Back to the basics, into the playoffs

Back to the basics, into the playoffs
Dane Kelly and Austin Savage run down a ball in a 6v2 drill designed to emphasize a defensive fundamental. It's a drill Coach Anhaeuser likes to run on the first day of camp each year.

Dane Kelly and Austin Savage run down a ball in a 6v2 drill designed to emphasize a defensive fundamental. It’s a drill Coach Anhaeuser likes to run on the first day of camp each year.

There are few luxuries in USL PRO, but by quirk of scheduling, the Charleston Battery have enjoyed the luxury of time over the past few days.

On Friday, the fifth-place Charlotte Eagles prepared themselves for the first of two back-to-back matches, each holding the potential to lift the Eagles as high as the third in the league table (instead, they drew at VSI Tampa, lost at Orlando, and wound up where they’d started — fifth place). Meanwhile, in Charleston, the guys from the Battery picked up some camouflage from the thrift store and headed out to shoot each other with paintball guns.

On Saturday morning, as the players from Dayton were preparing for the most important match of their season, the guys from Charleston were eating the breakfast fry-up at Molly Darcy’s and bathing in the warm glow of the first day of English Premier League football.

And on Sunday, as the rest of the league recovered from an occasionally intense final weekend of play, the Battery took to their training field for what Coach Mike Anhaeuser described as “a great session.” Afterward, they showered up and went to a picnic with The Regiment, where they got loved-all-over by a bunch of fans who clearly appreciate what Anhaeuser’s men have accomplished as a unit.

On Monday morning, Anhaeuser hung out in a downpour after a two-hour training session to talk a bit about the playoffs.”We’re on our second session (of the week),” he said. “I’ve got to taper off. You can’t do six session in a row. This isn’t preseason.”

So if you want your team heading into the playoffs loose, rested and ready for more, you look at all those data points and say “Yeah. That’ll do.”

The road ahead

OK, let’s get all the caveats out of the way first. Athletes going into a playoff can never look ahead of the game in front of them. Every professional opponent is dangerous (don’t get me started again on the first 30 minutes of Thursday’s match against Antigua). Los Angeles is a tough, skilled team.

But Anhaeuser and team captains Colin Falvey and John Wilson will make sure the Battery show up Saturday night at 7:30 with their heads on straight. And while they can’t talk about the shape of the playoff field, we certainly can. Because while sport is full of surprises, it’s also shaped by trends.

TREND NO. 1: The Battery finished on an upswing. Back on July 16, as the stretch run started coming into focus, I did a team-by-team analysis of the league as a way of comparing expectations based on the remaining schedule. Bottom line? Charleston finished three points above their predicted base line — enough to elevate them  from 7th place on July 16th to 3rd place on Aug. 17. The Battery did it by earning wins against Richmond and at Phoenix where the model predicted ties, and only losing once (at Wilmington) when the model predicted a draw. The Battery went 6-2-0 to finish out the season, and those three extra points proved to be the difference between the 3rd seed and the predicted 5th seed.

TREND NO. 2: The Blues finished on a downslope.  Not a slump. Not a panic. But just as Charleston found three unpredicted points, the Blues dropped three points the model suggested were theirs for the taking. Los Angeles was in third place on July 16, and finished in the 6th spot — barely edging past Pittsburgh with a late home win against Rochester on Saturday night. The crucial games: Dropped two points to Richmond and only getting a point out of a visit from Harrisburg. Los Angeles went 2-2-2 over the final month of the season.

TREND NO. 3:  You don’t want to host Pittsburgh. A month ago the Riverhounds looked like road kill. They were stuck in 10th place with a mediocre record, and the schedule analysis model suggested the trend would continue (it predicted them to end the year on 27 points, in the 10th spot). Instead, the Riverhounds went 5-2-2, generating an additional 11 points and seizing the 7th seed. So yes, it helps to have games in hand late, but Pittsburgh did its work against heavyweights, taking four points from Orlando, a point from Richmond, and basically knocking VSI Tampa Bay out of the playoffs with home-and-away wins. They travel to Orlando on Saturday.

