Battery preseason Part 4: Midfielders

Battery preseason Part 4: Midfielders

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The over-under on 2013 Battery midfielders who will someday play in Major League Soccer is four.

Discuss.

Centers of attention

There are several reasons to feel optimistic about the 2013 Battery. The group of players who returned to the central midfield is probably first among them.

Nicki Paterson, CM

Nicki Paterson

Nicki Paterson

After scoring 12 goals last season despite playing a demanding two-way position that would normally cast a player in a supporting role, Paterson went to New York in the fall and looked to be on the verge of signing his first MLS contract with the Red Bulls. That he’s still in Charleston has much less to do with his playing ability than it does with his immigration status.

So while Paterson pursues a Green Card and another shot at The Show, Charleston gets to look forward to another season of box-to-box midfield play by the hyperfit Scotsman.

That said, Paterson is one of the few returning players who hasn’t enjoyed a good preseason. No. 8 started February off on a hot-streak, scoring against Vancouver and assisting against Chicago, but he injured his groin against Houston and spent most of March healing. His groin is better now, but he picked up a hamstring injury a week ago.

Paterson is absolutely key to the Battery’s plans, a known commodity, and a marquee star for USL PRO. The only question with him now is whether his fearless style of play might be taking a toll on his body.

Jose Cuevas, CM, CAM, F

Second-year star Jose Cuevas scored 8 goals in 12 preseason matches despite taking on greater responsibilities.

Second-year star Jose Cuevas scored 8 goals in 12 preseason matches despite taking on greater responsibilities. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

The Battery still speak of the 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year as a forward, or more generically as a ‘striker.” But with Paterson sidelined, Coach Mike Anhaeuser slipped Cuevas into the role Paterson typically fills, aggressively patrolling the center of the field, keeping the deep defenders linked to the attackers, and pushing forward when the situation allowed or demanded it.

In 2012, the Battery asked Cuevas to score and set up others in the attack. In March, he proved that there’s another gear in his transmission. This is not a one-dimensional player. He looked tenacious and calm as a more defense-and-possession-type midfielder in preseason, yet still managed to notch eight goals and four assists.

In fact, the only match in which he looked largely ineffective was the opener against Vancouver, when the staff deployed him alone up top and Cuevas spent the night looking like a pinball bouncing off the physical Whitecaps back line, which negated his creativity by putting bodies on him whenever a ball approached.

So is Cuevas a Central Attacking Midfielder, a Withdrawn Striker or a forward who plays deep? As Coach Anhaeuser is fond of pointing out, tactical labels have limited value. Which is why I’m calling Cuevas a midfielder this year, because so far he’s spent most of his time in 2013 doing midfield jobs, and he’s looked great doing it.

Cuevas has, on occasion, battled a hamstring that tends to tighten up. But his health looks solid, and he appears physically stronger than his first season in the league.

And here’s my favorite stat of 2013 so far: Nicki Paterson made appearances in the final three preseason matches of March, which allowed Cuevas hang around higher up the pitch with fewer deep responsibilities. In each of those games, Cuevas scored.

Cuevas appears set for one of those years that fans talk about long after the season ends.

Amadou Sanyang, DM

Amadou Sanyang joined Toronto FC as a 17-year-old and looked like a rising MLS start at 18. Injuries derailed his promising start.

Twenty-one-year-old Amadou Sanyang joined Toronto FC as a 17-year-old and looked like a rising MLS star at 18 — until injuries derailed his career.

So here’s the scenario that should have Battery fans lining up for tickets all spring and summer: Former Gambian teen prodigy Sanyang wins the ball at midfield, passes ahead to Paterson, who passes ahead to Cuevas, who scores.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sanyang’s play this preseason has earned callout praise from his coach at times, and given his defensive responsibilities, he’s due a big ration of credit for those seven clean sheets the team compiled in February and March. That said, he might not be a classic buzz-the-field, seek-and-destroy DM in the Osvaldo Alonso mold. Given his blend of speed, strength and cool athleticism, you expect him to take over matches. But dominating the run of play might not be his style.

All of which combines to make him the most enigmatic figure on the Battery roster: A profoundly talented 21-year-old with three years MLS experience, starting his second year in Charleston, looking to prove that he’s ready for another chance at the top tier.

Like Paterson, there’s an injury concern surrounding Sanyang’s prospects going into the regular season. He picked up a concussion on March 30 in a head-to-head collision that ended his night and left him visibly woozy.

Anhaeuser said Thursday that Sanyang is better — the swelling is gone and he’s showing no concussion symptoms. But Sanyang is no stranger to brain injuries. A concussion in July 2010 ended his season with Toronto FC after 14 appearances, and the club released him in the offseason. Anhaeuser dismissed any concussion worries about Sanyang during an interview in February.

Sanyang is a gifted young player with all the physical talent he needs to contend for an MLS roster. It’s his head that soccer scouts are interested in, and a successful 2013 season could provide the reassurances wary MLS front-offices crave.

