What are we do to with all that time?
Easy. We’ll do what fans all over the world do: We’ll review what we’ve just seen, obsess over scraps of news and cautiously cryptic statements from the front office, and try to figure out what it all means for the upcoming season.
Today’s assignment: Review the matches so far.
Game 1, Feb. 16 (home): Battery 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 3 (Paterson 1st, Kelly 1st)
For me, this match will be memorable for three things: The Battery’s near-collapse in the first 10 minutes, the Battery’s furious comeback in the final 40 minutes, and writing my first game report from a soccer match. None of these three things were without flaws.
Vancouver’s high-speed attack rocked the Battery on its heels from the opening kick, and the score would have been 2-0 after four minutes if the referee had not waqved off the Whitecaps’ first goal on a questionable call.
In retrospect, those early minutes are memorable as the only glimpse we got of big defender Ebrima “E.J.” Jatta in a Battery uniform. Jatta, a trialist who played for the L.A. Blues in 2012, looked utterly shell-shocked by attackers Kekuta Manneh and Darren Mattocks, but the Battery settled down after coach Mike Anhaeuser pulled him from the game and moved midfielder Quinton Griffith to right back. I don’t remember ever seeing Jatta again.
Dane Kelly scored on a memorable shot from the corner of the box, but the best sequence of the night was this one:
A dribbling attack up the center by 2012 Battery leading scorer Nicki Paterson ended with this sequence: a pass to substitute Dane Kelly on the left, who passed to substitute Gibson Bardsley, who passed back to Paterson, who was running the channel. It was high-speed, whiz-bang, one-touch football and it produced a sharp finish by Paterson… whose substitute was already standing beside the fourth official waiting to enter the game (The secret to showmanship: Always leave them wanting more…).
What the box score won’t show is that for the final 30 minutes of this match, the Whitecaps were the hunted. The Battery kept looking for an equalizer and damn near found one on several occasions.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a good showing by the home team. But looking back, it spoke of resilience and talent.
A couple other points about this match:
It’s the only time this preseason that I can remember seeing Jose Cuevas deployed as a lone striker at the top of the formation. Vancouver’s physical back line put bodies on him every time he touched the ball, and the 2012 Rookie of the Year never seemed to find his way into the flow of the game.
Second, Battery captain Colin Falvey sat this one out with a hamstring strain. “If he plays,” a Battery official told me later, “I think we’d have won that one.”
Game 2, Feb. 20 (home): Battery 1, Chicago Fire 2 (Cuevas 1st)
This one was the only real heartbreaker of the 2013 preseason.
With the Fire starting their best field lineup plus a backup keeper, the Battery took the early lead on Chicago in the 12th minute and then surrendered an equalizer on Austin Berry’s header off a corner kick 15 minutes later.
The Fire subbed-on nine players in the second half and went on the attack, but the Battery preserved the draw through the full 90. The game-winner came in the waning moments of stoppage time, and it took the air out of a frigid Blackbaud Stadium.
Afterward, Anhaeuser put things in preseason perspective.
“I could have subbed more,” he said. “But I’m trying to hold some guys, to give our guys some minutes to get some fitness, which you could see there at the end it was starting to catch up with a few of them. Which I could have taken off. But you know what? In the end we’re trying to get some of the guys some minutes and some games. And also then you get some things that happen. When you’re tired, you have to do things differently.”
There were plenty of good things that came out of this loss, but none of them was more encouraging than the play of Nicki Paterson. In addition to assisting on Jose Cuevas‘ first goal of 2013, the midfielder bedeviled the Fire all night
“I feel devastated,” Paterson said afterward. “I feel like we just lost the championship game, but when you fight so hard… if you’re going to lose a game, I guess that the way you lose it.”.
Game 3, Feb. 23 (home): Battery 2, Houston Dynamo 1 (Kelly 2nd, Savage 1st)
Everyone I spoke to leading up to this match seemed optimistic that the Battery were on the verge of breaking through, and that’s exactly what happened in the final match of the Carolina Challenge Cup. But if this match is remembered, it will be as goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper’s coming out party in front of a stadium peppered with MLS coaches, scouts and front office staff.
Rookie trialist Austin Savage shot the game-winner in the 75th minute when Zach Prince found him on a corner kick. “I just knew to go for the challenge,” said Savage, a Clemson graduate from Summerville. “I just went in and the ball went right past them. Perfect timing, and I just headed it in.”
Despite those heroics, there was no challenge to Cooper’s claim to Man of the Match honors. Starting his first match since defecting from the Cuban national team in October — and still limited by a sore knee — Cooper’s athletic saves kept the Battery in contention against a Dynamo squad that didn’t appear to be taking the match lightly. But one moment stood out above all others.
