It looked like yet another blown lead for Orlando City B when Heviel Cordoves tied the game with nine minutes to play, but not this time. Lewis Neal’s 87th-minute goal sent the 1,011 fans home happy as OCB topped the Charleston Battery, 2-1, at Orlando City Stadium.
The young Lions, who got a first-half goal from Pierre Da Silva on a wonderstrike, stopped a two-game skid in which they had been outscored, 4-0. Head Coach Anthony Pulis called it a “very hard-fought victory.”
With three games left, the young Lions (9-8-12, 39 points) moved to seventh in the USL Eastern Conference standings with their win over third-place Charleston (13-8-8, 47 points). The young Lions are one point ahead of eight-place New York Red Bulls II and four points clear of ninth-place Bethlehem Steel, but BHFC has three games in hand.
“The character that the guys showed to come back and nick the winner late was fantastic to see and the guys are obviously delighted in there because it’s a huge three points for us,” Pulis said.
Pulis started three-fourths of the same back line that began the game at Saint Louis FC, with Rafael Ramos slotting in at right back and Zach Ellis-Hayden moving to left back on either side of Conor Donovan and Zach Carroll, and in front of goalkeeper Jake Fenlason. Lewis Neal and Paul Clowes played central midfield behind an attacking midfield line of Pierre Da Silva, Jordan Schweitzer, and Danny Deakin, and Hadji Barry up top.
The entirety of the first half was played from box to box and chances were scarce. The two teams combined for only two shot attempts (both by OCB) and one shot on target in a rather plodding 45 minutes. Perhaps the most exciting moment of the opening 15 minutes was a back pass from O’Brian Woodbine that was hit much too heavy and forced Charleston goalkeeper Odisnel to scramble out of his net to try to keep it in, but to no avail.
Both teams turned the ball over regularly with heavy touches or off line passes, resulting in a sloppy and dull contest. But there was one moment of magic in the opening period.
Da Silva woke things up with a fantastic goal out of nowhere in the 31st minute. He took a pass from Neal, dribbled forward a few yards, and unleashed an absolute laser from 30 yards out that hit the right post and caromed into the net behind Cooper to make it 1-0.
“When I got the ball from Lew, that was the only option I had,” Da Silva said. “So, I just took a touch forward and I saw the goal right in front of me. I just took a chance and it went in.”
Da Silva said he thought his goal against Bethlehem was better but it’s hard to conceive of a better strike for OCB this season.
Shortly after the goal, Pulis had to make his first substitution. Ellis-Hayden got in the way of a cross attempt that hit him square in the face from less than 10 yards away. The ball was moving quickly and Ellis-Hayden was down for several minutes before coming off. OCB played with 10 men for a few minutes before Fernando Timbo came on for Ellis-Hayden in the 41st minute.
Pulis said Ellis-Hayden sustained a mild concussion and will be further evaluated this week.
One last moment of action took place in first-half stoppage when Fenlason made a diving stop of a cross to keep Romario Williams from tapping it in and equalizing. That ignited a break that ended up with Deakin blasting a shot that took a slight deflection and brushed the outside of the right post.
The whistle blew just after that and OCB took its 1-0 lead into the locker room. The young Lions held a 2-1 shots advantage (1-0 on goal), and led in possession (52.4%-47.6%) and passing accuracy (87.1%- 85.6%).
Charleston came out of the break like a house on fire, and the Battery spent the opening minutes of the second half all over OCB’s end of the field. Williams, who had his three-game suspension cut to just one at midweek, was at the heart of the Charleston attack, slipping in behind the back line in the early moments of the second period. Fenlason made a huge sprawling save in the 47th minute to keep it level. A minute later, Williams shook free on the right and fizzed a cross in front of goal but Nicholas Rittmeyer couldn’t get a touch on it to put it in.
“I felt like we had a good shape about us and we defended pretty well, but we were winning it back and we were turning it over on those first two passes, so we were never able to then get out and get into a rhythm,” Pulis said. “That’s the first kind of five or ten minutes. After that, I thought we did that better. We connected those first two passes, which enabled us to get into our attacking shape.”
The next few minutes saw Charleston earn a couple of corners and Clowes and Timbo were forced to make emergency clearances in the box. Williams got in tight in the 52nd minute and Fenlason made another big kick save with his right foot to force a corner.
Shortly thereafter, OCB settled into the game a bit more. Da Silva tried a scissor kick off a Schweitzer cross in the 54th minute from point-blank range but Cooper made a big save. Five minutes later, Ramos curled a free kick headed into the top corner but Cooper got over at the last second to tap it just wide.
Williams kept coming, though. Fenlason came off his line to force the Battery striker wide in the 61st minute and he lost the ball over the end line as the game began to open up. Deakin missed a sitter at the other end a minute later off a Da Silva cross that just needed a touch to go in, but he squibbed it over the net. A minute later, Cordoves subbed on for the Battery for Ataulla Guerra.
The game settled down for a while, but around the 75th minute, OCB began to have trouble connecting, and the Lions kicked the ball anywhere to alleviate the pressure, unable to string passes together and keep possession. That paid off for Charleston in the 81st minute. Cordoves got the ball in the box, spun and put a shot past Fenlason to level the score late.
The Lions had a chance to answer nearly immediately. Second-half sub Michael Cox made a great run through multiple defenders to set himself up with a scoring chance but he rolled his shot attempt from the right side of the box just wide of the far post in the 83rd minute. But a few minutes later, Austin Martz — who came on for Da Silva at 81’ — earned a corner that swung the game back in OCB’s favor.
The service into the area fell at Timbo’s feet and the big defender smashed a shot toward the goal that was blocked by the defense. It fell perfectly to Neal, who swiped at it and hit it right at Cooper. The Charleston keeper made a mess of the shot and it deflected off of him and into the net for the eventual game-winner.
“I was delighted, just being in the right place at the right time,” Neal said. “I managed to get something on it and to be quite honest I thought the keeper had saved it. It was pretty comfortable for him and somehow he managed to make a little bit of a mess of it and put it in the goal for us. But in the end I thought it was what we deserved, to be honest. I thought we worked really hard as a team. We didn’t make it easy for ourselves at times, but I thought we created enough chances and had enough bouts of possession to win the game in my opinion.”
Following Neal’s goal, OCB looked like a completely different team, confidently passing the ball around the pitch and making it difficult for Charleston to regain possession. The Battery didn’t see another scoring chance the rest of the game and OCB held on for all three points.
After the game, Pulis said he was pleased with the first half performance and the response to the Charleston goal but the second half was not up to the standard he expects from his team.
“In the second half we started slowly,” Pulis said. “Jake Fenlason made some really good saves to keep us in it and I don’t think we played with the same intensity and the same tempo as what we did first half for whatever reason.”
After the match, Pulis lauded the play of his center backs, who kept Williams — who entered the game with 15 goals in just 19 games this seeson — off the score sheet.
“We knew on Wednesday (the suspension had) been rescinded, so we were able to prepare,” Pulis said. “I don’t want to get into my thoughts on the decision but for the most part I thought Zach Carroll and Conor Donovan handled him really well. But he’s a very dangerous player and one of the better forwards in the USL. So, we knew we were going to have to defend well tonight to keep him at bay, and we did for the most part.”
“We kept grinding, we kept going, we didn’t let our heads get down too much, and we just kept probing to try to get that winning goal and thankfully it came,” Neal said. “That was a huge three points for us in terms of our chance of making the playoffs.”
OCB is back in action on Sunday, Oct. 1, with a trip to the Richmond Kickers. Game time is 5 p.m. ET.