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Eastern Conf. Notes - Battery's Anhaeuser Praises “On-Fire” Okonkwo

By JOHN ARLIA -, 09/10/18, 1:51PM EDT


Battery Coach reaches 200-win milestone; Nashville, Charlotte gain ground in race for playoffs

CHARLESTON, S.C. –  Mike Anhaeuser earned his 200th victory as Head Coach of the Charleston Battery Saturday night at MUSC Health Stadium as the side earned a 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies on the back of Patrick Okonkwo’s first-half strike.

After reaching the milestone, Anhaeuser didn’t bask in the accomplishment but was instead quick to praise the players that helped him get there, including Okonkwo, who stepped up in the absence of leading scorer Ataulla Guerra by finding the back of the net four times in his past three games.

“Even in training sessions, he’s knocking in goals. He’s kicking it in with his right, his left, he’s knocking it in with his knee, his shoulder, his head… and that’s what you have to do as a striker,” Anhaeuser said. “He’s on fire. He scored a great goal there taking it from outside the box and knocking it in at the far post. He’s been doing that at training so hopefully he can keep it up.”

Okonkwo provided the game’s only goal in the 22nd minute when he got in behind the Rowdies defense on a pass from Ian Svantesson and slotted a nifty finish into the bottom-left corner from just outside the penalty area.

The 20-year-old Nigerian forward, who is on loan from Atlanta United, also made four tackles and won 10 duels in the contest as the Battery strengthened their position in the top-four of the Eastern Conference.

“My mentality is not different,” Okonkwo said of his recent run of form. “The more I work after training and the more the coaches tell me what to do, the better I play. I always play my heart out. I just play every game like it’s my last game.”

NASHVILLE RALLIES FOR VITAL POINT: After being held to one goal or less in each of its 14 road contests this season, Nashville SC’s attack finally came to life away from First Tennessee Park on Saturday as the visitors rallied to a 3-3 draw with North Carolina FC at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.

NSC faced two separate two-goal deficits in the second half, but rallied to earn a point thanks to a pair of penalties from halftime substitute Brandon Allen and a deflected effort from Lebo Moloto that looped over NCFC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis three minutes from time.

Allen proved to be a cool customer from the spot, placing his 51st-minute penalty into the bottom-right corner before beating an outstretched Tambakis to the opposite side 29 minutes later.

“It’s a feel thing.” Allen said of handling spot kick duties. “It depends how I feel in the moment. Sometimes I will change it up. Matt LaGrassa helped me out a lot by getting the ball quickly so I didn’t have too much time to think about it. He deserves a lot of credit on my goals for getting me the ball.”  

Allen’s third and fourth successful penalties of the season proved to be critical to Nashville’s playoff hopes as the side climbed into eighth place in the Eastern Conference and maintained a four-point advantage over North Carolina as the team heads home for a pair of pivotal games against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charleston Battery.

“It was absolutely vital that we got something from this,” NSC Head Coach Gary Smith said. “All three subs that came on had a tremendous impact on the game. All in all, we have not been at our best, we conceded our most goals, but we have shown an awful lot of character. We will keep Carolina at arm’s length four points back. We have five home games to look forward to now, some are against tough teams. We have produced our best soccer at home and we will need to do that down the stretch.”

RIVERHOUNDS SWEEP STEEL ASIDE: Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC completed a regular season sweep of Pennsylvania rivals Bethlehem Steel FC with a 4-1 victory Friday at Highmark Stadium maintaining the second spot in the Eastern Conference and dealing a serious blow to the visitors’ playoff hopes in the process.

The Hounds’ four-goal performance matched their highest-scoring outing of the season, but after the match Pittsburgh Head Coach Bob Lilley was critical of his team’s defensive performance despite holding Steel FC to just two shots on target.

“We had good moments in the game where we looked dynamic, but frankly even at 2-1 up we were open,” Lilley said. “Had they came back and tied us again, we could have been in trouble.”

A late first-half goal by Kenardo Forbes proved to be enough after Bethlehem had equalized on a penalty kick in the 35th minute. Top scorer Neco Brett and midfielder Jordan Dover added second-half goals to secure the three points as Pittsburgh snapped a three-game winless run.

“We’ve been performing fairly well over these past few games. It’s just things haven’t quite gone our way,” Dover said. “I think we’ve been a little bit unlucky, so it’s finally nice to be rewarded for another good performance.”

CHARLOTTE CLOSES THE GAP: With their backs against the wall, the Charlotte Independence claimed a 2-1 victory over the Richmond Kickers on Saturday at the Sportsplex at Matthews to climb closer to the Eastern Conference playoff places.

Eamon Zayed’s fifth-minute chip got the home side started and Jake Areman showed off his poacher’s instinct to double the lead after half time when he took advantage of a mistake from Kickers goalkeeper Trevor Spangenberg.

“It’s a great feeling,” Areman said of scoring the game-winner. “On the play itself, I knew we were stepping high as a team and when that back pass went in I thought I could catch the goalie off his line. I don’t think he saw me coming and at the last second he tried to cut it back but I was prepared for it and it was just an easy finish at that point.”

Raul Gonzalez gave the Kickers a lifeline with 18 minutes remaining when he fired home from the center of the penalty area, but the Independence held on for a crucial three points that now leave them just four points behind eighth-place Nashville for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“We know we don’t have any room for error, especially on a home date,” said Independence Head Coach Mike Jeffries. “There’s no real option for us not to get it done. The guys knew that and they put a tremendous amount of energy into tonight.”

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