At first, the Charleston Battery weren’t quite connecting this morning. Shots sailed. There were whiffs on headers and volley attempts. Things that began with promise evaporated into nothing. But by the end of practice, whatever rhythm the cross-and-finish drill lacked at the beginning had been regained with confidence.
When you look at what the Battery have done this season (4-1-0, four-game winning streak, +5 goal differential), it’s worth bearing in mind that as generally good as this team has been, they are in some ways still looking for their rhythm as a group, and this has more to do with health than any other factor. The team that started the season in Richmond was missing its usual starting defensive midfielder in Amadou Sanyang has been missing its most clever attacking option — Jose Cuevas — ever since.
Figure in other injuries and fitness worries and you get the picture. Whatever the Battery have the potential to become this season, they’re still in the process of getting there, as opposed to maintaining and perfecting.
So the good news is that today’s training looked about as fit and fully attended as we’ve seen since early April.
Sanyang’s March 30th concussion was not something to take lightly considering his medical history, and even once the team listed him as ready to play, the staff still held him out of the Pittsburgh game just because they could. Sanyang played at Harrisburg and his first start in the rotational-roster win at Dayton last week was a welcome sight, although he was pulled early after picking up an unrelated knock. Sanyang, who doesn’t yet seem to be back to the occasionally dominant form he has flashed in the past, said he is feeling a little bit better every day.
But the big story this week is Cuevas’ return to training. The 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year scored nine goals in 12 preseason games and looked ready to to do some serious statistical damage in USL PRO, but he’s spent the past month rehabbing the hamstring injury he picked up the the first half in the season-opener against the Richmond Kickers.
“He’s a little bit behind on his fitness,” Coach Mike Anhaeuser said Thursday. “We’ll see how he is. He’s going to be ready to play… (but he’s) definitely not ready to play 90 minutes. The good thing is he’s training, he’s been training for three days, and he’s looked pretty good.”
On the sidelines
One of the other offensive widgets the team lost in April was 20-year-old Canadian Ben Fisk, who joined the team in March and won Man of the Match in his first USL PRO start against Antigua. He hasn’t been in the lineup since, and the team has been cagey when it comes to his health status, hoping to defer to Fisk’s parent club in Vancouver. What we knew was that he had recurring soreness after games that was limiting his ability to train.
What we can say now is that Fisk had a slight MCL tear that he picked up in Vancouver before arriving in Charleston on loan. After getting a firm diagnosis of the problem he underwent surgery, and is expected to make a full recovery in two to four weeks, Anhaeuser said.
The most recently arrived Canadian is 19-year-old Bryce Alderson, whose loan to Charleston was delayed while he rehabbed his own knee injury in Canada. He joined the team just before the Pittsburgh game, made the trip to Pennsylvania and Ohio, and played the first 45 minutes at Dayton. In the process, he too wound up with an injury. Anhaeuser described it as a “muscle-pull contusion” in his thigh. While Alderson’s recovery isn’t expected to take too long, it’s the kind of injury that players pick up when they’re trying to get match-fit after recovering from an another injury. “We’ll probably have to step back and put him on a two-week, slower-progression program,” Anhaeuser said.
The only other player not training with the team Thursday was healthy centerback Shawn Ferguson. He was at rehearsal for the College of Charleston graduation ceremony on Saturday.
Five Battery players who dealt with ongoing injury concerns as recently as late March are all either coming along or moving past concerns about reinjury or secondary injury. Nicki Paterson’s groin injury in February at one point looked like it would require surgery, and he missed most of the preseason, but he’s back to being a 90-minute box-to-box midfielder. Mark Wiltse suffered an MCL injury that knocked him out of the Carolina Challenge Cup, but he began playing in late March and looks none the worse for wear as Option 1A at right back. Center forward Heviel Cordoves had to make up fitness after arriving in Charleston and wound up unable to train for several stretches in March, but appears to have placed that behind him.
