the Battery played no-nonsense soccer from start to finish.

Sunday was also a story of adjustments. Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser dropped defensive midfielder Neveal Hackshaw deeper in the center of the formation, pulled forward/attacking midfielder Atuallah Guerra back to provide a bit more support in possession and assigned Quinton Griffith to shut down speedy threats along Bethlehem’s left flank.

“We got a shutout at a place that had a pretty physical team, that had, I think, four of their MLS players sent down (from Philadelphia Union) for the match,” Anhaeuser said. “So we’re glad to get the shutout, but we’re disappointed that we couldn’t score off some of those set pieces we had. We had some adjustments that really helped out, and I thought we shut them down in the midfield. But we’ll make some minor adjustments next week at home against Pittsburgh, and we might open things up a bit.”

Expansion Bethlehem (2-2-1) appeared to take a hint from Charlotte in the early going, leaning hard and heavy on Charleston’s attacking threats. The Battery (2-1-2) had four free kicks in the attacking half in the first 11 minutes, but the hosts held firm defending set pieces all afternoon, never giving a Battery player an open run.

As the first half wore on, the Battery began creating space in possession. Marini sprung striker Guerra in the 16th, forward Romario Williams forced Bethlehem goalkeeper John McCarthy off his line for a save in the 20th, and Marini’s brilliant play on the ball got him just enough space to send a well-weighted pass across the goal mouth, inches from Williams’ head.

The Battery would pressure again in the 36th, when Williams set up strike partner Guerra from just inside the top left corner of the penalty area. Guerra got a good look, but his attempt to snipe the back post missed inches wide.

Both teams returned from the break with the same personnel, but Bethlehem began to tilt the field its way as the half progressed past the hour mark. It took some serious defending by right back Griffith to clear a threat in the 62nd minute, and only a big charge and a chest save by Cooper in the 66th kept rookie forward Fabian Herbers from giving Steel the lead. Cooper would make one more save, smothering a direct free kick, to finish with two — the same as Bethlehem’s McCarthy.

The visitors also seemed to struggle against the Goodman Stadium pitch, which was clearly giving both teams difficult footing along the sideline opposite the grandstand. Battery midfielders struggled repeatedly near the touchline, often slipping and falling, several times giving away possession.

The Battery won the shots battle, 8-5, and dominated on corner kicks, earning eight to the Steel’s five. With all those deliveries from the flags, and 18 fouls by Bethlehem, the Battery had multiple opportunities to win it on a set piece. But while the service from midfielders Chang and Justin Portillo was generally good, Battery aerial threat Hackshaw said Bethlehem’s height advantage and close marking negated those chances. “It was tough on the corners and free kicks,” he said.

The draw nudged Charleston into fifth place in the East, a point behind FC Cincinnati and Charlotte Independence. Louisville City FC (12 points) and New York Red Bulls II (11 points) hold the top two positions. Bethlehem pulled into a tie for sixth place with Richmond, Wilmington and Rochester.

Bethlehem Coach Brendan Burke took pride in the way his side defended Williams, who finished with just the one shot on goal. He also said the Battery offered few surprises.

“I did expect them to sit in the way they did and just try to counter for 90 minutes, and they did a good job of it,” Burke said. “I think they accomplished what they wanted to, and for the most part, we never felt too much danger outside of the set pieces that they were given a number of.”

Center back Taylor Mueller said the biggest difference was that “a lot of the guys just backed each other. We maybe weren’t as dangerous with the ball in the second half, but we had opportunities. When you think about this place, with this field, and the sleeper bus trip, you have to rate it an overall good performance, but we leave here feeling like we should have had two more points. But we know we’re always better at home, so we leave here with an upbeat attitude and looking forward to playing Pittsburgh next Saturday.”

Charleston returns to MUSC Health Stadium after two weeks on the road next Saturday to face the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased online at charlestonbattery.com or over the phone at 843-971-4625.