The play of the night came in the 34th minute, when the referee called a highly questionable penalty kick, and then booked Cuevas — apparently for pointing that out. With MLS star Brad Davis lining up over the ball, Cooper guessed left and punched away Davis’ shot to the extreme upper right-hand corner of the goal.
Bad weather killed attendance and came close to cancelling the final pair of games for the second year in a row. But the Battery moved up the start time, cut out all the pomp and ceremony, and squeezed this one in right before the next line of squalls arrived.
“It’s important for morale and getting the boys going,” Falvey said after the match. “We didn’t want to lose three on a spin, especially on our own patch. It was important that we got a result tonight, and I thought in the second half we were immense — kept our shape really well, played on the counterattack. Obviously we knew they were going to have a lot of the ball, but I think it was a good performance. We’re getting fitter by the day, and I believe there’s good things to come this season with this bunch that we’ve assembled.”
Here’s what wasn’t so good: After writing his name in bold strokes across the first two matches, Nicki Paterson faded into the background in the Houston win. Only later would the reason why become apparent: The Scotsman strained his groin in the game. For the next month, Battery fans would simply cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Game 4, Feb. 28 (‘away’ at Patriots Point): Battery 3, College of Charleston 0 (Griffith 1st, Kelly 3rd and 4th)
With a bunch of former Cougars on the preseason roster and all the familiarity between the programs, this dominant win by the Battery is memorable as the only appearance of 2013 by Ryan Richter.
Richter looked like a good bet to make the roster at D.C. United after a solid preseason there, but somehow didn’t survive the final cut. His unexpected return to Charleston momentarily raised the possibility that the team might get back yet another MLS-quality star, and his appearance against C of C flashed just how much his game had improved.
Playing out of position most of the match at right back, Richter still notched two assists, should have had another, and almost scored a goal of his own. A few days later, he was gone for a trial in Toronto, and this time he got the contract offer he’d been looking for.
At this point in the preseason, though, the story was Jamaican forward Dane Kelly. Kelly spent much of 2012 on loan with the Battery, but whatever he’d been last season, the 2013-version was clearly a vast improvement. Kelly scored his fourth goal in four games, demonstrating strength and resolve.
The goal of the match, though, might well wind up being remembered as the Battery’s best goal of 2013. Antiguan international Quinton Griffith, never shy to shoot from distance, put his foot into the ball somewhere around the edge of the middle third. Everyone in the stands spent the rest of the match arguing about just how long the shot must of have been. Some said 35 yards. Others said 45. Call it 40 yards with a vapor trail. It hardly matters. Griffith’s goalzao was, as Colin Falvey put it, “as good as you’ll see.”
The Cougars would not be nearly as welcoming on the return match.
Game 5, March 2 (away): Battery 5, Clemson University 0 (Savage 2nd, Prince 1st, Bardsley 1st, van Schaik 1st, Cuevas 2nd)
I didn’t get to cover this match, which apparently took place between snowfalls in the Upstate. Austin Savage got the honor of scoring against his alma mater, and with the Battery owning a goal differential of +9 over a three-game winning streak, the team was definitely on a gaudy roll.
Game 6, March 5 (home): Battery 4 Georgia Southern 1 (Cordovez 1st, Cuevas 3rd, Mueller 1st, Bardsley 2nd)
Here’s how weird Taylor Mueller’s goal was: He didn’t even see it go in.
On a day memorable for its freakish, swirling winds, Mueller launched a hopeful, arching pass from midfield and then turned away in disgust when it missed its target. So he didn’t see how the wind weirdly lifted his errant pass over the outstretched arms of the Georgia Southern keeper near the edge of his area. It rolled slowly into the net as everyone in attendance stared at each other in disbelief.
A lot of things went right for the Battery again GSU. The only thing that didn’t was a wind-aided back-pass header from Cody Ellison that got past backup keeper Odisnel Cooper. Thus ended the GSU scoring.
So it wasn’t an instant classic. But Cuban striker Evier Cordovez notched his first goal in Battery stripes, Zach Prince assisted Jose Cuevas on his third goal of the preseason, and Gibson Bardsley, who lead Dayton in scoring in 2012, scored his second goal in as many games. The result ran Charleston’s winning-streak goal-differential up to a ridiculous 14-2.
But this pretty much concluded the Harlem Globetrotters’ portion of the Battery preseason. Each match that followed would be hard-fought.
Game 7, March 7 (home): Battery 2, Coastal Carolina 1 (Cuevas 4th and 5th)
The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers might be “that college from Myrtle Beach,” but they’re one of the better programs in college soccer, and they showed up ready to play on March 7th. Only one thing prevented the Chanticleers from heading home with a well-earned result in this one: Midfielder Jose Cuevas.