One of his fellow Cubans, midfielder Maikel Chang, however, had a more difficult time staying healthy. Chang is a promising player who might wind up being a creative star on offense, but when leg injuries kept derailing his progress, the staff put him on a more cautious training program. He started and played 45 minutes at Dayton, which was a big step for him as he builds base fitness for 2013. Today Anhaeuser references Chang’s experience when he talks about how the team may approach managing Alderson’s rehab.
Meanwhile, winger Quinton Griffith has proven himself one of the most disruptive players on the team, using track-quality speed to stretch opposing defenses like Silly Putty. So when he pulled up with a tight hamstring two weeks ago, it was cause for concern, if not outright alarm. The injury didn’t cost him any games, but it appeared to slow him down a bit last week. On Thursday, however, he looked like his fast and fearless self.
The Depth Benefit
With nominal central midfield starters Cuevas and Sanyang out of the mix, the Battery have run through a series of lineups that featured inside and outside midfielders Fisk, Michael Azira, Zach Prince and Jarad van Schaik in a variety of positions and roles. Azira responded with three goals, while Fisk and Prince put up quality numbers in their starting roles. Van Schaik, who would normally line up at left midfield, shifted inside to cover central defensive mid.
Now that Sanyang and Cuevas are working their way back into the lineup, it’s not clear how Anhaeuser will apportion his midfield playing time. It’s hard to see how Azira loses minutes after the resume he turned in over the past month. But whatever Anhaeuser chooses, he’ll have options that other USL PRO coaches would likely covet — particularly when it comes to deploying Cuevas.
“You can put him in a couple of different places,” Anhaeuser said. “When he gets back to full strength, we’ll have options. He can play up front, he can play in the middle. I used him out wide a few times last year… If he gets a chance, with one or two chances, he scores a goal. And can score out of nothing. That’s why you want him 100 percent.”
Another position of obvious depth is goalkeeper, where Odisnel Cooper and Kevin Klasila have both played well. Cooper started the first four matches, giving up five goals and recording two clean sheets. Klasila got the shutout Friday at Dayton.
“Right now the guys are ticking,” Anhaeuser said. “We’ve got options at every position. We’re healthy… and that’s all we can ask. We’ve got a full week here, but we play Saturday, and then we play Tuesday, and then you look at Open Cup coming the following week. We’re not going to worry about it, but that’s where you’re going to have two games in four days also, and it catches up with you. You’re going to need all the guys.”
‘Jetey’ taking off
Emmanuel Adjetey, a left-footed wing back from Ghana via Vancouver, made his debut with about 15 remaining against Pittsburgh. He got his first start at left back in Harrisburg in place of John Wilson and went the full 90, then moved to left midfield and played the first 69 minutes against Dayton. His swift, occasionally explosive performances on the road drew the attention of his teammates. He’s certainly one of the players to watch as the team heads into its Saturday match against Wilmington.
“I think the first thing I noticed was his composure on the ball,” said Wilson, who played at left back with Adjetey at left mid for the first time on May 3. “I think that he’s got a lot of the tools to be a very good player. He’s left-footed, he’s quick, he’s fast. He’s passing well. He’s aggressive when he needs to be, so I think he has a good chance. And I think he’s one of those players who’s willing to learn.
“You have to understand a guy’s tendencies. I think Jetey’s first tendencies are to defend, so if he’s playing in front of me, or I’m in front of him, I know that, yes, I have to get back, but I also know that I have him behind me,” Wilson said. That’s not to say the other guys aren’t defensive-minded, but you have to understand your players. I think he’s sort of the – I shouldn’t say New Age back, but now everybody has to be able to defend and get into the attack.”
COMING UP: Wilmington preview on Friday. Aloha!
TOP IMAGE: Jose Cuevas carves up the Carolina Railhawks in the Battery’s final preseason match. He scored nine times in preseason, but hasn’t played in the regular season since the first half of the season-opener. KIM MORGAN GREGORY PHOTO.