By MIKE McCALL
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The opening day of the Carolina Challenge Cup was a showcase for several new faces who will be expected to be key contributors for their MLS teams this season.
The Chicago Fire revamped their midfield this off-season, and all three key midfield additions impressed, contributing to goals and helping the Fire hold off Eastern Conference rivals Houston, 3-2. The Dynamo staged a late rally before falling short.
The Vancouver Whitecaps also saw new attacking players impress, with rookie forward Kekuta Manneh stealing the show with a pair of goals in a 3-2 victory against USL PRO side Charleston Battery. Japanese midfielder Daigo Kobayashi also turned heads with a brilliant volley for Vancouver’s other goal.
Here is a full recap of both of Saturday’s Carolina Challenge Cup matches:
FIRE EDGE DYNAMO
For the most succinct summary of Chicago’s 3-2 win over Houston on Saturday night, look no further than Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear.
“I think we looked good going forward, and we were susceptible on the break,” Kinnear said. “That’s pretty much what I saw.”
Kinnear’s squad often controlled possession and finished with more shots (18-11) and corner kicks, but the Fire countered efficiently with two goals against the run of play and a third from a corner to take the Carolina Challenge Cup opener at Blackbaud Stadium.
All three of Chicago’s newly acquired midfielders — Dilly Duka, Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere — contributed to goals, a sign that the club’s offseason trades might be set to pay off.
But after all, it’s only the preseason, and Fire head coach Frank Klopas was eager to keep the victory in perspective.
“We wanted more than anything at this phase just to come out and be organized as a team, make it really hard for them to get opportunities, keep our shape, be disciplined and be good with the ball,” he said. “We could be better in that part because we gave up two goals. I think we need to look at that and improve in certain situations, but I was happy with the opportunities we created. We scored some very nice goals and had some good opportunities to get a couple more.”
The Dynamo opened the scoring in the 15th minute, after forward Cam Weaver won a free kick at the edge of the box. Brad Davis heeled the ball back into the path of midfielder Adam Moffat, who drove a low shot that took a deflection off the wall and beat Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
But the Fire struck back quickly, with most of the opening chances running through Duka on the left.
He played Chris Rolfe through in the 22nd minute, then did the same two minutes later for Sherjill MacDonald, who juked Houston’s trialist defender Mike Chabala and raced toward goal.
MacDonald was met in the box by two defenders from the right, but he stayed upright and coolly slid a low shot past keeper Tally Hall to even the score.
In the 27th minute, Chicago’s Patrick Nyarko took off down the right and sent a ground cross into the middle, where Duka, Hall and a defender were waiting. What happened next wasn’t entirely clear — even to Duka — but the end result was a Chicago goal.
“The ball just ricocheted between all three of us, boom-boom, it bounced around and went in,” Duka said, laughing at the fact the score was credited to him. “You can say it’s my goal or not. I don’t really care, it’s preseason.”
Duka’s performance was the brightest spot for either team in the first half, as he terrorized Houston on the left side and combined well with MacDonald. His fellow newcomers in the midfield played well, if not spectacularly, and they teamed up on the opening goal of the second half when Larentowicz buried a Lindpere corner into the right side of the net to open up a 3-1 lead.
Houston and U.S. national team midfielder Brad Davis was quieter than usual, but he made his presence known in the 64th minute when he ran in from the left, played a give-and-go with Weaver and then slid a pass back to Giles Barnes, who blasted a shot at the top right corner that Johnson pushed wide.
That set up a corner that Weaver tucked inside the far post to make it 3-2.
There was plenty more drama late. Houston’s Will Bruin and Chicago’s Alex lit up the crowd with long-range howlers that just cleared the bar, and two players — the Dynamo’s Jason Johnson and the Fire’s Maicon Santos — missed good chances wide.
Santos also had a penalty kick saved in the 81st minute, squandering a chance won by rookie Yazid Atouba, who broke through on goal and was taken down in the box.
Former Tottenham defender Pascal Chimbonda was not in the lineup for Chicago, but he’s expected to play in a scrimmage Sunday against Charleston Southern University.
In addition, the Fire’s Gonzalo Segares (ankle) and Houston’s Ricardo Clark (knee) both left with injuries, but Klopas and Kinnear said they expected both to be fine.
WHITECAPS ZOOM PAST BATTERY
The nightcap could be boiled down to a few words as well, this time from Vancouver goalkeeper Brad Knighton: “Kekuta was brilliant.”
The fourth overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, 18-year-old Kekuta Manneh jumped all over the USL Pro’s Charleston Battery, scoring twice and having a third disallowed via a close offside call.
Manneh’s brace, along with a stunning volley from recent transfer Daigo Kobayashi, were just enough for Whitecaps FC to hold off a second-half rally that saw the Battery close the gap to 3-2.
“I think the first 60 minutes of the game was very good from our perspective,” Vancouver head coach Martin Rennie said. “Lots of the things we’ve been working on we saw happening. We saw good movement, quick penetration. We scored goals early and looked dangerous at that point.”
Manneh’s influence was apparent from the first whistle. He broke through on goal and scored twice in the first four minutes — although he was ruled offside on the first — and he added another in the 27th minute when forward Darren Mattocks picked him out.
It was a darling debut for the Generation Adidas player, who subbed off after 71 minutes that made him one of the main talking points after the match.
“Obviously you can see what he brings to the table for us attacking-wise, and he does the defensive work as well, which is a plus,” Knighton said. “The way he linked up with Darren and [forward Kenny Miller] in the first half was something special, and we hope to see more of that.”
While Kobayashi didn’t match Manneh’s tally, his goal was the highlight of a chilly, rainy evening in Charleston.
Defender Young-Pyo Lee found Kobayashi in the box in the 51st, and he connected on an off-balance volley into the right side of the goal to widen the gap to three.
From there, things soured a bit for Vancouver. The Battery pulled one back in the 71st when Nicki Paterson blasted a Gibson Bardsley pass into the ceiling of the net, and Dane Kelly made it a tight finish when he cut back inside two defenders on the left and ripped a shot inside the far post to make it 3-2.
Though Whitecaps FC got out with the victory, that last half hour was cause for concern.
“We were 3-nil up, and for most of the guys it was the first time they’ve played 90 minutes, and I felt like in the last 30 minutes maybe we tired a little bit,” Rennie said. “I would have liked to see us do a little bit better in the last 30 minutes, but that’s what preseason is for.”
The Carolina Challenge Cup will continue with matches on Wednesday and Saturday, with the next batch pitting the Dynamo against Whitecaps FC and the Battery against the Fire.