So concludes April — the cruelest month, according to poet T.S. Eliot and every Battery fan that gathered at Molly Darcy’s on the 13th to watch the 2012 USL PRO champions implode in a bewildering 1-4 road loss at Richmond.
I start with that downbeat result instead of the two upbeat home wins because the defeat at Richmond began the season by posing a question. Despite all the good feelings from the Charleston Battery’s memorable preseason and the high expectations that come with returning 12 players from a champions squad, was this new 2013 beast just a paper tiger? Anomalous matches are part of the sport — every team has them — but when they occur early, their psychological significance is magnified. As Battery veteran John Wilson says of mental toughness, he’s seen players who are done for the night if they make a bad pass in the first five minutes. And the same can be said for some teams.
So when the Battery returned to Charleston for the first of their two April home games, that’s the question the team needed to answer: Would they step up? And though it’s a cliche, it’s a cliche for a reason: You can’t answer that question in interviews. You can only answer it on the field.
In one sense, the team caught a bit of a scheduling break, drawing two of the league’s current bottom-table residents in Antigua Barracuda and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. To make things easier, the league’s practice of scheduling road trips for minimum cost instead of maximum competitiveness brought both Antigua and Pittsburgh to Charleston on less than 24 hours rest. But that’s Division 3 soccer, and just like on the field, you have to finish your chances.
Anyway, there’s the answer: The Battery met their first adversity of the season by coming home and doing their jobs like professionals. Trainer Bobby Weisenberger said the Richmond game was a wake-up call, and while the team we watched the last two weeks might not have been perfect, it never once looked in danger of nodding off.
So we move forward with a new question the team will answer over the course of five games in May: Now that they’ve got the initial yips out of their system, can the Battery keep their focus on the road? Because everything is about to get harder.
The road ahead
Anyway, here’s hoping you enjoyed our languid April, with its plentiful time for players to relax and recover and train in a predictable routine. Because May begins on Wednesday, and you can throw April right out the bus window.
The Battery played three games in April. In May, they’ll play seven of them, with four of those seven coming on the road in two road trips book-ended around a home rivalry match.
Plus, these are anything but cream-puff play dates.
Harrisburg City, the Battery’s first road opponent of the month (Wednesday, May 1), is also its final guest of May (Friday, May 31). And Harrisburg is red hot right now, winning 2-1 on the road — twice — to open its season against Pittsburgh and the Colorado Rockies Reserves. To celebrate their successful road trip, the Islanders welcomed the Rochester Rhinos to town on Saturday with a 5-1 smackdown. They’re now 3-0-0 and in third place in the league table, despite playing half as many games as VSI Tampa Bay FC, the other team with nine points. A home win against Charleston would establish them as one of the top teams in USL PRO this season.
Two nights later the Battery pull into Dayton, where the Dutch Lions (2-1-0) will be well-rested after their only loss so far — to Orlando City Lions, who are generally considered the team to beat this season, just as they were last season. And you can bet that Gibson Bardsley, the Lions’ top scorer in 2012 and a near-miss Battery trialist this spring, will be gunning for Charleston.
Coming out of either of those games with points would make this first multi-game roadtrip a successful northern swing.
The Battery get a week off after Dayton before facing their rivals from North Carolina, the Wilmington Hammerheads. Charleston toyed with Wilmington in a March 23 friendly, but the Hammerheads were far behind the local boys in their preseason preparations. On paper, the Battery would appear to have an advantage, but rivalry games are funny that way.
After that, the Battery play back-to-back away matches, and each will entail a separate trip. The Charlotte Eagles are one of the surprise teams of the 2013 season, with eight points on four games, all of them at home. Charleston plays them on Thursday, May 14, comes back to Charleston, and then flies out to Houston to play the Dynamo Reserves on Sunday, May 19. It’s one of only two flights the team has scheduled this season.
That’s four road matches, with one rivalry game at Blackbaud Stadium, spread out over 19 days.
The Battery will close out May with two home games in six days (Rochester on Saturday, May 25th, and Harrisburg City on Friday, May 31), but those are probably better understood as the first half of the team’s longest home stand of 2013, which stretches over four matches between May 25th and June 8th.
If the Battery can win its home game against Wilmington and find three or four points in its upcoming four road games, then they’ll begin that four-game May-June home stand in good shape. But doing that is going to require a different kind of mental toughness.
Yes, the Charlotte Eagles look pluckable, but they’re undefeated at home so far. And the Battery will certainly be up against it in Harrisburg, Dayton and Houston.
I suspect we got some clues on Saturday as to what that means for Charleston.
Two ways of winning ugly
Several people I spoke to Saturday night described the 2-0 victory over Pittsburgh as either “ugly” or “not pretty.” And I’d agree.
