If we get a simple one there, and it comes across the front of that baby, put it in. Don’t smash it. Put the ball in the net. It’s not about being pretty. It’s about scoring a goal.
— Mike Anhaeuser, Monday, Aug. 19, 2013
Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser wrapped up the team’s Monday morning training session with a simple finishing drill: A pass to a man on the left, a pass back to the shooter, and a finish into an open net. One, two, three. Pass, return, finish.
And the Battery players took to it like a New York foodie to a five-star Charleston bistro, too, one after the other, each man’s rhythm building off the last, the ball popping easily back and forth, pass, return, finish.
Until it came to Mike Azira.
“Yeah, I didn’t make any goals!” he said Saturday night, basking in the glow of the Battery’s 2-1 playoff win over the L.A. Blues. “We did the drill, and the entire session I didn’t score any goals.”
It wasn’t like he was just a little off, either. His first try soared high over the crossbar. Subsequent tries weren’t any better. It was like in a room full of people doing the waltz, Azira was doing a polka.
“I just had to keep my head up,” Azira said. “I talked to my wife about it, and she told me ‘Don’t worry.'”
The point of the drill — like several of the things Anaheuser planned for Monday’s training — was to bring the Battery back to the basics. With all the pressure of playoff soccer, he said, reminding the men about the little things, the basic things, can make the difference when it counts.
“Sometimes it’s not about being pretty,” Anhaeuser said Monday morning.. “It’s not blasting it. It’s just finishing it off.”
So fast-forward to Saturday night, in the 71st minute. Charleston leads 1-0 and seems to have the game in hand, but it’s becoming worrisome that so many Battery chances have come up empty. Azira has turned in another yeoman shift in central midfield, winning balls, keeping the defense connected to the attack, the typically non-glamorous tasks that define his job.
Only there’s a counter attack developing, and when Azira takes possession, there’s space in front of him. So he takes it, takes some more of it, drawing the right back his way.
That leaves room for winger Quinton Griffith. He’s had an active, occasionally spectacular night, but he’s pressing a bit as the game wears on. Some of his best passes have created chances for teammates who’ve been unable to close the deal. Two of his most recent touches have ended with his own errant blasts from distance.
But when Azira plays to ball out to him on the left side, Griffith keeps it elegantly simple. He takes it in stride, draws the Blues his way, and then passes back to the center of the field… where Azira has continued his run unabated.
Pass, return, finish.
Azira runs onto Griffith’s classic return like a man picking up the mail on his way home from work. No drama, no wasted motion or energy, barely a second thought. “I saw it was an easy tap,” he said. “As soon as I played it wide, I just said ‘Let me keep on running,’ and it just came back to me. It was good, man.”
Anhaeuser laughs abruptly when reminded of his little back-to-basics reset from earlier in the week.
“So sometimes you get something right in practice and sometimes you don’t, but I’ll tell you: Give Mike Azira credit, because those aren’t as easy as you think sometimes. And you saw him (on Monday) going over the top of the net.”
The match in retrospect
There are all sorts of reasons to say that the Battery’s 2-1 was a fortunate outcome to an evenly played night of soccer. After all, the Blues came out with a look and approach that the Battery didn’t anticipate, and if not for a bit of luck and a case of the yips for Blues star Matt Fondy, this one could have been a lot different.
Except if you were there, it never quite felt that way, did it?
Several Battery players agreed that this wasn’t one of their best performances, that they started slow. But listen to them again. None of them expressed any nervousness about the outcome, not even when asked specifically whether the 84th-minute Blues goal made the final 10 minutes, you know, nerve-wracking.
And while I agree that the first 20 minutes weren’t exactly jetpack-soccer, it wasn’t like the Battery were falling apart, either. Fondy is a helluva a player. Look at his regular-season stat-line: 10 appearances, 10 goals. He’s strong, explosive, skilled, and he has great hair. Players like that are going to get their chances.
Instead, I spent the first 84 minutes feeling ambiently confident that the Battery were going to close this game out. True, the Blues were big and strong and every set-piece was like playing Russian Routette, but the Battery simply seemed to be in control. The Blues were the ones pressing, gambling, playing on the edge of their emotions and ability.
How tense were they? In the 64th minute, when Los Angeles simultaneously substituted for assists leader Rodrigo Lopez Alvarez and nine-goal forward Chris Cortez with the Battery up 1-0, one of the two men (and we couldn’t tell for sure which one from the East stands) ripped off his jersey, threw it into the dugout, and stormed up the stairs and directly into the locker room. Awkward!
And the Battery? Here’s center back Cody Ellison’s answer when I asked if the Blues’ goal in the 84th minute made the finish a nervous one for the defense.
“It was and it wasn’t, because they shouldn’t have got that. Honestly, I have no clue what even happened on that. But we dominated the whole game, so I wasn’t that worried.”
Nerves? Not exactly. And certainly not intimated by the Blues’ well-earned reputation for killing teams off set-pieces. “Some guys are harder,” the big Californian shrugged. “You just gotta shield them off a little bit, bump ’em, and then you’ve got a clear header.”
Oh. Well OK then. That’s easy.
In addition to Ellison’s composed performance, Captain Colin Falvey was his usual man-on-the-spot, rarely having to make the spectacular play because he so rarely allowed anything to develop anywhere near him. Defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang patrolled the middle of the field and never once appeared to be out of position. And I thought Nicki Paterson turned in one of his better performance of the summer, too. Dane Kelly’s first goal was a gutsy individual effort, but don’t forget that it was Paterson’s attack down the right touchline that made it possible.
