(Editor’s note: Gallery attached to the bottom of this post. Kim Morgan Gregory’s gallery is here. Ross Almers’ gallery is here. I also adjusted the original account of the opening goal slightly on Sunday morning, based on Ross’s photos.–dc)
It started with John Wilson screaming for the ball.
This was in the early minutes of Saturday’s preseason match between the Charleston Battery and the Clemson Tigers, one of those casual Blackbaud Stadium friendlies where nobody bothers to fire up the scoreboard. And after putting a quick scare in the Battery with a good shot that rimmed off the frame, Clemson had been slipping into retrograde with each subsequent Battery possession.
So as the Battery midfield regained control of the ball, Wilson — the team’s left back and elder statesman at 36 — found himself staring at acres of green turf. He shouted for the ball, but got no response. So he shouted again, and this time he got the diagonal pass he wanted, let it roll wide, then stepped up and passed ahead to forward Heviel Cordoves‘ outside shoulder.
Meanwhile, Zach Prince — who started on the left side at the top of the Battery’s 4-3-3 formation on Saturday — had noticed earlier that right winger Adam Mena was sliding wider, and took that as an invitation to fill the space he’d left behind. And Mena, alert to Prince’s movement, had circled around behind him toward the center.
So that’s how the play unfolded: Cordoves, who had started in the center, was chasing down a pass on the left flank, replacing Prince, who was drifting toward the right, while Mena filled in behind them back toward the center.
The big Cuban was well marked at first, but still managed to run down the pass on the attacking left flank and put his left foot into it. It accelerated along a bending, flat trajectory like a Prince-seeking missile. The fifth-year veteran out of Irmo put his head into the assist and the ball rocketed straight to the far post, upper 90.
“Cordo gave me a ball that was kinda harder to miss than it was to hit,” Prince said later.
And that’s it. Boom, boom, boom. The textbook team goal. Three passes, the first one switching the field to Wilson, the second freeing Cordoves in the space vacated by Prince, the third homing in on his teammate running the left-central channel and finding him precisely at the edge of the six-yard box. Coach Mike Anhaeuser called it probably the best team goal of the 2014 preseason “because it built up…We had good interchanging work, and I’ll tell you, it was right on (Prince’s) head and he fricking put it in the back of the net.”
Not every Battery chance would go so smoothly in Saturday’s 2-0 win, and Clemson turned in a sturdy, respectable performance. But there was an awful lot to like about that opening goal, not to mention the long-term prospects of this methodically progressing 2o14 Battery squad.
THE ADAM MENA SHOW
For those of you following along at home, Mena is the former Notre Dame star who blew out his knee in the first match of the 2012 season, went to Vancouver as a third-round pick in 2013, and then lost last season season to a related injury suffered in Whitecaps camp last March. After a second surgery and months of rehab, Mena returned to Vancouver for his second camp in January, and impressed observers with his progress. “Now they want me to get some games in over here, and I’m so happy to be here right now.”
Mena made his first appearance for the Battery on Thursday as a starter at right midfield against the College of Charleston, and it certainly left an impression. His first goal came off a tricky free kick. His second came on a long-range header from the run-of-play. And when he got the start at what amountrd to a forward position on Saturday, Mena quickly rewarded Anhaeuser by finding a third way to score — this time delivering a header off a corner kick from Prince.
The play actually began on a previous corner, when both Prince and Mena noticed tendencies in Clemson’s defense. On his first corner kick, Prince said, “I saw the keeper wasn’t really being too aggressive. So I just kinda tried to put it on top of him (on the second one).”
Meanwhile, Mena had been talking with Wilson on that earlier corner, and the veteran had told him “just to come in sneaky. Just come in unmarked. It almost worked the first time, and then I remember him saying my name on that corner as well, just to kinda sneak in on the front post.”
With two header goals in two matches, you might think the aerial game is something of a Mena specialty. But don’t run too far with that idea.
“I like getting the ball at my feet, running at people one-v- one,” Mena said when asked to describe his game. “Getting crosses in. Taking shots. But (the aerial aspect) is another part of the game that I feel just helps me become a well-rounded player. I mean, I definitely like getting up for headers and competing with people. I feel like my size — I’m maybe 5-10 — not many people would expect me to be one who gets up for headers.
“But I’ve always liked that. People think ‘Oh, he doesn’t look like he likes to get up for headers. He doesn’t look like the physical type of guy.’ That’s fine if they don’t think it, but I just gotta sneak up on them.”
Anhaeuser hinted previously that this starting lineup would probably look an awful lot like the one that will take the field on Saturday against Orlando City Lions. On Saturday he qualified that statement with a reminder that a couple of key players — specifically attacking midfielder Andre Lewis and forward Mamadou Diouf — had to sit out today’s match with minor injuries. But yes, what you saw against Clemson is pretty much what Battery fans should expect for the season opener, give or take a man or two.
Goalkeeper: Odisnel Cooper. Right back: Quinton Griffin. Left back: John Wilson. Center backs: Shawn Ferguson and Taylor Mueller. Defensive midfielder: Amadou Sanyang. Central midfielder: Jarad van Schaik. Attacking midfielder: Maikel Chang. Forwards: Heviel Cordoves (center), Zach Prince and Adam Mena (outside).
The same lineup returned for the start of the second half, with every available player cycling through for at least a few minutes as the game wore on. The only players who didn’t make an appearance were forwards Dane Kelly (hamstring) and Diouf (quad) and midfielders Michael Kafari (knee) and Lewis (ankle).
