The strength of the 2013 Battery might well be in its deep midfield, but if there’s any doubt that the backline represents the team’s leadership … well, if you disagree, please feel free to express your disagreement in comments below.
Here’s why I say that. You’ve got Club Captain John Wilson at left back and Team Captain Colin Falvey holding forth from center. At 35, Wilson has been playing for the Battery off and on since the Clinton Administration. At 27, Falvey is a mere baby in comparison, but considering the fact that he’s been playing full-time professional soccer since age 19, after three years in English club academy programs, the veteran center back plays with experience beyond his years.
Falvey talks a lot. That’s his job. Wilson doesn’t talk as much, but when he speaks the younger players pay attention.
With Wilson holding every club record for longevity and Falvey entering his fourth year with the club, there’s no reason to introduce them to the team’s loyal fans. Instead, I’ll answer two questions about each of them:
Is he healthy? And, Does he look like he’s in for a good season?
Answer: Absolutely, for both of them.
Coach Mike Anhaeuser said Wilson played one of his best seasons in 2012, and after a cautious start to training camp he was soon back to the same style of play we saw last year. He still gets up and down the wing rapidly and seldom finds himself out of place against all but the fastest USL PRO-level attackers.
And even in his mid-thirties, the soft-spoken Wilson remains capable of taking younger defenders off the dribble and straight to school. He seems to enjoy launching foraging attacks deep into enemy territory, but picks his opportunities carefully.
The staff has indicated that they’ll manage Wilson’s minutes for the long haul, which means he’ll probably get an extra break periodically. But in terms of fitness and quickness, he looks like the same man we remember from last September. He’s not as fast as once was, but his teammates say there’s been no drop off from 2012.
As for Falvey, he missed the first match of the Carolina Challenge Cup with a tight hamstring, came back for Round Two, and hasn’t looked back. The Battery defense, which looked to be in near panic-mode without him during the first half of the Vancouver match, settled down after his return to the lineup. The team conceded two goals to Chicago, one to Houston, and then surrendered just three more in the remaining nine matches, producing seven clean sheets.
And it was Falvey’s clutch kick-save in the waning seconds of the Battery’s scoreless draw with the College of Charleston that preserved what wound up being a 10-game preseason unbeaten streak.
Falvey considers himself to be entering the peak years of his playing career, and views the 2013 season as his big shot at earning his way onto a Major League Soccer roster in 2014.
Beyond those two, the club carries only four players it describes generically as defenders. That’s not many, but the good news is that three midfielders also put in minutes at fullback this preseason.
The Young Ones
Taylor Mueller, RB and CB
A spring standout for the Battery, Mueller scored two goals in preseason. One of them was a wind-aided fluke that began with what is becoming to my mind Mueller’s signature move. When Mueller goes on the attack from his regular spot at right back, he’s less likely to continue down the flank than he is to pull up near the edge of the attacking third and chip a cross toward a teammate running into the penalty area.
He was trying to do that against Georgia Southern when the wind lifted his pass over the keeper’s head into an empty net. Mueller accomplished the same result more traditionally against the Carolina Railhawks on March 30th, passing to Nicki Paterson, who assisted on Jose Cuevas game-winner. He’s not a one-trick pony, but he’s got a knack for the cross.
Mark Wiltse’s MCL injury early in camp basically handed the starting right back job to Mueller. He showed no signs of handing it back.
A former MLS Supplemental pick of the Portland Timbers in 2011 who played four years at the University of Washington, Mueller came within the final cut of making the Timbers’ Reserve before signing with a Washington State PDL team. He joined the Battery in 2012 and made 20 appearances.
Don’t be surprised to see his role expand in 2013.
Cody Ellison, CB
The Battery’s “Big Cowboy,” Ellison stands 6-4, and though the club lists him at 180, he’s a lean, muscular specimen who looks to be about a biscuit away from 200. There were moments in March when college opponents looked so physically outmatched against Ellison that you half-expected the referee to step in and award him the fight on a technical knockout.
Like Mueller, Ellison is a second-year player in Charleston, coming off a 10-appearance season that ended with an injury in the playoffs.
But if Ellison’s 2012 cast him the role of substitute, in the 2013 preseason he cast himself in the role of starter. Ellison recorded numerous aerial clearances, combined well with central-defense partner Falvey, and was a significant contributor to the team’s seven clean sheets.
Ellison can make mistakes, and one of the three goals the team surrendered after the CCC came off an Ellison own-goal when his header clearance went weirdly awry in that freakishly windy game against Georgia Southern. He occasionally went for aggressive interceptions and whiffed, leaving space on the back line. And for all his defensive aerial prowess, he has yet to convert that into set-piece scoring chances.
But those are minor points compared to the strides Ellison has made. If he keeps this up, he’ll have to buy a bigger Stetson.
Shawn Ferguson, CB
With Falvey, Ellison and Mueller ahead of him on the center back depth chart, the club appears to be aiming the big rookie from Rock Hill toward an understudy role on a team with hardware on its mind in 2013.
Yet the four-year College of Charleston player has quietly turned in a solid preseason, outplaying at least one veteran USL PRO trialist and easily earning a spot on the roster by mid-March.
Though not as physical as Ellison or as fast as Mueller, Ferguson plays a calm game, passes effectively and keeps opponents in front of him. Despite his height he hasn’t seemed to be a dominant aerial threat, but his willingness to tuck-in and break up attacks with well-timed slide tackles made him a second-half standout against Wilmington.
Mark Wiltse, RB
After making 17-appearances for the club in 2012, this stylish former Gamecock entered camp this February with a chance to lock down a starting job. Wiltse promptly injured his right knee and spent the next six weeks doing rehab work by himself.
The injury to his MCL allowed him to do plenty of strength and conditioning work, but limited his ability to pass with the inside of his foot. So while many players returning from injury need a few games to build up their match fitness, Wiltse looked fast and fresh in his turn against the Carolina Railhawks.
With Mueller at the position, the Battery display a big, physical back four. Swapping Mueller for Wiltse adds speed and agility to the mix. Whereas Mueller is more apt to chip into the box, Wiltse seems more inclined to play the wing-back role, using long runs into the attacking third to set up crosses.
Wiltse says his knee is no longer a problem, and he showed no obvious signs of rust last week. No matter who Coach Anhaeuser uses at right back most weeks, the Mueller-Wiltse combo gives the club a distinct stylistic if Anhaeuser wants to exploit different matchup advantages week-to-week.
The midfield help
New arrival Quinton Griffith has spent most of the preseason terrifying opposing fullbacks with high-speed runs down the wing. He’s listed as a midfielder, and he looks to log plenty of minutes out wide in Battery stripes.
But when he’s on national duty, Griffith serves as the left back for Antigua. Anhaeuser has played him at both back spots in February and March, and he looked as comfortable in defense as he does seemingly everywhere else. Call him a starting outside midfielder and John Wilson’s backup at left back.
Ugandan Michael Azira is another versatile midfielder looking to improve off his 2012 performance. He’s available as a right back if needed there, but will have to resolve a “clearance issue” with his legal status before the team uses him in the regular season.
Maybe the most surprising experiment at right back this spring was Zach Prince. A fourth-year Battery player who has featured previously in attacking roles, Prince stepped in at fullback in March and acquitted himself well in limited duty.
TOP PHOTO: Veteran left back John Wilson of the Charleston Battery marks his man in the Battery’s shutout win over the Carolina Railhawks. The Battery recorded clean sheets in seven of their 12 preseason matches. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.