TREND NO. 4: Charlotte has been running down. Charleston suffered through a flat spell during the middle of the season, with too many league matches and Open Cup dates packed into too little calendar, but saw the skies clear for them in the final month. Not so Charlotte. The model predicted the finishing position of 11 teams to within one game (three points), missing only on Pittsburgh’s hot streak and the Eagles’ unexpected slump. Charlotte finished five points below their predicted total,  Charlotte went 2-3-3, and basically blew their chance at hosting a playoff game when Phoenix FC came to the Queen City and pounded the Eagles 4-0 for the Wolves only road win of 2013.

Charlotte closed out the season with the dreaded 2×24 road trip to Florida, which is harsh for any team — but the model took that into account. Because of their Phoenix loss  on July 27, they now have to travel to Harrisburg to salvage their once-promising 2013 campaign.

TREND NO. 5: Orlando didn’t lose the Commissioner’s Cup — Richmond took it. Conventional wisdom said that Richmond would plummet once it went on the road in the back half of the season, but the Kickers lost only one match (to Charleston), beat their predicted stretch production by three points, and forced their way past Orlando. That’s remarkable. But it it’s not as if Orlando fell apart. The Lions wound up only a point off their predicted 17 … and (not counting tie-breakers) wound up only one point out of first.

There’s no doubt that Richmond and Orlando deserved the top two spots in the playoffs. They earned them. But it’s also true that both teams were just a bit off the mid-season form that made them both look so dominant.

In Orlando’s case, that has a lot to do with the loss of Dom Dwyer and Yann Songo’o. But it also has to do with teams figuring out their weaknesses — and exploiting them.

AND IF YOU’RE COUNTING TRENDS: Take a look at Charleston’s injury report. The Battery had not had everyone on this roster capable of training simultaneously until the week before their final match. Not only that, players who had been nominally healthy — but not in top form — have been working things out.

Back to basics

Coach Mike Anhaeuser takes part in drills on Monday.

Near the end of Charleston’s training session on Monday morning, Anhaeuser broke out a drill he used on the first day of training camp — a 6v2 exercise that emphasizes a not-too-complex point.

“It’s more for the defenders, just to step, and work, and then dropping,” he said. “You step, and if you don’t get it, you drop, because that’s so important. In a game, when you get lazy, you’ll step, you stay, and then the guy passes in behind you. Whereas if you drop one or two yards, you stick your foot out, you get it. And if we do that five or six extra times, especially at home, we’re going to be in good shape.

“You’ve got to get back in those habits, because sometimes you do get a little bit sloppy at the end of the season. You get tired. Or maybe you haven’t played a game in a little while. So it’s more to get back to that. Something simple.”

That seems to be the theme for the early part of the week. Back to basics on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and then breaking things down and getting ready for Los Angeles with the remaining training time.

“The good thing is, we’ve played them twice in the last six weeks, so it’s not like we don’t know the players and what we need to do. But we want to refresh those things and make sure you don’t get caught. You know, (by forward Matt) Fondy up top. And then the guys that maybe caused us a problem.”

But of course, the Laws of Combat clearly state that “If the enemy is in range, so are you.” Anhaeuser acknowledged that, but offered this to go with it: “They really struggled to stop us, so their work is maybe a little harder. For us, it’s more, ‘Hey, don’t make a mistake.'”

So does the luxury of time heading into the playoffs work to the Battery’s advantage? It certainly looked that way on Monday when the team moved on to finishing drills. While it’s not unusual to see every third, fourth or fifth player doink one awkwardly away in these pass-and-shoot drills, on Monday the Battery ran through their entire unit before the first player whiffed.

“I think it’s more keeping loose, getting back to the basics, and now getting them focused. Which you could see – that was pretty good quality today, and they were really playing hard.”

So far, so good.