The Charleston Battery, to my mind, really snuck into third place. They were always a good team, but not quite in the Top 3 conversation. They kinda snuck up into third place, just kind of proof-positive that consistency wins out on a season.
–MLSReserves, Off The Bench podcast No. 97, Aug. 27, 2013
It’s easy to get the impression that when people outside of Charleston think about the Battery’s 2012 USL PRO championship, the word “fluke” is the first that comes to mind.
After all, No. 2 Rochester was the heavy favorite when the Rhinos hosted the Battery in the semifinal last August, and you had to figure that all an upset victory would get the team was a trip down to play No. 1 Orlando in the Florida Citrus Bowl. That Charleston won the trophy … well, they can thank Wilmington for that. The Hammerheads knocked off the Lions, giving No. 3 Charleston home field for the championship.
That’s not to say that the Battery don’t get respect. Of course they do. They’re one of the most respected franchises in North American soccer. But the problem is that the respect sometimes feels like pat-on-the-head respect.
Charleston is a small franchise from a small market. And though the Battery payroll isn’t a charity case, it’s certainly no match for ambitious Orlando, with its roster of former MLS players, rising stars on loan from Sporting Kansas City and quality veterans from USL PRO and foreign leagues.
No, the Battery are like the scrappy little kid on the playground. They punch above their weight, find young talents, hang around late. Get lucky sometimes. Kinda cute.
But to beat Orlando, the Team That Would Be MLS Franchise No. 21, at home? After the purple crew ran Pittsburgh — the hottest team in the league — right out of The City Beautiful with a 5-0 drubbing?
I mean, don’t the Battery always lose in Orlando? Didn’t they lose there back in July?
The hunter and the hunted
The short answer? Absolutely.
But that 2-1 loss in Orlando was one of a half-dozen 2013 Battery matches that ended under a cloud of weirdness. Orlando won, but Charleston… never acted like a beaten team.
Here’s what I wrote on the night of that loss:
“If you watched the match on the live-stream and were wondering what the mood was like on the field afterwards, it boiled down to something akin to bewilderment. I spoke to eight Battery players and coaches in the aftermath, and every one of them expressed the belief that they’d outplayed their opponents.”
And here’s Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser on Tuesday: “I’ll be honest. That game, we learned that we can play, and we can put them under pressure. (We’re) not going in there to defend.”
Charleston had its fall-apart game of 2013 in its subsequent match at Tampa. But after letting Orlando sneak out of Blackbaud with a fortunate draw and losing to the Lions in Florida on the strength of what Anhaeuser called “a shoddy penalty,” I came away from the first Orlando trip with a the sense that the Battery was itching for a rematch.
And here’s the way Nicki Paterson described it on Tuesday to Luke Lohr and Pedro Gomes on the Off The Bench podcast:
I don’t think you can turn around and say that there’s a better team at this moment in time. I just think it’s whoever is better on the night is going to take the victory and move on…
I feel there’s a bit of confidence there, at the fact that we’ve actually done it before. It seems very similar, this year to last year, which is great for us, because we finished third in the table, we won our home (playoff game) 2-1, which we did last year, we go on the road in the semi-final, which we won last year in Rochester, and then we wound up hosting the final, which we could wind up doing again if Charlotte beats Richmond, which that’s not going to be an easy one for Richmond either. Which I wouldn’t say the stars have aligned similar to last year, but it’s got a very similar feeling to it. So we’re very confident.
No doubt Charleston would rather be at home. And you won’t find a Battery player who speaks dismissively about the Lions. They’re a damn good USL PRO team.
But after talking to people around Blackbaud this season, I think the Battery want this match-up. No matter what people outside Charleston think, I get the feeling that these guys believe they can win it.
Looking at the Lions
Orlando had a hiccup early, but otherwise steamed through the first half of the USL PRO season like a carrier task force patrolling a pirate haven.
And then Sporting K.C. made some changes.
The recall of league-leading scorer Dom Dwyer on June 27 disrupted a Lions squad that looked like it might smash wheelbarrows full of USL records. With Dwyer, soccer wags speculated that Orlando was better than at least one and possibly two MLS teams. Without him, they had plenty of changes to make — including a temporary move away from their 4-4-2, based on a lack of depth at forward.
Here’s Anhaeuser again:
When we played them they had just lost (Dwyer), and they lost (loaned SKC defender Yann Songo’o) and they had a transition. They brought in Sapong and some other guys.It’s just like having injuries. That changes your team, that changes the players that play.
Right now, (Orlando Coach Adrian Heath) is down to his playoff squad. You see (2012 USL PRO top scorer forward) Dennis Chin, (former Vancouver and D.C. United forward) Long Tan, the guys who’ve been there all season. They know they’re going to play. He’s got (2012 USL PRO MVP Kevin Molino) back, he’s got (Hatian international midfielder Jean Alexandre) back, he’s got (midfielder Adama Mbengue), who got the red card here. (Attacking midfielder and former Real Salt Lake prospect Jamie Watson) is coming off injury, probably available though. So he’s got his guys that he’s had for the last two or three years and they really beat up on Pittsburgh.
Those guys know that they don’t have the loanee players coming in to play in front of them. It’s up to them, and they’ve got the ability. They’ve got their defense set, because they had a new center back, (in-season intraleague loan pickup Renan Boufleur), the Brazillian. And he’s playing (veteran defender Erick Ustruck) on the right because they had a loanee (Songo’o) out there and (fullback Bryan Burke) got injured here. So they look like they’re pretty much set.
But we know them very well. We have players that cause them problems and they know that we can cause them problems. So it’s a great matchup. If you look at it from back to front with both teams, it’s equal.
