Battery preseason Part 5: Forwards

Battery preseason Part 5: Forwards

Ralph-Lundy-soccer-sponsorship-message-2Is Jose Cuevas a forward or a midfielder?

For the purposes of this site, he’s a guy who scores goals wherever he lines up and whatever you call him. After watching him in the 2013 preseason, I listed him here as a midfielder, because that was where he seemed to spend most of his time. And he still scored eight goals with four assists.

It’s worth noting that 20 of the Battery’s 36 goals in 2012 were scored by two men (Nicki Paterson, 12, and Cuevas, 8) who basically play like aggressive central midfielders.

That doesn’t mean that a true forward can’t put up significant numbers in this formation — whatever you call it. “What’s the difference between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3 after a few minutes?” Coach Mike Anhaeuser asks rhetorically.

But what’s important about that question is that neither a modern 4-5-1 nor a standard 4-3-3 feature two big, static strikers standing around the penalty area waiting for service. Or even one “Classic 9″ holdup center-forward looking to combine with a pacier strike partner. With physical Cuban striker Heviel Cordoves already signed and Charleston hoping to reacquire Jamaican forward Dane Kelly for 2013, the Battery probably have the personnel to run that kind of attack. The more important point might be that that kind of approach just doesn’t seem to be this team’s style.

This year, as last, the Battery are built to play solid, organized defense, buzz around the midfield, and push versatile attacking players forward in fluid combinations. Everyone is expected to track back on defense, including strikers. This isn’t a team that’s likely to put two or three traditional forwards up top and expect them to carry all the scoring, but neither is it a trendy tika-taka club with a bunch of midfielders playing keep-away.. The Battery need a dynamic forward.

And they just may have found the perfect fit. If they can sign him.

Dane Kelly, forward

Dane Kelly by Kim Morgan Gregory

Dane Kelly by Kim Morgan Gregory

From a numbers perspective, Dane Kelly’s 2012 was a disappointment. He scored six goals for the second year in a row, but his starts, appearances and minutes all declined from his first year with the club.

But numbers do sometimes lie.

Kelly’s game — and his body, which grew two inches and added weight-room muscle — improved in 2012. Those personal improvements, however, came as the Battery improved as a unit by adding new attacking players. The team finished third in the regular season table, got hot in the postseason, and won the USL PRO Championship.

Entering what should be his third season in Battery stripes, Kelly has grown from a slight 20-year-old who relied on speed into a powerful 22-year-old with the pace to get open and the strength and presence to do things when he gets there.

On the opening night of the Carolina Challenge Cup, it was Kelly — not the marquee MLS stars — who provided the blast of the night. Whereas Vancouver’s defenders basically took Cuevas out of the game with physical play, when Kelly subbed on for him, the game changed. His shot from the corner of the box drew Charleston back to within a goal of the Whitecaps, and only near-misses and desperate defending kept him from registering a late equalizer.

In the final CCC match, Kelly opened the scoring against the Houston Dynamo in the Battery’s 2-1 win, then scored a brace against the College of Charleston less than a week later. Four matches, four goals. Kelly was Charleston’s Mr. February.

His scoring mojo cooled in March as the MLS teams returned home and the Battery began to dictate the flow of matches to college teams and lower-tier professional opponents. But Kelly’s star didn’t fade. He looked entirely comfortable as a lone striker or playing in the center of an attack that featured attacks down the wings. Most importantly, he seemed to work well in combination with Cuevas, who often seemed to find space behind Kelly, particularly as he moved higher up the field after the return of Paterson from a groin injury.

It’s not clear that Kelly will return to the Battery, although the club is in talks with Tivoli Garden on a deal that could turn out to be a third loan, a transfer or a contract. But if Kelly does come back, he seems a safe bet to see double-digit starts — and potentially double-digit goals.

Heviel Cordoves, center forward

Cuban forward Heviel Cordoves, back on March 23, when everyone around here spelled his name "Evier Cordovez." So he's literally made a name for himself in Charleston.

Cuban forward Heviel Cordoves, back on March 23, when everyone around here spelled his name “Evier Cordovez.” So he’s literally made a name for himself in Charleston.

