Though the club made no announcements, when the Charleston Battery staff updated the team roster page on its website Wednesday afternoon for the first time in a month, the questions started rolling in.
Did the omission of rookie defender Drew Ruggles and second-year forward Austin Savage mean that the two players had been released?
Here to explain that — sort of — is Battery general manager and coach Mike Anhaeuser. Because the answer is probably still no, yes, and maybe.
As in: no, they haven’t been released; yes, they’re still with the team, and could they still stick with the club in 2014? Maybe. But with the Battery committed to providing minutes to its loaned-in Vancouver Whitecaps, the most relevant question could be whether the team can do that and still find minutes to develop its own young prospects.
Here’s what we can report: The Battery had more-or-less squared away a 22-man roster by Wednesday, and neither Ruggles nor Savage were on it. Neither man had a contract with the Battery as of 3 p.m. this afternoon, either.
Then again, both Ruggles and Savage trained with the team on Wednesday, both attended a team lunch after practice, and Anhaeuser held out the possibility that either or both could still be on the bench come Saturday evening when the Battery take on Orlando City in the 2014 home opener.
That outcome, however, would be contingent on too many variables to explore here. Suffice it to say that this is probably one of the most fluid weeks of the year at 1990 Daniel Island Road, where club officials are trying to sign players to contracts and round up all the necessary international and U.S. Soccer clearances that players must have in order to make an official USL PRO appearance.
At the same time, the Battery is monitoring a couple of injuries at forward — to a recovering Dane Kelly, who could be cleared for the 18 on Saturday, and to Whitecap Marlon Ramirez, who injured an ankle this week in practice — before deciding what to do in advance of the season opener.
It’s part of the last-minute brinksmanship of building a USL PRO roster, made a bit more fluid by the inclusion of seven players from Vancouver Whitecaps, with an eighth player still a possibility.
But here’s the other side of it. As the Battery depth chart comes more clearly into focus, both Savage and Ruggles are young players who are unlikely to get many minutes in 2014 — barring injuries to players ahead of them. Rather than signing them to one-year pro contracts and then leaving them off the weekly XI most of the season, Anhaueuser said he is looking into finding them other places to play.
Over the past year the Battery has been working to build a relationship with Palmetto Bantums F.C., a PDL club that plays in Columbia and Greenwood. That’s largely because the Battery wants a place to send promising players it hopes to sign eventually.
And Anhaeuser arranged for Ruggles to travel up to Conway Wednesday evening to play for Coach Dave Irving in the Wilmington Hammerheads’ 1-2 preseason loss to Coastal Carolina.
That could result in Ruggles signing with a rival club for 2014, but the logic is that Ruggles would get more minutes in Wilmington than he would here, and the Battery could make a bid to sign him for 2015.
“I want the players, if they can go somewhere else and play somewhere else, to be able to do that,” Anhaeuser said Wednesday after practice. “But at the same time, if they’re gonna end up here, which they could… I want them here. Because they’ve done well.
“Ruggles could still be with us. I just don’t know with numbers and things like that, so I’m just trying to give him an opportunity, which we always do with Dave in Wilmington. So he’s going up there to play, but it doesn’t mean that we won’t see him on our roster. So it really hasn’t changed anything.
“Austin’s the other one, where we’re still making a decision. We want to make the right decision. So if they’re not going to be here and play that much, I need them to get somewhere where they can play, and we’re trying to check all the avenues. All the other guys, everything is pretty much set.”
Part of what makes this tricky is that — while MLS can loan players to the professional USL PRO — the rules prohibit a USL PRO club from loaning a player on a professional contract to the PDL. So once Anhaeuser signs a player for the year, he loses the option to send him somewhere where the man can get minutes. And for young players, game minutes are crucial.
Counting Ruggles and Savage, the Battery have been at 24 players since goalkeeper Andy Ramos left last week. That’s two more than the Battery carried in 2013, and a number that Anhaeuser mentioned earlier this offseason as a possible target for this year’s squad. But with a chance of Vancouver sending another player still hanging out there, Anhaeuser was more focused on the number 22 on Wednesday… although he didn’t rule out keeping 24.
“I want to keep them all. But unfortunately sometimes you can’t,” Anhaeuser said. “And if we get one more player from (Vancouver)… if they send me a left back… then they never play and they don’t have an opportunity. And you’ve got to stick to your budget numbers. And we’re very close to that.”
Savage, a local star at Stratford High School, joined the Battery in 2013 after a successful career at Clemson University. He came out of college nursing an ankle injury that affected him for much of the season, but he won a spot with grit, potential and a knack for finishing chances. That knack paid off with the game-winner in the Battery’s 2013 Challenge Cup victory over Houston.
Savage also provided the winning margin in the team’s U.S. Open Cup win over the Portland Timbers U-23s at JELD-Wen Field.
Despite those golden goals, Savage spent most of his rookie season as an unused reserve. He got healthy, but didn’t get the minutes he probably needed. After turning down a full-time local job in parks and recreation, Savage returned to Blackbaud in 2014 with an intense focus on winning a job with the Battery and advancing his professional career.
But when the Whitecaps sent two forwards to Charleston, the road ahead got considerably steeper.
Ruggles, a prospect out of Georgia Southern, arrived via the Battery’s open tryout system, impressing coaches in January and then turning in a standout performance at the combine in February.
The highlight of his preseason came in the Challenge Cup match against D.C. United, when Ruggles ran up unnoticed and redirected a corner kick in the dying seconds of the match to earn the Battery a draw.
Fans immediately noticed him, and I can safely say that the question I’ve heard more than any other this offseason is “Do you think Drew is going to make the roster?”
One thing that argued in Ruggles’ favor was his preferred position: left back. Though he can also play centrally, Ruggles’ primary spot put him in the queue behind veteran Battery left back John Wilson, who often sits out road games, particularly in stadiums with artificial surfaces.
But as the team developed over the past month, Anhaeuser has became increasingly confident in his depth at the position. With Quinton Griffin moving to right back with the ability to play on either either side, a versatile defender in Taylor Mueller, and two other players (Shawn Ferguson and Whitecaps U-18 Jackson Farmer) capable of playing on the right, there’s no shortage of fullback depth this year.
“Quinton played two years at left back for Antigua, so I’ve got him, and Taylor can slide out there to the left,” Anhaeuser said. “The one people don’t know about is (Jarad van Schaik). He went into San Jose (on an offseason trial) and he played left back. He played left back for us a couple times last year. So Jarad’s one I could probably slide back there and feel pretty comfortable, because we do have a lot of center midfielders.”
Meanwhile, official contract announcements began to roll out yesterday.
Though it hasn’t been officially announced by the club yet, Anhaeuser confirmed Wednesday that rookie Justin Portillo from Coastal Carolina has earned his first contract. Coastal carried that news with a headline story on its website yesterday afternoon.
And this afternoon, the Battery sent out an email announcing the signings of Odisnel Cooper, Maikel Chang and Heviel Cordoves. Of the three Cubans from the 2013 team, only Chang entered camp as a question mark, and his play this preseason had clearly earned him a spot.
Meanwhile, there’s another big piece of local soccer news we’re waiting to report as soon as it’s official. Stay tuned…
TOP IMAGE: Defender Drew Ruggles (left) and forward Austin Savage played the second half of Tuesday’s win over Georgia Southern. Though Coach Mike Anhaeuser says he wants both players, they remain in roster limbo. Dan Conover photos.