By MIKE McCALL
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Following an opening round of matches that allowed teams to test out their Starting XI, Wednesday night’s contests at the Carolina Challenge Cup were a bit more subdued. Vancouver opted for a younger lineup against substitute-happy Houston, while Chicago played its starters for a half against the USL PRO’s Charleston Battery.
Late goals decided both matches, with the Dynamo scoring twice to notch a 2-1 comeback win over the Whitecaps, while the Fire got a stoppage-time winner from Alex to take down the Battery 2-1.
Wednesday’s results leave the Fire atop the four-team round-robin with six points, followed by Houston and Vancouver at three and Charleston at zero.
Here’s a full recap of Wednesday’s Carolina Challenge Cup action:
LATE GOAL PROPELS DYNAMO PAST WHITECAPS
As Martin Rennie is well aware, it’s best not to leave Houston midfielder Adam Moffat unmarked at the edge of the box.
But the strike that sunk Rennie’s Vancouver side didn’t come from there; it was much farther out.
“Well, the edge of their box,” Rennie joked.
Moffat’s long-distance blast in the 77th minute made the difference in the Dynamo’s 2-1 win on Wednesday night, toppling the Whitecaps’ inexperienced lineup and giving his former coach a nice parting gift.
It was Rennie who brought his fellow Scotsman to America to play for the USL’s Cleveland City Stars in 2007, and the goal evoked memories.
“I think Adam is fantastic,” Rennie said. “I’ve said it before, he’s one of my favorite players that I’ve coached, and he scored a lot of goals when I coached him. He has a great strike.”
The Carolina Challenge Cup has offered nothing but support for that statement, as Moffat slammed a low free kick for a goal on Saturday against Houston, then one-upped himself against the Whitecaps.
Two minutes after Dynamo forward Will Bruin tied the match, Moffat collected a pass in the center of the pitch, about 10 yards in from the edge of the midfield circle.
That’s hardly a dangerous attacking position, but with the Vancouver defense packing the box, Moffat took a touch and found he had plenty of space. He unleashed an audacious, laser-guided strike that left keeper Brad Knighton helpless and soared into the top right corner.
That undid what had been a decent outing for a young Whitecaps squad, which put up a good fight until Houston’s cavalry arrived.
Vancouver forward Corey Hertzog — a January signing — opened the scoring 15 minutes in when he picked off a lazy back-pass, rounded the keeper and finished from a tight angle.
But that was the exception for Houston, which dominated possession and dealt with the rest of the Whitecaps’ attacks fairly calmly, including stuffing back-to-back-to-back corner kicks in the second half.
The match was mostly one-way traffic toward the Vancouver goal, with Giles Barnes and Alex Dixon both seeing good chances miss the mark.
Eventually, a parade of Houston subs made the difference.
In the 75th minute, midfielder Brad Davis, who had been mostly anonymous in the team’s 3-2 loss to Chicago on Saturday, uncorked a long pass down the center of the field. Bruin outran everyone to get on the end and beat Knighton for the equalizer, and Moffat’s howler came shortly after.
“[Moffat] has done that before, and let’s be honest, if he’s missing by a mile every time he does it, you tell him to think about something else,” Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear said. “But he does have the ability to shoot from distance, so you encourage it. He’s in a good position because sometimes teams do sit deep and it may pop out to him. He has scored a few goals like that for us.”
Moffat’s shot may have undone things for Rennie’s bunch, but the coach came away encouraged by the way his experimental squad fared. Forward and No. 5 overall draft pick Erik Hurtado started after missing time with a pulled hamstring, and though his control was far from perfect, he did flash bursts of the quickness that helped make him a coveted prospect.
And Rennie’s bottom line was being able to evaluate the depths of his roster before the March 2 season opener against Toronto FC.
“That was beneficial tonight to see players up against MLS-level players,” Rennie said. “At one point or another [Houston] had almost all of their top players on the field. For the most part we stood up well to it, but a little disappointed that it wasn’t quite until the very end.”
Both coaches said they weren’t sure how aggressive their lineups would be for their final CCC matches on Saturday, and Kinnear added that midfielder Ricardo Clark may still be unavailable due to swelling after banging knees with Chicago keeper Sean Johnson.
ALEX DELIVERS IN FIRE WIN
If you blinked, you missed it.
A disappointing Fire performance was winding down in stoppage time when midfielder Alex jolted the Blackbaud Stadium crowd with a right-footed dart from the left that gave his team a 2-1 win over the third-tier Battery.
Chicago head coach Frank Klopas played his starters for the first half and his second team after the break, and the beginning was far from what he’d hoped to see.
Charleston grabbed a surprising lead in the 11th minute after midfielder Nicki Patterson took control in the center, left Chicago’s Joel Lindpere in the dust with a precise spin move and passed ahead to Jose Cuevas, who was streaking toward goal.
Cueves made a sliding, right-footed strike that directed the ball toward the far post, past Chicago goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi and in.
“We wanted a better start, obviously,” Klopas said. “Based on what I saw in the warm-ups, our guys were ready to play, and we knew we were going to play 45 minutes and to push both groups, so we needed to have a really good start. We gave up I think a soft goal because we had the ball and turned it over, and there were opportunities to close down and we didn’t.”
Chicago recovered, and its answer in the 27th minute wasn’t much for style, but it was effective nonetheless.
Lindpere sent in a free kick that curled toward the near post and into a crowd of players, and after a few deflections, it rolled in off Fire defender Austin Berry.
From there, the match looked destined for a draw, despite fleeting chances from both teams.
Fire midfielder Dilly Duka clanged a shot off the post, and Battery forward Dane Kelly had an open look at the top of the box but sailed his shot way over the crossbar.
Alex’s winner — a bending shot after a pass from Maicon Santos — saved the evening for Chicago, but it was clear that this wasn’t the type of match the Fire want to be playing during their March 3 opener at the LA Galaxy.
“He has been sharp in the preseason, and Maicon too,” Klopas said of Alex. “It was great for him to play well and score a great goal in the end. He has that kind of ability.”
The match also provided long looks at rookie midfielder Yazid Atouba and the battle at right back between Logan Pause and Jalil Anibaba.
Atouba was the bright spot of the second half, and Klopas said afterward that he expected the club would be finalizing a contract soon.
“He’s young and has a lot of ability that you don’t see, and I think his appetite to work hard and his willingness and his attitude have been fantastic,” Klopas said. “We definitely want to keep him, and I think we’re close to announcing something.”
Pause and Anibaba started on the left and right due to left back Gonzalo Segares’ ankle injury — he’s listed as day to day — and Klopas wasn’t ready to declare a winner of his team’s biggest position battle just yet.
“You’ll see the first day, when we play LA,” Klopas said.
He also praised Hunter Jumper’s play as a backup on the left, and former Tottenham defender Pascal Chimbonda could figure in that decision as well, although his trialist stint hasn’t provided enough game minutes to get a good look. He was listed among the subs but did not play Wednesday.
The Carolina Challenge Cup will conclude on Saturday, with the Fire and Whitecaps facing off at 5 p.m., followed by the Dynamo at Battery at 7:15.