Cuevas scored off an assist from Evier Cordovez in the first half (how he kept his balance in the collision that preceded his shot, I will never know), but the Chants tightened down after that, tucking-in on challenges all around the field and muscling up against physical Battery players used to dominating college opponents. After CCU found the equalizer in the second half the Chants effectively shut down the Battery’s set pieces and broke up Charleston offensive flow. All signs pointed toward a stalemate. But then this happened:
Acquiring the ball at midfield with a man on him, no Battery player forward and the CCU back line in decent position, Cuevas went on a one-man raid. Running slightly left with with the defender on his shoulder, Cuevas sensed space beyond and kicked the ball ahead in what was essentially a pass to himself. His sprint to the ball put his opponent on his hip, and as he regained control at top speed in the box with a second defender closing in, he somehow managed to square himself and get off a low strike that beat the diving keeper to the far post.
I remember thinking at the time: The Seattle Sounders had their shot at this kid this winter, and they totally whiffed on it. Soccer is a team sport. But on an afternoon when the Battery just couldn’t solve the Chanticleer defense, Jose Cuevas singlehandedly found a way to score two goals. He doesn’t do that without teammates, but the Battery doesn’t win this one without Cuevas. Plain and simple.
Oh, and there’s another thing to remember about this game. It’s the only glimpse we’ve had so far of Cuban midfielder Maikel Chang.
Without a stable support system after their political defection in Toronto in October 2012, all three Cubans arrived in Charleston in February in varying degrees of not-match-fit. After a few days in camp, all three were injured, and one of the trickiest tasks that faced GM/Coach Mike Anhaeuser was not only managing the health of his young internationals, but finding out whether they had the ability to make the team.
Chang was the last of the three to make an appearance for the Battery, and he trotted onto the field with about 10 minutes remaining in the contest. Here’s how I covered it at the time:
It wasn’t much time for an audition, but to be blunt about it, this kid flashed showstopping talent at least three times in his short appearance. You don’t want to hang too much on so little by someone so young, but let’s be conservative and say that Battery fans have reason to be cautiously optimistic about what Chang could mean for this team.
His first touch was a deft piece of footwork that put a defender out of position at midfield and launched an attack that ended with a sharp pass into the box by Sean Ferguson. Cuevas managed to graze it with his forehead, but couldn’t make enough solid contact to put it on frame. Chang’s second touch initiated another attack, this time with a flick-on header that found Gibson Bardsley in a forward spot. Bardsley’s sweet back-heel pass went straight to the feet of Jarad van Schaik, but his attempt on goal was ruined when he slipped on the turf. There was a lot of that going around late in the second half for both team, as the evening dew formed and sent players sliding around like cars on black ice.
Finally — and it came to exactly nothing, but I’ll note it here anyway — Chang challenged one defender with a quick series of stepovers and foot skill. It didn’t completely break him down, and it didn’t create a great chance for the Battery, but it was so fluid and so sudden that it made you take note.
It was promising start to his Battery career, but by the time the team returned to Blackbaud Stadium Chang was hurt again. So the wait continues.
Game 8, March 14 (away): Battery 2, Carolina Railhawks 1 (Griffith 2nd, Azira 1st)
The Railhawks and the Battery share a history that predates the Cary-based team’s decision to bolt for the NASL. And then there’s the incipient weirdness of the NASL representing the second tier of the North American soccer pyramid, even as Major League Soccer and USL PRO work out cooperation and affiliation agreements.
Plus, after feasting on a series of college opponents, the Battery were taking their longest trip of the preseason to face a professional club. So let’s just say that there were interesting storylines going into this match.
Again, I didn’t get to cover this one. But I’m told that Quinton Griffith’s goal was a long-range shot that his fellow players considered every bit as ridiculous as his wondergoal against the College of Charleston. Plus Michael Azira scored his first goal since the game winner in the USL PRO Championship match. And the outcome — beating an upper-division professional club on its own turf — had to be a nice validation of the squad’s progress for coach Mike Anhaeuser.
As a side note, the Railhawks sent out several Tweets promoting the match, but then made no mention of the outcome in the club’s Twitterstream or on its website.
Game 9, March 19 (‘away’ at Patriots Point): Battery 0, College of Charleston 0
The Battery were original scheduled to host this match at Blackbaud, and I never bothered to figure out why the game got moved, but if you weren’t there, this wasn’t a case of home-cooking favoring the Cougars. The local college side simply showed up for this game, took everything the Battery threw their way, and never once backed away or lost concentration.
The Battery dominated possession as the Cougars bunkered down, and the professionals created enough chances to win the match (both Jose Cuevas and Dane Kelly bounced shots off the post). Yet in the waning moments it was the kids from C of C who almost stole a victory. As the clock wound down…
…Falvey turned in the Battery’s best play of the match when a sudden attack by Cougars’ captain Daan Brinkman produced a shot in front of the goal mouth that seemed to catch keeper Odisnel Cooper flatfooted. Falvey managed a kick-save to backstop his young Cuban teammate, preserving the draw.
