Almost 5,200 people saw at least one of the Carolina Challenge Cup matches on opening night — an event that’s often almost as much a local celebration of the return to Blackbaud stadium as it is about the game itself.
The CCC’s mid-week installment is typically much more focused on the pitch. The crowds are usually smaller, the tailgating more perfunctory, and the people who show up to watch are a bit more hardcore.
So let’s get geeky.
CHARLESTON vs D.C. UNITED
Black & Red
First off, let’s remember that these are preseason matches — three of them in three days. So when you’re looking at rosters and trying to predict lineups, do so with some humility. Yes, winning is part of the agenda, but it’s not the top thing on these coaches’ to-do list.
But if we learned anything from Ben Olsen’s starters on Saturday, it’s that United took a hard look at 2013 and came back with a massively upgraded squad that emphasizes proven veterans over youth.
Gone are names like Daniel Woolard, James Riley, Ethan White and Lionard Pajoy. Remember Dwayne De Rosario, once the most dangerous attacking midfielder in North America? He fell down the DCU rabbit hole in 2013, and returned to Toronto in 2014.
Now consider this list of veteran replacements: CB Bobby Boswell, 30; D Sean Franklin, 28; LB Cristian Fernandez; 28, M Davy Arnaud, 33; F Fabian Espindola, 28; F Eddie Johnson, 29.
With the possible exception of the cagey Arnaud, five of the six are all in the midst of that soccer-playing Goldilocks Zone (not too young, not too old),where the body can still exploit the opportunities that the veteran mind recognizes. It’s a group that emphasizes defense and goal-scoring, two obvious need areas. And you can look at Olsen’s roster and see how each one fits directly into a logical role.
Not only that, but they were acquired in sensible ways. Boswell (Houston) and Franklin (L.A. Galaxy) were the top names in the MLS re-entry draft, and by nabbing both of them, United’s defense got instant credibility. Arnaud (Montreal) is generally considered an intelligent central midfielder, and Espindola was a top scoring threat until Real Salt Lake let him walk after 2012. He spent last season in New York, scoring nine goals.
The marquee star among the group is obviously Johnson, who resurrected a foundering overseas career during a two-year stint in Seattle that produced 23 goals and a successful return to the forefront of the U.S. National Team. He can be an irritant, but he’s an undisputed game changer, and D.C. got him for nothing but MLS allocation money.
The new player who probably turned the most heads on Saturday was Fernandez, who wears the name “Cristian” on his United jersey. A veteran of La Liga sides Racing Santander, Las Palmas and Almeria, he never made it to top-league stardom, and didn’t arrive with an expensive Designated Player price tag. But he absolutely dogged Houston’s attackers in the first match of this year’s CCC, and that bodes well for United.
On draft day, United pulled this year’s slickest move, swapping the first pick to Philadelphia for allocation money and the second pick, which they used to nab this year’s consensus top prospect, California centerback Steve Birenbaum (the Union moved up to pre-empt Washington dealing the pick to Vancouver, which reportedly coveted Jamaican goalkeeper Andre Blake).
United made all these moves while retaining the team’s core of young stars: Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, 23; defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen, 21; and left midfielder Nick DeLeon, 23. Twenty-five-year-old central attacking mid Luis Silva played well enough after a midseason transfer from Toronto to elevate himself to consideration for that group, as well. All have either played for the USA at the youth level, or are considered candidates for a future first-team call-up.
That leaves one player with a big question mark by his name: Winger/forward Chris Pontius.
The 26-year-old suffered through a miserable 2013 after earning top honors in the 2012 MLS All-Star Game. He’s coming off yet another surgery, and is nowhere near full strength, according to the club.
But when Pontius is healthy, he’s also one one of the best outside players America has to offer.
How good could this squad be? Look at it this way: United has seven players on the American Soccer Now Top 100 (Johnson 22, Pontius 41, Kitchen 58, Hamid 62, DeLeon 67, Franklin 93, and Silva 99). That’s just a sick amount of talent for an MLS team, and that doesn’t even include its international players.
And let’s not forget that there’s a USL PRO angle to this game, too. Richmond benefited from more MLS talent in 2013 than any team not named Orlando City Lions, and most of it came on loan from United. D.C. cut forward Casey Townsend late last week, but midfielder Conor Shanosky is still with the team, as is former Battery goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra.
While it’s anybody’s guess who DC will loan out this season, one name to watch might be forward Michael Seaton, the late-game sub who bashed in the insurance goal against Houston on Saturday. Here’s why: He’s not only United’s first homegrown player, he’s also the first MLS player who is younger than the league. Which is to say, he’s 16.
Black & Gold
Charleston hasn’t found its finishing groove yet, but it played 90 quality minutes against a strong Seattle Sounders squad on Saturday. Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser‘s focus for mid-week? Prove you can do it again.
“It’s more about trying to produce the same performance. because we did do well,” he said Tuesday. “And sometimes that’s about energy. You’re excited, the crowd, everything. Now it’s gonna be, the second game, maybe a few guys played some extra minutes, legs are little heavy. Can we produce the same performance again? And that’s really what I’m concerned about.”
Anhaeuser said he expects to get more players into the game as substitutes, and will maybe change one or two starters from Saturday’s unit (GK Andy Ramos, LB John Wilson, CB Shawn Ferguson, CB Colin Falvey, RB Taylor Mueller, midfielders Quinton Griffin, Zach Prince, Amadou Sanyang, Jarad van Schaik and Mike Azira, plus forward Dane Kelly).
One of those changes may not be Anhaeuser’s decision. Azira has been fighting for a roster spot with the Seattle Sounders for about a month. The Cascadia club returned him to the Battery for their head-to-head matchup Saturday, but want him wearing green for the rest of the CCC. Anhaeuser called the discussions “ongoing.”
“It’s an absolutely rare (situation),” Anhaeuser said. “You want to give people opportunities, and at the same time, I’d want to play him 90 minutes. We’ve talked about it and we’ll see. But discussions are going on about it.”
Look for the Battery to try “a couple of guys” at different positions, too. And Anhaeuser says he’s still curious to try Kelly and Heviel Cordoves at the top of his formation. “I want to see them together without trying to ask them to do certain things.”
Lots of Battery fans spent much of 2013 clamoring for a two-forward attack, but without much depth at the position, Anhaeuser typically held Cordoves in reserve and played with only Kelly up top. Cordoves returns for 2014 looking much lighter and faster, but whether he can hold up to regular minutes remains to be proven. His Wichita and North Charleston roommate, Maikel Chang, is also looking for his first Battery action of the preseason.
The Battery’s two new Vanouver loanees — centerback Jackson Farmer and midfielder Marlon Ramirez — are scheduled to arrive Tuesday night, and though they could get some minutes, that decision won’t be made until Wednesday. That could leave the team shorthanded, so it’s possible as many as two S.C. United Battery Academy players could suit up.
The gates open at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island at 4 p.m. for the 5 p.m. match between Houston and Seattle. Charleston vs. D.C. United follows at 7:15. The Regiment will be tailgating, but it’s a liquid tailgate (no food) for midweek. Tickets are still available.
TOP IMAGE: D.C. United newcomers Cristian Fernandez and Eddie Johnson join young star Perry Kitchen in challenging Houston Dynamo starters Will Bruin, David Horst and Tony Cascio on a set piece Saturday night at Blackbaud Stadium. Dan Conover photos.