Michael Azira, DM, CM, RB

Midfielder Michael Azira has stepped up his game since 2012. But where will he play for the Battery?

Midfielder Michael Azira has stepped up his game since 2012. But where will he play for the Battery? KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

When I asked Colin Falvey in mid-March which of his returning teammates looked most improved, he didn’t hesitate in naming Azira. More confident. More aware. More comfortable. Completely ready for a starting role.

But starting where?

Azira has played extensively this offseason, though not always as a starter. He’s a like versatile USB gadget that Anhaeuser can plug into multiple positions.

I thought he was one of the standout players in the final preseason match against Carolina, which unfolded as a series of midfield battles. Azira was an absolute pest, breaking up combinations and winning the ball back to close out long Railhawk possessions in the Battery third.

All players like the status that comes with being a weekly starter, but the reality in soccer is that few players can start every match. Azira has the skills to start for the Battery and probably every team in USL PRO, but he might well find himself in a series of timeshares with Sanyang, Paterson, Taylor Mueller and Mark Wiltse.

Wide guys

Quinton Griffith, Wing, LB and RB

Antiguan international Quinton Griffith seems poised for stardom. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

Antiguan international Quinton Griffith seems poised for stardom. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

From the first day of training camp, Quinton Griffith looked like the player most likely to make fans ask “Who is that?”

Fast, fluid and quick to flash a Hollywood smile, Griffith covers more ground more quickly than just about anything except well-watered kudzu. And his two long-range goals this preseason are “as good as you’ll see,” said Captain Colin Falvey.

Yes, that’s Quinton Griffith running down Landon Donovan in a U.S.-v. -Antigua match. And that’s him, rising above taller players to win headers. And that’s him stretching opposing defenses out of shape with sharp, blazing, well-timed runs. He’s the Battery’s big threat down the sideline… and John Wilson’s backup at left back.

The Battery returned its biggest stars from its 2012 Championship team. But Griffith adds dimensions last year’s squad never had.

Griffith spent some time with the New England Revolution before coming down to Charleston. A good season with a top USL PRO team could earn this Antiguan a big payday in 2014.

Jarad van Schaik, CM, DM, RM

Jared van Schaik

Jared van Schaik

A player raised in soccer-mad Oregon, van Schaik comes to Charleston via the Portland Timbers U23 team, a Supplemental Draft stint in Real Salt Lake and a season in the NASL with the Puerto Rico Islanders.

That’s a good pedigree, but it doesn’t necessarily add up to a flashy player. Just a quality one.

Think of him as a less-attacking-minded, less-physical, more-controlled and nuanced version of Ryan Richter.

“I’ll tell you, they look alike and they actually play a little bit alike,” Anhaeuser said when asked about the comparison. ” Jarad’s got a little more midfielder in him, Ryan had more of a forward in him… but they both are fit. One difference is, one’s right-footed, one’s left-footed.

“But I’ll tell you, that’s really a good comparison, because Jarad … can go into the middle of the field where Ryan was more a winger for us, or a forward. I could have put Ryan in the middle, but Jarad has that little bit of a calmness in him, where Ryan wants to go and really create chances. So the good thing is Jarad … when he gets the ball, he can bring it down and keep it for us. Which is great. But at the same time he does have the qualities to score.”

Van Schaik appears to have the inside track on the starting right midfield spot, but on a team that will have to find ways to share the ball with Cuevas, Paterson, Griffith and forwards Dane Kelly and Heviel Cordoves, it’s good to have a quality soccer player whose natural inclination are more toward the keep-it-all together tasks.

Ben Fisk, Wing

Midfielder Ben Fisk.

Midfielder Ben Fisk.

Everyone who showed up at Blackbaud Stadium for Fisk’s coming-out party against the Wilmington Hammerheads got a pretty good idea what “Ben Ten” is capable of doing at any given moment.

After zooming up and down the left sideline for 69 minutes, Fisk got on the receiving end of a Jose Cuevas pass, ran past a Wilmington center back and then beat the keeper with a well-placed shot. Less than five minutes later, Fisk put himself on the stat-sheet again, this time combining with John Wilson in the attacking third before slipping an assist to Cuevas. Cuevas’ blinding move to separate himself from his marker resulted in a highlight-reel goal, but it began with slick service from Fisk. The Battery named Fisk the night’s Man of the Match.

“I’m fast, I like to run at players, and I’m always looking for goals,” Fisk said afterward in describing his game. “So I’ll score lots of goals and hopefully set a few up as well.”

As a 20-year-old Canadian youth international, he’s got a lot of eyes on his progress this season. In fact, some Whitecaps fans were annoyed when the club picked two similar attacking players in the 2013 Superdraft, complaining that Vancouver’s glut of young attacking players was standing in the way of Fisk’s promotion from the Whitecaps’ PDL roster.

The idea is that Fisk will spend 2013 on loan with the Battery, pick up valuable game experience against high-quality opponents, and then return to Canada ready to contend for an MLS job in 2014. The tricky part will be finding him minutes on a team that has no shortage of slight, speedy, clever attacking players.