Then again, the 4-0 win over Antigua wasn’t actually pretty, either. Yes, it was dominant, generating 27 Battery shots, but it was also a strangely disjointed affair marked by near-misses, questionable calls and too many unfinished chances. Rarely do you sense so much frustration when you talk to players after a blowout win.
But while Antigua lived down to expectations, the Riverhounds are a better team than their record would indicate, and they came to town with an admirably defiant chip on their collective shoulders.
So was Saturday night really all that ugly? Or was it more the way Coach Mike Anhaeuser described it afterward: A template for the kind of hard-fought road results the Battery will need to generate to return to the top of the table? Because the Battery didn’t try to dance around the Riverhounds. They played tough, direct, physical footy.
Several people associated with the Battery have mentioned to me that the loss at Richmond might have been the result of opening things up too much on the road. The Battery, you will recall, outplayed the Kickers en route to a 1-2 halftime deficit, and then fell apart late as the Richmond counterattack made them pay.
With that memory fresh in their minds, and coming off of two consecutive shutouts, I’ll be surprised if the Battery show us anything besides a conservative, blue-collar approach on this week’s northern swing. A few ugly 1-1 results wouldn’t look bad on the upcoming schedule.
The lineup… so far
As we evaluate the Battery’s April performances, it’s worth remembering that we still haven’t seen the team deploy in what appears to be — at least on paper — its best XI. I spoke to Amadou Sanyang Saturday night and he said his head is better (he suffered a concussion on March 30) and he expects to play this week when the team travels to Harrisburg and Dayton. He was available but unused Saturday night — probably a wise and forward-thinking move by the staff. But when he does step onto the field, it will be for the first time this season.
It’s impossible to say whether the team will be better immediately with the athletic Sanyang at defensive mid. Both Michael Azira and Jarad van Schaik have done a good job filling that role in his absence. But if the Battery are able to play both their most athletic defensive midfielder and their most clever offensive midfielder — 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas — this week, then all sorts of things fall into place.
Cuevas sat out the April home stand with a hamstring injury picked up in the first half against Richmond. That made room in the lineup for Ben Fisk and later Zach Prince. Fisk responded with a goal and an assist in his one start, while Prince provided a goal and two assists in a start and a substitute appearance. Not bad. But the thing to understand about those replacements is that with Cuevas out, the person who spent most of the time filling his role was Azira, who started out in Sanyang’s spot against Richmond but rotated forward to take Cuevas’ place in central midfield against Antigua and Pittsburgh.
While there’s always a terminology question about Cuevas — is he a forward or a central attacking midfielder? — the distinctions are rather abstract. Cuevas is an attacker who can work centrally or wide, either laying back or pushing forward. With Nicki Paterson running amok and a defensive midfielder behind him, Cuevas’ natural inclination is to move forward and create. Azira’s interpretation of the position is more balanced, not so much creating offensively as remaining alertly poised to exploit an opening or track back to win possession in midfield.
Styles of play
What’s too bad about this — to me, anyway — is that when I look ahead to the compressed schedule in May and the rotational platooning and conservative philosophy it will likely demand, it’s not clear that we’ll see what appeared to be Anhaeuser’s pre-season preferred Best XI on the field simultaneously any time soon.
My guess — and please understand that Anhaeuser never said this to me, I’m only extrapolating from what I saw in the preseason — is that Anhaueser’s choice for that first trip to Richmond would have been Cooper in goal, Mark Wiltse and John Wilson at right and left backs, Colin Falvey and Cody Ellison at centerback, Amadou Sanyang at DM, Nicki Paterson at center mid, Cuevas at attacking center mid, Jarad van Schaik at left mid, Quinton Griffith at right wing, and Dane Kelly at forward.
From the few glimpses I got of this lineup, it’s sort of a nominal 4-5-1 defensive alignment with a deep holding midfielder and attacking fullbacks. It morphs very easily into either a fluid 4-3-3, with Griffith and Cuevas pushing ahead, or a swarming defensive unit with Paterson tracking back deep. It might or might not be Anhaeuser’s most effective unit — who knows? — but it certainly appeared to be the prettiest.
With four road games in 19 days, it wouldn’t surprise me if Anhaeuser swapped out some of his offensive options for players who excel in more stay-at-home roles.
RB/CB Taylor Mueller hasn’t played since the season opener at Richmond. He’s due to get back in the mix. Michael Azira has started three games in place of injured players, but might be difficult to remove. He appears to be in good shape and excellent form.
There is no player on the current roster who isn’t ready to contribute something, although Anhaeuser has previously said that he intends to bring along Maikel Chang a bit more cautiously due to injuries. So this road trip could see substitutes getting starts and minutes, and lots of people coming off the bench. When they’re healthy, the Battery have a depth advantage over most teams in the league.
Check back tomorrow for a closer look at the Battery’s matchup against the Harrisburg City Islanders.