Should Coach Anhaeuser ever get in the mood to run a classic 4-4-2 and batter opposing central defenders into submission, he need look no farther than Cordoves for his target striker.

Cordoves brings a sturdy 6-1, 195-pound frame to the Battery’s top line. Perhaps equally impressive is his shot from distance. His teammates joke about declining to block his strikes in practice because they leave a mark. He has functional speed, but won’t surprise USL PRO defenders with his pace.

In other words, Cordoves looks an awful lot like the ideal center forward that Old School English and Scottish managers used to see in their dreams, bathed in golden light and heralded by choirs of angels.

Maybe we should just start calling him MacCordoves to keep it clear.

That’s not to say the former Cuban international player lacks athleticism. Cordoves doesn’t need to receive service with his back to the net to be effective. His one preseason goal came from the run of play against Georgia Southern, combining with Jarad van Schaik in what basketball fans would instantly recognize as a fast-break. After finding space and running in tandem, Cordoves got a nice first touch and tapped home from short range.

His preseason grade, however, has to be recorded as an incomplete. Cordoves began the schedule injured, and though he was the first of the Cubans to make an appearance, recurring fitness-related injuries kept removing him out of the lineup. Whatever opportunity he had to challenge Kelly for the Battery’s top forward spot in preseason came and went.

Still, there’s no denying that Cordoves brings above-the-curve talent to USL PRO. He’s shown what he’s capable of doing when healthy, and it’s strong enough to make him a contributor on this talented squad. What we don’t know is just how good he can be.

Austin Savage, forward, wing

Austin Savage and Jose Cuevas go full-out for a 50-50 ball in training camp

Austin Savage and Jose Cuevas go full-out for a 50-50 ball in training camp

Savage is a sentimental favorite for a lot of locals. He’s a Summerville kid who came up through Clark Brisson’s Bridge FA program, set the all-time goal-scoring record at Stratford High School, and led Clemson University in goals his senior year. But he was far from a safe bet to make the Battery roster back in February.

His spring featured some signature moments, a nose for the goal, and enough versatility to keep him in the mix.

It seemed appropriate that Savage would score against his alma mater on March 2 during the Battery’s 5-0 deconstruction of the Clemson Tigers. But Battery fans will remember Savage for delivering the 75th-minute goal that propelled the team to a rare win over an MLS side.

Savage was one of several players who began substituting on in the 69th minute of the Carolina Challenge Cup match against Houston, and when Zach Prince launched a beautifully weighted corner across the face of the goal, the rookie pounced.

“I just knew to go for the challenge,” said Savage, who had played only 20 minutes in the tournament before the final minutes of the final match. “I just went in and the ball went right past them. Perfect timing, and I just headed it in.”

There were other players in camp with established goal-scoring credentials, but Savage’s instincts and steady performance made him too difficult to cut, and he became one of just two college players to sign with the team so far. He’s more of an affordable backup as a rookie, but these are early days for him. Depending on how well the Battery does in the U.S. Open Cup and the USL PRO playoffs, Savage could be part of twice as many games this year as Clemson played in 2012.

Chris Thomas, forward

Chris Thomas fights for an attacking possession against Carolina. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

Chris Thomas fights for an attacking possession against Carolina. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.

This high-scoring trialist from Elon College in North Carolina was the last man to arrive in Battery camp in March. Even at this late date (USL PRO’s regular season began almost two weeks ago) he might not be the last.

Thomas arrived before the March 23 home match against Wilmington and made a cameo appearance right before the final whistle. He played significant minutes against the Carolina Railhawks on March 30, showing hustle and some decent aerial ability. But that match was particularly chippy, more a series of midfielder possession battles than a game in which either side established an offensive flow, making it difficult to form opinions about new strikers.

Thomas comes with the pedigree, and he passes the eye-test. He’s tall (6-0), powerfully built (190) and moves nicely. But his MLS scouting report (the New England Revolution drafted Thomas in the 2013 Supplemental draft) says he’s not exactly a target forward, and can be “enigmatic.”

It’s important to bear in mind that with Charleston and Vancouver in ongoing negotiations about some kind of deal, Thomas’ future in Charleston could be settled off the field. If the Whitecaps send us forwards on loan, Thomas could find himself out of luck.