Jen Gillette (right) scored for the Charge and made key defensive plays (file photo courtesy of Ken L. Harriford)
The first round of the home-and-home between the South Atlantic Division leaders ASA Chesapeake Charge and ACF Torino USA lived up to its billing, a hard-fought, well-played match that went back-and-forth and ended in a 2-2 draw.
People kept asking me who I thought would win this game. I leaned a little bit toward the Charge, perhaps just slightly the stronger team but also one that had been through a baptism of fire after being in a league with the likes of the Western New York Flash and the Boston Breakers last year. They’re not a team that’s going to be intimidated easily, and if they bring their “A” game, they’re going to be hard to stop.
Both teams were definitely up for the match, breaking the opening huddles with enthusiasm. “We knew this was going to be one of the toughest games,” said Charge midfielder Riley Barger, “and we were all pumped up for it. We wanted to come out as hard as we could and try to get a win.”
The Charge had the best early chance, Alexis Prior-Brown bringing the ball in on left and then crossing it past the goalmouth, but no other Charge player was in position to take advantage.
But it was Torino that would get on the scoreboard first, as Liverpool Ladies teammates Sophie Jones and Amie Fleming teamed up, Jones taking a beautifully placed corner kick that Charge goalkeeper Erin Quinn started to try to grab but then had to back off because it was just a little too far out. With Quinn slightly flat-footed, Fleming headed the ball into the upper right corner and out of her reach.
The Charge had the advantage for most of the next couple dozen minutes but couldn’t take advantage until in the 24th minute Alexa Quaranta drove for the left endline and was taken down from behind in the box. Team captain Laura Kane took the ensuing penalty kick and drove it past goalkeeper Rachelle Beanlands into the lower left corner to knot the score at 1-1.
The home team would have several good chances in the ensuing minutes. In the 29th, Kane sent a ball to Barger streaking through the back line, but her shot went right to Beanlands. Three minutes later, Prior-Brown was in on goal out from the right post, but her shot to the left went just outside the far post. In the 36th minute, Quaranta took a ball over-the-top and came in on goal with a defender on her heels but could only get off a weak shot that Beanlands stopped easily. Two minutes later, Quaranta was through on a nice give-and-go between her and Prior-Brown, but Beanlands dove to the far post and made the save on the shot. And in the 42nd minute, Caylin Dudley sent a gorgeous-looking long through ball toward the left corner that was just too strong for Marisa Kresge to run onto as the Torino goalkeeper got to it first.
The only dangerous moment for Torino in that portion of the first half was a run by Ali Andrzejewski down the right flank in the 34th minute that was good enough to force Jess Hnatiuk to knock the ball out for a corner kick. But the ensuing attempt went right to Quinn at the far post.
The energy level seemed to go up a notch to start the second half. The Charge earned a corner kick less than a minute in, but Kane’s eventual shot went right to Beanlands. Torino would then have their first sustained attacking moments of the match. A rush down the left side in the 48th minute ended in a cross going out for a goalkick. Two minutes later, Torino just had one defender to beat to be in right in front of goal, but Kresge managed to win the header, maintain possession, and clear the ball out of danger. Two minutes after that, though, Charge midfielder Cheyenne Skidmore turned the ball over deep in their defensive end. After a few passes, Andrzejewski was behind the back line and sent the ball in to the lower right corner to give Torino a 2-1 lead.
Ali Andrzejewski was consistently the most dangerous player for Torino and scored their second goal
Andrzejewski commented afterwards, “We had watched them play, so we came out with a strategy to play against them. But I think the most important thing is, we have a very good record. We’re one of the top two teams in the [division]. We’ve got to play our game. And as soon as we switched into that, went back to our normal formation, I felt like we gained a lot of momentum, and that’s when we got a little bit better control of the game.”
In the 54th minute, Hnatiuk took a free kick for the Charge from midfield. It was initially cleared but then was sent back in to Prior-Brown in the box, who might have had a shot but hesitated and was stripped. Three minutes after that, Torino took Jenna Quaranta down just outside the top left corner of the penalty area. She was upset enough that Kane had to take her aside. The referee took some time to settle the players, including a chat with Jenna, and to persuade the Torino wall to observe the ten yard distance. That settled, Kane took the free kick and sent it to the far post, where defender Jen Gillette chested it in to tie the score again.
In the 64th minute, Gillette would make a big play in her usual role, making a sliding tackle to prevent a breakaway by Torino.
The Charge were awarded another free kick in the 72nd minute, and Torino’s Caroline Charlton was shown a yellow card. Hnatiuk took the kick from about 40 yards out and instead of one of her usual booming punts slid a low rolling ball to the left of the defenders. Three Charge players were running toward the ball uncontested, but it had enough pace on it that Beanlands picked it up first, though it didn’t stop her berating her defenders for not staying with their marks.
Chesapeake would have a few more chances late. Kane fired in a long shot in the 77th minute that Beanlands couldn’t hang on to. It went to Skidmore who tried to follow it up, but it went to the goalkeeper, then bounced back off of her and out for a goal kick. Twice in the next few minutes Prior-Brown would be fed through balls that had just a little too much pace on them and went to Beanlands first.
With three minutes left in regulation, Torino would have their last good chance. Andrzejewski took a long shot that deflected off a defender for a corner kick. That was initially cleared, but got sent back in for a shot by Jones from about 15 yards out that went wide left. The Charge would get a corner kick themselves a minute later, but it would be cleared easily.
Stoppage time was hard-fought but mostly in the midfield with no further opportunities. The whistle blew sealing the 2-2 result.
While it was a fairly evenly-matched game, the lingering feeling is that the Charge had more to kick themselves about than Torino, with a number of missed opportunities. Again, scoring seemed to be a challenge, which is a surprise for a team this talented. They can ping the ball around the midfield with one-touches like Barcelona but struggle in the final third. And some of their most dangerous players seemed to come up short this time: Prior-Brown was hesitant, and Skidmore – normally a constant threat to zip into goal past the left back – was not only a non-factor but gave up the turnover that led to Torino’s second goal. Andrzejewski for the visitors seemed more dangerous than all the Charge players combined.
Part of that may be due to Torino’s strategy: for much of the game, Andrzejewski was by herself up top while the rest of the team pulled back, leading to a sometimes odd configuration where the visitors seemed to have ten players playing defense and only one attacker, which was kind of hard on Andrzejewski. “That was pretty tough,” she said after the game. “They play kind of a different flat back four than is typical. They like to send their outside backs up, and then they like to send their center backs wide. So if you’re up top by yourself, it’s very hard to defend. Once we played two up front I felt like we shut their back line down a lot better. You could see that their backs weren’t getting into the attack as much at that point, and that gave us a little bit more momentum to come forward.”
Still, she’s ready for another round. “I’m looking forward to Saturday.” “When you get to do this again,” I responded. “No,” she said. “We’re going to do something different. We’re going to win.”
The rematch is the very next game for both teams and will take place at 3 pm on Saturday in Heurich Park in Hyattsville.