That’s not to say that forward and former MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong, the last-minute addition to the Orlando roster before Charleston arrived in July, couldn’t make another surprise appearance. Sporting K.C. sent him down and called him back, then sent him down again in early August to get him the necessary appearances that would qualify Sapong for the playoffs. But he was nowhere to be seen against Pittsburgh last weekend.
Of course, the playoffs change the way coaches look at their rosters. Against Pittsburgh, the Lions came out in the old 4-4-2, content in the knowledge that they possess two of the league’s best forwards in Chin and Tan — even if they lack much depth behind them.
The return of Watson from a late July calf strain gives the Lions another attacking option, and when he’s in the lineup with Mbengue, Anhaeuser said, “they’re really forwards out wide… When they’re clicking, they play a 4-2-4, almost four forwards. They pressure you.”
The Charleston Road Dogs
The Battery feel they’ve got the quality to challenge that deep, talented Orlando line-up — particularly in an elimination match, where depth isn’t nearly as important as it is during the long haul of the regular season. And the good news for Charleston fans is that their team is enjoying an uncharacteristic run of good health over the past three weeks. Only defender Taylor Mueller, who picked up an MCL sprain during a routine drill on Monday, is unlikely to be available.
And if the Lions have found their playoff roster, so too have the Battery.
Goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper used to scare the coaching staff with his decisions — particularly when it came to dribbling the ball out of danger. But it’s been weeks since he took a questionable risk in the box, and the team is thrilled with his development. The rookie’s goals-against average has dropped to 1.09.
Their back line of right back Emmanuel Adjetey, Colin Falvey, Cody Ellison and left back John Wilson is as good as any in the league. Adjetey, who can play either fullback position, has been a late-season revelation, Ellison’s performance this season has been overshadowed only by the growing recognition of Falvey’s body of work, and Wilson got my vote for Man of the Match on Saturday.
In reserve, Mark Wiltse came back from one injury (MCL) to claim the starting right back job in the spring, then lost his spot to another injury (concusion, broken nose) in the summer. Mueller doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves as a back-up defender, but his ability to play all four positions and his starting experience made him an important part of the team. Losing him would be worrisome, and could elevate rookie Shawn Ferguson to the 18.
On the attack, the Battery have evolved into a three-man forward group: Dane Kelly starts up top and earns his goals with one defense-stretching run after another. Secondary striker Jose Cuevas seldom lines up alongside Kelly in the Battery’s nominal 4-4-2, but Anhaeuser’s decision to play the 5-7 Californian farther up the pitch gave Kelly some much-needed help, and boosted the team’s scoring punch late in the season. Heviel Cordoves is a distinct change from either of the starters, and typically replaces Kelly. With a sturdy frame and a big foot that’s accounted for seven goals, Cordoves is a game-changer.
In midfield. Center-mid Mike Azira has been the team’s steadiest player not named Colin, content to fill whatever role the flow of the game requires. He’s heady, calm and adaptive. Amadou Sanyang‘s return to the starting defensive midfield spot is one of several changes that helped perk up the Battery in August after the team fell into a mini-slump in June and July.
But the most interesting spots in the Charleston lineup on Friday might well be the two outside midfielders: Quinton Griffith and Nicki Paterson.
Griffith started the season looking like a star on the rise until a groin injury knocked him out of the Battery’s first Charlotte match in early May. He has rare qualities beyond his obvious pace, and the sudden threat he represents forces defenders to make quick choices. But he’s often at his best as the wing who draws the defense before passing inside to an open runner. That’s usually Kelly, but last week it was Azira for the game-winner. He’s also wildly overdue for a goal, a run of bad luck that’s bound to break.
Paterson is the man I’ll be watching more than any other.
The 28-year-old Scot began the season on a tear in February, playing amazing box-to-box footfall against MLS teams in the Carolina Challenge Cup. That fearless play led to a tear of a different kind — to a groin muscle — and the Paterson who returned to pitch in April was a more calculating, less reckless one. He has been spectacular at times this season, leading the Battery victories over Wilmington and Los Angeles, plus to two wins against the Houston Dynamo Reserves. And he has also at times disappeared into the background.
During most of 2013, Anhaeuser deployed his team in a nominal 4-5-1 that morphed pretty easily into a 4-3-3 on the attack. But Paterson’s role in the center of that formation wasn’t always obvious from the stands, and it took Anhaeuser’s decision to move him out wide after the Florida road trip in July to clarify it. Paterson’s ability to put precision passes at the feet of teammates was on display for all to see on Saturday, when his cross set up Kelly for the first goal of the night.
Bottom line: Paterson is a big-game player. And this is the biggest game the Battery have played all season.
Reserves Jarad van Schaik, Zach Prince and Bryce Alderson are versatile and would start for most teams in the league. Ben Fisk is an instant-offense gadget who occasionally comes on with Cordoves as a one-two punch.
The Battery’s official watch party will be at Molly Darcy’s for what could be the final time in 2013. The match will be carried live on USLNation.com and Andrew Bell’s radio call is on 1450 AM.
A group of fans will be making the trip to Orlando.
The Battery depart for Orlando on Thursday morning, will train there Thursday evening, and plan on returning to Charleston directly from the stadium.
And with that said, there’s just the game.
“Third time’s the charm, right?” Anhaeuser said Tuesday after training. “Tie here, loss there. Time to beat them.”
TOP IMAGE: Battery forward Dane Kelly holds off defender Rob Valentino after stretching the Orlando formation with his speed on July 5. Despite being out-shot by the Battery, the Lions took the lead shortly after halftime, and it took a dramatic late goal by Heviel Cordoves to pull back the point. After gathering only two points in four consecutive matches against Orlando and Tampa Bay, the Battery made some changes to their approach, and ended the season on a roll. Dan Conover photos.