A year ago, Jose Cuevas was picking peaches as a migrant farm worker in the fields of California’s central valley.
On Saturday night, the Charleston Battery midfielder stood in the middle of the Blackbaud Stadium field soaking in the atmosphere as the club celebrated its fourth league championship and his most valuable player trophy.
Cuevas assisted on Mike Azira’s game-winning goal in the 74th minute as Charleston defeated Wilmington, 1-0, in the USL Pro Division final before a capacity crowd of 4,963.
Cuevas nearly made the Battery’s roster a year ago, but was released just days before the start of the regular season. He went back to California and played in the USL’s professional developmental league in Fresno, Calif., determined to make the Battery’s roster this spring.
“It was a tough year, so when I got here in March there was no way I was going to go back to picking peaches again,” Cuevas said. “This makes everything I went through last year worth it. To get this chance with this club, to win a championship, and to be the most valuable player. It’s more than I could have dreamed of.”
It was Charleston’s fourth league title — the other three coming in 1996, 2003, 2010 — and their second in the last three seasons. It was a fitting end to the club’s 20th season in professional soccer.
“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the club’s 20th anniversary than to win another championship,” said Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser, who has been a player or coach with all four championship teams. “At the beginning of the season I felt like we had a team that could compete for a championship. We had some adversity along the way, but in the end we got it done and all the credit goes to those players. They played their guts out tonight.”
The Battery did it with defense, recording their 11th shutout of the season. The Hammerheads managed just four shots on goal.
“The guys in front of me have been fantastic all season and this was probably the best game they played all season,” said Charleston keeper Andrew Dykstra, who had all 11 shutouts. “This is my first professional championship and it’s just another thing I get to add to my resume.”
The Battery controlled the flow of play for much of the first half, but Wilmington keeper Alex Horwath made two saves to keep the game scoreless.
“I felt like we should have been up by a goal or two at halftime,” said Charleston captain Colin Falvey. “In the locker room, Nicki (Paterson) stood up and told everyone it didn’t matter how we won, we just ‘needed to get it done.’”
The Battery did just that.
After several quality scoring chances in the second half, Cuevas got the ball in the penalty area, stepped past Wilmington defender and slid the ball to Azira. Azira blasted the ball past Horwath for the goal.
“It was an unbelievable ball from Jose,” Azira said. “As soon as I saw him pivot, I started my run and the ball was right there at my feet. I struck it as hard as I could.”
It was the third league title with the club for veteran defender John Wilson, who announced his retirement after the Battery won the USL Second Division in 2010. This time he wasn’t so eager to determine his future.
“I learned my lesson,” said Wilson, 34, laughing. “I think I’m just going to enjoy this one for now and worry about my future later on. This is my third time and right now it’s the best one because you never know if you’ll get another shot at a championship.”