The utility man

Zack Prince, CM, RM, LM, CAM, F, RB

At 25, this College of Charleston alumni has been with the Battery longer than any current player not named John Wilson or Colin Falvey. So why isn’t he as big of a household name with Battery fans?

While other players draw more attention, versatile Zach Prince is a man on the rise. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

While other players may draw more attention, versatile Zach Prince is a man quietly on the rise. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

Part of it was experience. Unlike Falvey, who has been playing full-time professional footy since age 19, Prince emerged from a U.S. college system that gives players far fewer game minutes. Though he’s contributed throughout his Battery career (appearing in 16, 23 and 25 matches each year since 2010), most of those appearances were as a substitute.

So here’s another way of looking at Prince: After three years of proving his worth as a fill-in while he accumulated the game experience all players need to succeed, Prince is now entering the prime of his career. He was seemingly everywhere you looked during the preseason, often starting, always playing. He regularly put his name on the stat sheet, usually for an assist, and his initials show up all over my game notes.

In other words, he’s not just filling space. Here’s what he said after the team’s 2-1 win against Coastal Carolina on March 7:

“Pretty much over the past – this will be my fourth year now – I’ve kinda … been the utility player. I kinda fill in wherever. I just kinda accept the role. I guess (Anhaeuser) likes the guys that are in the spots that I normally play, maybe attacking mid, maybe forward, he likes to let guys like Jose, Nicki play there, both our leading goal scorers. So he has me playing out wide right now. And that’s fine with me.”

What about covering so much turf tonight?

“That’s just kinda the role I’ve been playing, just kinda playing a free-flowing role, ” he said. “But at the same time it’s just all situational, when you’d maybe go over to the left side or pressure a center back or something. Maybe you saw me sliding over to the middle and maybe Jose slid out wide a little bit more. We tend to do that kinda switch sometimes because both of us, we can play across the midfield. I kinda flow wherever.”

And when you listen to the way he describes his style of play, you get the sense that this is a young man with a clear idea of how he can contribute.

“I’ve always been a player who gets the ball and looks to combine with people,” he said. “I might dribble one or two people, but that’s not my game. I don’t fly past people or anything. I don’t have the speed and the strength to do it all the time. So I kinda look to combine. I like to try to slip someone through and open the field up a little bit. ”

It was one of the most thoughtful postgame conversations I’ve had with a player this spring, delivered with the serious, intelligent tone that seems to be Prince’s trademark. It’s easy to think of him as the ultimate widget, but when you consider how much of soccer is played between the ears, I think it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Prince that way.  If the right things click for him in 2013, he has the quality to be much more than a fill-in.

The X Factor

Maikel Chang, M

Maikel Chang on the first day of camp, before injuring his hamstring.

Maikel Chang on the first day of camp, before injuring his hamstring.

With his distinctive haircut (my wife calls it a “soccer ponkie”) and Latin-boy-band-heartthrob-looks, Maikel Chang Ramirez is easy to spot.

The problem for Chang is that the place where you’ll usually spot him is on the sidelines.

He pulled up lame in the first week of training camp, probably the result of a post-defection lifestyle that conveyed Chang, Odisnel Cooper and Heviel Cordoves from Toronto to Florida to Charleston between October and February, passing through the homes of relatives and strangers. Without a stable situation in which to train, none of the Cubans showed up camp-ready, and all three were nursing fitness-related injuries before the first match of the Carolina Challenge Cup.

Since then, fans of Charleston — and Cuban — soccer have been following his health closely. He appeared to be on the road to recovery on March 7th, when he logged  his first 10 minutes of match play as a professional against Coastal Carolina. Though he didn’t make the stat sheet, Chang quickly turned in in three eye-popping plays. But by the time the team played its next “home” match (at Patriots Point) on March 19, he was hurt again.

The good news, according to the training staff, is that it’s a recurring problem with the same weak hamstring, and it’s getting stronger. He put in 20 minutes during an intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday. But Coach Anhaeuser is still waiting to find out what Chang can do.

“He’s shown flashes” Anhaeuser said. “He has the ability, you can see. But the only issue is… when he’s had to compete against guys that are going 100 percent and physically very capable, he’s broken down.

“So the big thing for him is we want to take him along slowly now, because we don’t want him to lose confidence. We want him to get back so he can have his sharpness. We’re taking it a little more cautiously. So is he. And I think in the end it’s going to be a good thing. But it could take some time.”

Fans should keep a couple of things in mind, though. The first is that when he’s been healthy, Chang has flashed as much game-changing technical ability and fluid athleticism as anyone on the squad.  And the second one is, patience…

TOP PHOTO: Central midfielder Nicki Paterson transitions into the attack against the Carolina Railhawks. The Battery swept their home-and-away preseason series with the NASL club. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO. 

2 Comments

  1. Dan spot on with your preseason assessment so far IMO. love what your doing and really enjoy reading your pieces. Keep them coming!

  2. Wow, site looks great; very crisp! I have heard folks say they get more soccer news here than anywhere else… Bravo to you!