FALVEY SUSPENDED: Though he’s none-too-happy about it, Captain Colin Falvey confirmed Saturday that the league has suspended him for Saturday’s home opener against Orlando due to a red card he picked up in the late going in the team’s finally 2013 match… against Orlando.
That means do-everything defender Taylor Mueller will get the start inside next to Shawn Ferguson, who might just be the story of this camp. The second-year center back from the College of Charleston continued his run of excellent form on Saturday, and at times looked simply dominant against a big, strong Clemson lineup.
Q TO RIGHT BACK: Quinton Griffin is no stranger to the fullback spot, but he spent most of his first year in black and yellow operating as a midfielder. After spending much of this preseason as a defender, it looks like that’s where he’ll start the 2014 season.
“He’s been earning it,” Anhaeuser said. “He played there at Antigua, for the national team. For the future of his career, I think it might be a position that you see him in. And we talked about it. I think for our team now it’s somewhere where we need to solidify.
“It’s not even that he does well defensively. He’s going to add a dimension for us offensively. Against Orlando, we need to attack out of the back, and he can get forward, he’s got pace, and he has the pace to not get beat one-v-one. Which is going to be important.
“So I think we’ll probably see him there. Doesn’t mean we won’t see him in the midfield if we need to and maybe give a guy a game here or there. But you know, he’s one I can move back, and right now it’s looking like that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Battery are actually quite deep at right back. Mueller, Ferguson and Prince have all manned the position, too, and on Saturday 18-year-old Whitecaps prospect Jackson Farmer had a good turn at the spot. Depth at left back is usually a more significant question for the Battery, since Wilson needs to take some games off, particularly on the road on artificial surfaces. Rookie Drew Ruggles is a left back who can play inside, which puts him in an advantageous roster position. But Mueller, Prince and Griffin have all played the position at one time or another, too.
MARK DOWN MENA… IN PENCIL: He’s off to a great start, but even though he’s only played against two college teams, Anhaeuser likes what he sees.
“Listen, he’s scoring goals. I’ll be honest, I played him out on the wing on Thursday and today I moved him up front, just because he showed that he has ability to score goals. And I want a guy up there who is going to score goals. I mean, if you look at it by goals, which you always do with a striker or a winger, he’s putting the most forward, and he’s doing the job. And in the end, if he’s not the guy who starts, he’s definitely the first guy who comes off the bench if we need a goal. So it’s very good.”
Which does raise the question: If he’s not the guy who starts, who is?
The answer to that question looks like it could depend on the formation Anhaeuser wants to run. Earlier in the week the Battery looked to be working out of a more traditional 4-4-2 set, with two obvious forwards. Saturday the team looked like a 4-3-3. So if you figure that Cordoves has earned a starting position — and I’d make that statement — then Mena might give way for Kelly or Diouf if Anhaeuser feels like using strike partners. And if you figure there are times when he’ll want to run out of a 4-3-3, then maybe a more traditional playmaker like Lewis gets the call. He’s certainly looked the part in two appearances this week.
And if the Battery want to play defensively out of that 4-5-1 they used in 2013, then it’s not hard to imagine Chang rotating forward to make room for another defensive central midfielder. Like Aminu Abdallah, perhaps.
This is a long way of illustrating what should be a pretty obvious point right now. There doesn’t appear to be a weak link on the current Battery roster.
“I’ll tell you what,” Prince said Saturday when asked to compare this year’s team to the 2013 edition as it came out of preseason. “This year we might be a little deeper than we were last year. Especially in the forward position. Last year we only had really Dane and Cordo, and then we had Austin, but he was a first-year player, you know. We couldn’t really count on him for a ton of minutes.
“This year we have Mamadou, Dane, Marlon, Austin, Cordo. So we have a ton of depth up top, which is a lot different than last year. And centrally we did lose Jose (Cuevas) and Nicki (Paterson). Nicki was a huge loss for us. He was kind of the engine of our team. But if you watched Jarad play today, he’s kind of taken over that role
“I think maybe we had a little more experience last year, but we’re a little bit deeper this year.”
And in this case, depth means flexibility.
UNLEASHING CHANG: The big preseason story in Charleston last year was the team’s three Cuban defectors: Cooper, Cordoves and Chang. USA TODAY did a story on them. The Post and Courier did one, too. So did the video team from MLS.com. The only problem was that in terms of soccer, the Tres Cubanos weren’t quite ready for prime time.
Cooper had a good year for a first-year keeper, but whether he manned the position better than the more veteran keeper Kevin Klasilla would have handled it was a year-long topic of fan debate. Cordoves scored seven goals, but lacked the fitness and finesse to take on a larger role. And Chang spent all but about 30 minutes of the 2013 season recovering from injuries.
What a difference a year makes.
Now Cooper is a confident second-year starter. Cordoves has made remarkable progress.
And here comes Chang.
If he hasn’t locked down a starting job, he’s at least played himself into a significant role in the Battery rotation. Anhaeuser has gone out of his way to mention him this week, and he improves from game to game. Not only that, but he’s a lot of fun to watch.
So stay tuned. If he can get just a bit more confidence and keep adding determination to his game, there could be some post-goal Salsa-dancing celebrations coming soon to a stadium near you.
TOP IMAGE: Adam Mena heads in the second goal of the afternoon off a corner kick from Zach Prince. Dan Conover photos.