Coastal Carolina University came to Blackbaud Stadium with a winning reputation and might have added the Charleston Battery to their list of victories but for a remarkable single-handed goal by midfielder Jose Cuevas.
The Battery prevailed 2-1.
Cuevas opened the scoring early in the first half when he settled a flick-on header from Evier Cordovez near the penalty spot, which brought the keeper and a center back rushing toward him. All three seemed to collide at once, but somehow Cuevas emerged on his feet, and the ball leaked through the pile-up as if drawn toward him. The 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year tapped into the empty net.
Nothing else Thursday night would be that easy.
The Chanticleers found their equalizer early in the second half. After a steady build up worked the ball into Charleston’s third, No. 16 settled the ball at his feet around the right corner of the box and fired far-post. Substitute keeper Kevin Klasila dove to his left with full extension, but the shot rifled just beyond his reach.
I wish I could offer more certain about the identity of the CCU goalscorer. I asked a member of the team staff after the match to identify the scorer for me, and was told the shot came from Simon Laugsand. Except Laugsand is listed on the CCU spring soccer roster as No. 12, and No. 16 on their roster, Matt Risher, looks quite a bit like the person I saw bury that shot. Both are tall, strong young men, which would happen to work as a fair description for the majority of the Chanticleers on display tonight.
In their three previous matches against college teams, the Battery earned a 12-1 goal differential, and at times it looked like that GD was kind. This match was nothing like that. The Chanticleers matched up to the Battery physically across the pitch, didn’t back down from a challenge, and showed enough skill to mount repeated attacks. I’d bet that if there’d been an OPTA statistician on duty we’d see that the Battery had the advantage on possession, but it wouldn’t have been a huge imbalance.
HEY JOSE: Fortunately for Charleston, in the past week Cuevas seems to have picked up where his successful 2012 campaign ended and significantly expanded his role. At the beginning of the Carolina Challenge Cup, Coach Mike Anheuser deployed him as a single striker, with 2012 leading goal scorer Nicki Paterson playing an aggressive central mindfield role. But since Paterson’s groin injury in the Houston win, Anhaeuser has pulled Cuevas into that Paterson role, calling on his attacking ace to play a more complete game.
I asked Cuevas after the match whether they had discussed tweaking that role a bit for this game, and he gave a long, thoughtful answer that I would be sharing with you right now if I hadn’t doubled-tapped the Record button for that portion of the interview. But the gist was “yes.” According to Cuevas, the coach talked with him about picking his opportunities to get forward against the Chanticleers, and he didn’t hesitate to attack when he felt a chance coming on.
The Chanticleers did a yeoman job of shutting down set-pieces and more traditional attacks all night, but had no answer for Cuevas’ pure individual talent on his second goal.
Acquiring the ball at midfield with a man on him, no Battery player forward and the CCU back line in decent position, Cuevas went on a one-man raid. Running slightly left with with the defender on his shoulder, Cuevas sensed space beyond and kicked the ball ahead in what was essentially a pass to himself. His sprint to the ball put his opponent on his hip, and as he regained control at top speed in the box with a second defender closing in, he somehow managed to square himself and get off a low strike that beat the diving keeper to the far post.
Trust me: If there would have been video, it would be on the highlight reels.
Another highlight reel nomination would have to go to goalkeeper Kevin Klasila’s best save of the evening. The Battery fended off several serious attacks with quick-twitch responses at the goal mouth, which is not generally something you want to hear about a match against even a high-quality college team like CCU. I noticed at least two occasions where Battery defenders had to backstop the keepers with kick saves. But with about 10 minutes remaining, a sudden Chanticleer attack put a sharply struck shot on goal right in front of Klasila. The Battery’s No. 1 keeper’s punch-save reaction on the point-blank shot was not only talented but clutch, as it preserved the 2-1 win.
GAME NOTES: Defender Taylor Mueller got another start at right back Thursday night and turned in another solid performance. He wasn’t impressed with the results, though.
“We were sloppy tonight,” Mueller said. “Our passing wasn’t where it needed to be. Our shape wasn’t as good as it has been, not quite as much in the defensive area… and the midfield, too. I mean, we’ve got injuries and guys that are sick right now, so our legs are a bit run down because we had one day in between games.”
BTW, if you read Tuesday’s game report, you know that Mueller scored a fluke goal against Georgia Southern that befuddled practically everyone in the stadium — so much so that I had to go ask the team after fulltime who had launched the errant chip pass that hung in the gusty sky and floated over the head of the keeper before rolling into the empty goal. But it turns out the fans weren’t the only ones who didn’t get a good look at what happened.
“I didn’t even see it go in, to be honest,” Mueller said, laughing. “I looked away in frustration, actually. I was trying to pick out Dane Kelly over the top and it went too far.”