(my) Man of the Match
Despite those worthy contributions, my vote for Man of the Match goes to left back John Wilson.
One could make an argument (I don’t, but one could) that a USL PRO team can’t justify hanging on to a 35-year-old veteran who only plays about half the dates on the fixture list. Couldn’t that money be better spent on a younger player or two?
And I would reply “Aug. 24, 2013, Charleston 2, LA Blues 1.” Because Wilson played beautiful, confident, aggressive, genius soccer Saturday night.
Wilson, who has turned in another quietly proficient season in 2013, probably doesn’t get enough pixels on this site. He’s the cool counterpart to Falvey’s Celtic fire, a Grandmaster on the left wing. And while he doesn’t often take the game on his shoulders, you get the sense that if his counterpart makes a crucial mistake at the wrong moment, Wilson is never more than a muscle-twitch away from blowing him to pieces.
On Saturday night, Wilson was the answer to the Blues’ Route One aggression from the earliest minutes. In pushing forward to catch the Battery on their heels, the Blues left space on their right through much of the first half, and the veteran from Seneca was happy to take it and roll it up. Wilson spent much of the first 45 on the Blues side of the midstripe, and though his attacks and passes didn’t wind up hanging goals on the scoreboard, they certainly put the Blues on their heels in moments where they were clearly yearning to get that early goal.
When we spoke back in the spring, Wilson said that he has learned to listen to his body, conserve his energy, and then use his speed to wear down and eventually break opponents. That’s the man I saw Saturday. That’s the man I want on my team in the playoffs.
Tactics and whatnot
The Battery and the Blues split their first two meetings, but when it came to tactical coaching decisions, Anhaeuser came out ahead in both. The Blues have been one the league’s better offenses, yet the Battery out-shot the Blues 2-to-1 in each match.
So while the Battery went into their preparations with a sense for what they’d be facing, the Blues apparently prepared for Charleston with the intent of changing things up.
“I think honestly, we thought that maybe they’d come in and set a little bit,” said Paterson. “But they came out and they pressed and they played the long-ball game. So it took us 10, 15 minutes to figure them out. But we know we’ve got pace, we know we’ve got guys that can score goals, and I knew it was only a matter of time before we got one. And we maybe could have had one or two more in the first half, which would have killed the game. But when it’s 1-nil, it’s always difficult.
“At the end of the day, a win’s a win. Nobody cares. We’re in the next round. That’s all that matters.”
The Battery’s Jamaican forward has moments when he’s so intensely inwardly focused that he barely seems to notice the world revolving around him. True, the only thing that stands between Kelly and the USL PRO scoring title is a modest improvement in his consistency as a finisher, but when he gets that particular look in his eye, it’s like the ball is already in the back of the net before he even strikes it.
Kelly’s goal in the 21st minute wasn’t his prettiest or most athletic, but it was certainly one of his most determined.
It began when Cuevas tucked into a ball near midfield and controlled it back to Azira. The Ugandan passed ahead to Paterson on the wing, and the Scot pushed ahead as Cuevas and Kelly slipped into the channels alongside him.
Kelly was bracketed by three defenders, but found a bit of space about 12 yards from goal. With Cuevas closely marked, Paterson crossed the ball in to Kelly, but the forward had to break off his motion toward goal and move back upfield to receive the pass. .
The Blues closed on him instantly. Yet Kelly somehow managed to hold off the defense, settle the pass, and bring the ball across his body on the goal side.
With midfielder Nelson Pizarro closing Kelly down from behind, midseason acquisition Ryan O’Leary moved up aggressively to challenge Kelly for the ball.
The Scot and the Jamaican made contact, but Kelly kept his feet — even though a lesser forward might have taken the dive and hoped for the penalty call. O’Leary, however, went to ground — effectively shielding Pizarro off the play for a critical moment.
Finally, Kelly sees daylight. But he’s got another center back and the keeper to beat, and can feel O’Leary and Pizzaro on his hip. He takes a couple of touches to his left as he sprints toward the West stands, widening the distance between himself and the trailing defenders.
Kelly’s move toward the center of the field also has the benefit of offering him a wider angle on goal, essentially freezing keeper Mohammad Mohammadi. Center back Erlys Garcia steps up — too late — to try to get in his way, and forward George Davis IV drops back, but at this point, the damage is done.
Kelly turns, shoots, and buries the shoot near the left post.
“That made everyone settle into the game,” Azira said later. “Because you know, usually at this time some of the players could be under pressure, because every game is a final. So people won’t be confident but so much, so everybody was trying to limit their mistakes and stuff. But that goal helped us to settle in.”
If Kelly’s individual play in the 21st minute defined the terms for the middle of the match, then Azira’s in the 71st minute absolutely defined Anhaeuser’s end game. With just 18 minutes to play and a two-goal lead, Anhaeuser immediately turned to his bench, running in defensive upgrades in Jarad van Schaik, Bryce Alderson and Taylor Mueller.
I’m disappointed we didn’t’ get (the shutout), but you know, it doesn’t matter. Winner goes on. That’s all we’re worried about now. I’ll take two bad performances if it’s two wins in a row now. I don’t care. No one looks back to performance.
— Colin Falvey
TOP IMAGE: John Wilson pushes the ball upfield on Saturday night against the L.A.Blues. Dan Conover photos. For more photos, go to Kim Morgan Gregory’s match gallery.