In addition to providing an enormous morale boost to a rebuilding College of Charleston team, this match might be remembered for another reason: the Battery debut of Canadian youth international Ben Fisk of the Vancouver Whitecaps. The jet-lagged Cascadian came on in the second half and turned in a performance that he later described as “pretty much falling asleep on the field.”
Game 10, March 23 (home): Battery 2, Wilmington Hammerheads 0 (Fisk 1, Cuevas 6th)
In the first paid-attendance event at Blackbaud Stadium since the final night of the CCC, the Battery outclassed the Hammerheads in a game billed as a rematch of the USL PRO Championship. But this was hardly the Hammerheads squad that fans remember from 2012.
It’s better to remember this one as our first good look at speedy young attacking midfielder Ben Fisk, who scored on an assist from Jose Cuevas and then four minutes later assisted Cuevas on his 6th goal of the preseason.
The scoring took place in the second half, after the physical but less talented Hammerheads put up a valiant effort to hold the Battery in check during the first 45 minutes…
Early in the 69th, substitute defender Sean Ferguson’s sliding tackle broke up a rapidly building Hammerhead threat, and moments later wing Quinton Griffith laid down a sliding tackle of his own near midfield to win back possession for the Battery. The resulting throw-in went to Cuevas, who slotted a pass across the field to the left, where the speedy Fisk outran the Wilmington line near the top of the area, got a good first touch, and then calmly beat the exposed keeper.
The second goal began with an excellent effort by veteran left back John Wilson, who pushed ahead into the attacking third to create the chance. When the ball went wide left to Fisk, “Ben 10″ pushed it back to the center, where Cuevas was closely marked by a center back. The 2012 Rookie of the Year coolly chipped the ball over the head of his man, spun around him to settle it, and with only the keeper left to beat, shot far post for the score.
But here’s the best news from this one: Nicki Paterson got his first action since injuring his groin against Houston on Feb. 28th.
Oh, and before you write off the 2013 Hammerheads, bear this in mind: The Battery were playing their 10 game of 2013. The Hammerheads were only in their first week of training camp.
Game 11, March 26 (away): Battery 2, Coastal Carolina 2-0 (Cuevas 7th, Mueller 2nd)
Another game I didn’t get to cover. And if it was good news that Nicki Paterson was able to play on March 23 against the Hammerheads, the better news here was that he assisted on Jose Cuevas’ 7th goal of the preseason.
Game 12, March 30 (home): Battery 1, Carolina RailHawks 0 (Cuevas, 8th)
Fans will remember the final game of the Battery’s 2013 preseason for its chippy, physical, disjointed play, but I suspect that — as ugly as it was — this one had to look beautiful through the eyes of Coach Mike Anhaeuser.
At various times this preseason the Battery have punched above their weight (Chicago and Houston), toyed with outmatched college opponents (Clemson, Georgia Southern) and barely escaped an upset (College of Charleston). But going toe-to-toe with an evenly matched squad from an upper division in a home-and-away series and coming out with two wins on 3-1 aggregate has got to feel good to a blue-collar coach. This Battery team can play pretty. This game showed they can also win ugly.
With the Railhawks dominating possession with short, square passes for much of the game, the Battery resorted to direct counterattacks. Most of their long ball passes and clearances just reset the Railhawks’ next possession, until…
…roughly midway through the first half, when right back Taylor Mueller sent a cross-field pass to Paterson, who headed it back across the face of the goal to Cuevas. The ball initially looked like it would elude Cuevas and roll out for a goal kick, but the 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year somehow managed to dig it out and force a point-blank shot past his man and the Railhawk keeper at the near post.
“It all started before the ball even moved,” Cuevas said of the goal. “Me and Nicki were already talking on the back post. We were like ‘Hey, if the ball’s coming in to me, I’m coming right back across,’ so when Taylor played that beautiful ball in to Nicki, I read off of it. Good thing the ground was kinda sticky, so the ball held there and I just had to finish it off. ”
And don’t let anybody tell you that these preseason matches don’t mean anything. The Railhawks started this match fired up and combative, and they never really let down. Cuevas’ score capped a great preseason, but it was an organized back line and a fiesty midfield that kept them in the game.
The Battery surrendered three goals in the first 50 minutes of the preseason and then just six more in the next 11-and-a-half games. They finished with nine wins, two losses and one draw, plus a 4-2 record against professional clubs. They concluded the preseason on a 10-game unbeaten streak. They outscored their opponents 26-9.
And the bottom line on the 2o13 preseason?
“It was too long,” said Coach Mike Anhaeuser.
Most likely. But I enjoyed every minute.
TOP PHOTO: Jose Cuevas challenges the Carolina defenders at Blackbaud Stadium in the Battery’s preseason finale 1-0 win over the Railhawks. Dan Conover photo.