UNLEASHING CHANG: Maikel Chang, the last of Charleston’s three players from the 2012 Cuban National Team to see action this preaseason, made his debut with about 10 minutes remaining. It wasn’t much time for an audition, but to be blunt about it, this kid flashed showstopping talent at least three times in his short appearance. You don’t want to hang too much on so little by someone so young, but let’s be conservative and say that Battery fans have reason to be cautiously optimistic about what Chang could mean for this team.
His first touch was a deft piece of footwork that put a defender out of position at midfield and launched an attack that ended with a sharp pass into the box by Sean Ferguson. Cuevas managed to graze it with his forehead, but couldn’t make enough solid contact to put it on frame. Chang’s second touch initiated another attack, this time with a flick-on header that found Gibson Bardsley in a forward spot. Bardsley’s sweet back-heel pass went straight to the feet of Jarad van Schaik, but his attempt on goal was ruined when he slipped on the turf. There was a lot of that going around late in the second half for both team, as the evening dew formed and sent players sliding around like cars on black ice.
Finally — and it came to exactly nothing, but I’ll note it here anyway — Chang challenged one defender with a quick series of stepovers and foot skill. It didn’t completely break him down, and it didn’t create a great chance for the Battery, but it was so fluid and so sudden that it made you take note.
Since the Cuban players are still learning English, Cuevas has served as their translator to the team and coaching staff. I asked him about the young Cuban’s recovery from a hamstring injury he picked up the first week in camp.
“We’re taking it step by step,” Cuevas said. “It’s still really early in the preseason so we’re not trying to risk anything. We’re trying to get his fitness back in. But, I mean, you saw it in the 10 minutes (he played). He had good touches, good ball control, good passes. He’s a good player, so once he gets healthy again it’s going to be good for us.”
My favorite part of his answer, by the way, was that Jose laughed just a bit at the end, as if to indicate that the “it’s going to be good for us” conclusion was an obvious understatement.
Oh, and if anyone can remember the weird source of the “Unleashing Chang” cultural reference, leave it in comments and I’ll give you a cheap prize or something.
A PRINCE AMONG UTILITY MEN: The Battery list Zach Prince as a forward, but people have been telling me for weeks that’s he’s really something of a utility player. He’s played a lot of minutes this preseason, usually in a wide midfield spot, but also as a full back and a forward. And I keep mentioning him in these reports, because he just keeps making positive plays no matter where Anhaeuser lines him up.
My notes have him entering tonight’s match at the start of the second half, with mentions for two sweet passes and one great tackle. But what struck me tonight was that he started out at right midfield, but within about 10 minutes he was ranging so far to the left trying to pressure the ball that it was like he was playing at least two positions. It seemed to be working, too.
A player with that kind of smooth athleticism and versatility is good to have around, but I hate to hang the “utility player” label on anyone. Prince doesn’t avoid it.
“Pretty much over the past – this will be my fourth year now – I’ve kinda … been the utility player. I kinda fill in wherever. I just kinda accept the role. I guess (Anhaeuser) likes the guys that are in the spots that I normally play, maybe attacking mid, maybe forward, he likes to let guys like Jose, Nicki play there, both our leading goal scorers. So he has me playing out wide right now. And that’s fine with me.”
What about covering so much turf tonight?
“That’s just kinda the role I’ve been playing, just kinda playing a free-flowing role, ” he said. “But at the same time it’s just all situational, when you’d maybe go over to the left side or pressure a center back or something. Maybe you saw me sliding over to the middle and maybe Jose slid out wide a little bit more. We tend to do that kinda switch sometimes because both of us, we can play across the midfield. I kinda flow wherever.”
And when you listen to the way he describes his style of play, you get the sense that this is a young man with a clear idea of how he can contribute.
“I’ve always been a player who gets the ball and looks to combine with people,” he said. “I might dribble one or two people, but that’s not my game. I don’t fly past people or anything. I don’t have the speed and the strength to do it all the time. So I kinda look to combine. I like to try to slip someone through and open the field up a little bit. ”
That combo style of his created a through-ball scoring opportunity tonight.
TWO UP TOP: Coach Anhaeuser mentioned that he might need to try two forwards with this lineup because of the need to generate more offense. In the first half that meant Dane Kelly and Evier Cordovez up top in what looked like a standard 4-4-2 approach. And it paid dividends, too, with Cordovez setting up Cuevas’s first goal.
Both Corodvez and Kelly left the match after the first half, which meant the second half opened with Gibson Bardsley and Austin Savage in those positions. I’m not sure whether that changed the formation per se, but the style of attack looked different to me in the second half.
BATTERY STARTERS: Goalkeeper: Odisnel Cooper. Defenders: Right back, Taylor Mueller, left back, Quinton Griffith, center backs, Cody Ellison and Colin Falvey (captain). Midfielders: Left, Jarad van Schaik, right, Austin Savage, defensive central, Michael Azira, central, Jose Cuevas. Forwards: Dane Kelly, Evier Cordovez. SUBSTITUTES: Kevin Klasila, Zach Prince, Gibson Bardsley, Ralph Lundy III, Sean Ferguson.