Looking over my notes from last night (read the original game story here) and comparing them to the official USL PRO score sheet, the numbers actually enhanced my original impression of the game. The Battery took 27 shots, generated seven corners, and were called offsides 10 times. For Antigua, the same numbers were five, two and zero.
The most remarkable numbers in that series are the offsides statistics. The Antigua number isn’t surprising given the handful of threadbare almost-chances the Barracudas managed to create. But several of the calls against Charleston seemed questionable. Andrew Miller reported that four of those offsides calls negated goals. My notes say that one of those took place as I was hurrying back to my seat after finishing up shooting on the West sideline around the 13th minute. Nicki Paterson had one waved off in the 33rd and again 20 minutes later. I can’t find any reference to that fourth goal, though with the way I cover things by moving around, that doesn’t mean much.
And let’s keep it in perspective. It’s awfully hard to judge offsides calls without good video replay, and there’s a reason sideline officials run back and forth to mark the position of the last defender. So forget about the eight calls that came upfield, but consider that both of Paterson’s negated goals last night came in that point-blank area where offsides is the hardest to call accurately.
On the first one, right back Mark Wiltse’s tracer pass to right wing Quinton Griffith created a chance for center forward Heviel Cordoves, who held up, turned under close pressure and fired toward the far post. By this point the ball had been in the Antigua penalty area for at least four or five seconds, allowing the defense to pack the six-yard box. When Cordoves’ shot spun wide, Paterson finished it not with a run, but by laying out past his marker for an alert header that redirected a fading shot less than a yard away from goal. In other words, even if Paterson was offside, it would have been by a matter of inches, in a bang-bang scenario against a jumbled visual field. More power to the official if he saw it clearly, but that’s simply an easy call to get wrong.
Paterson’s second non-goal was remarkably similar, only this time it was Cordoves holding up in the area before kicking it wide to Ben Fisk, whose pass to Paterson found him near the same spot. Again the score came from point-blank range, and again the flag went up.
After the match, Paterson admitted to feeling frustrated by the goals-that-weren’t, and Coach Mike Anhaeuser made a comment about feeling bad for the guys who almost had their first scores of the year. So it was on people’s minds.
But to be clear, I don’t know that any of those calls were wrong, and I’m not writing about it to belabor the point. The thing about soccer is that so many things have to go exactly right to get statistical credit for a good performance, and the attacking players for Charleston repeatedly did remarkably good things that didn’t lead to scores. Whether they counted or not, these were excellent and skillful team efforts.
The rundown on the lineup
When people look back at soccer seasons, they tend to pay special attention to the players who make up the XI for openers. For instance, this year’s starting lineup for the home opener included four players who started the 2012 home opener (Wiltse, Paterson, Colin Falvey and John Wilson), and two subs from last season (Zach Prince and Taylor Mueller) either subbed on this year (Prince) or were available but went unused off the bench (Mueller).
But that comparison is probably a bit misleading. Two of the players who missed last night’s match, Jose Cuevas and Amadou Sanyang, are starters coming back from injuries, and both figure into the Battery’s plans in a big way. In other words, not only does this team bear a striking resemblance to the 2012 championship squad, it also looks quite a bit like the original team 12 months ago.
If you missed most of the Battery’s preseason, then the thing to consider about the lineup that faced Antigua is that the lineup changes significantly reshaped the attack. Two of last night’s starters (Cordoves and Wiltse) were changes from last week (replacing Dane Kelly and Mueller, respectively), and Michael Azira got his second consecutive start in the absence of Sanyang, who could very well be available for Pittsburgh on the 27th. Additionally, Cuevas’s hamstring made room for Fisk to make his first USL PRO start (he earned Man of the Match, and deserved it).
The result of all that swapping around was a formation that looked an awful lot like an attack-minded version of a 4-5-1 defensive deployment, with Jarad van Schaik moving inside to the defensive midfield spot while Azira and Paterson pushed forward in the center. And Anhaeuser’s Friday comments about Cordoves proved spot-on accurate, too. The big Cuban held up the ball nicely on multiple occasions and basically gave the Barracudas fits.
What stood out to me, though, was that whether it was the lineup changes or the way Antigua defended or a combination of both, the result was an attack that shifted its firepower out to the wings. Fisk and Griffth are fast, aggressive players, and with offensive-minded fullbacks in Wilson and Wiltse behind them, it’s easy to get the party started along the sidelines. That’s something of a change from the Battery attack when Cuevas is installed at the central attacking midfield/forward spot, working in combination with the speedy Kelly and the high-scoring Paterson.
Here’s what I think that means. For a lot of USL PRO teams, the league’s uneven distribution of talent means that they have to manage their lineups primarily for health, fatigue and fitness. Barring a sudden rash of injuries, however, Coach Anhaeuser might just have the luxury of managing his card to create specific match-ups against opponents.
One other thing about Anhaeuser. On Friday he spoke about wanting to try bringing the dynamic Kelly off the bench because he could change the game late. Talk about prophetic.
J.C. Mack in the house
Battery fans probably noticed 2012 player J.C. Mack standing with the team during the National Anthem. They almost certainly noticed him during the USL PRO Championship ring ceremony.
But Mack wasn’t in Charleston to get that ring. He came to town to talk with the staff from the Barracudas.
Mack had a star-crossed two-year career with the Battery, flashing talent but suffering injuries. He filled multiple roles as a utility player in 2012, then went on trial with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of NASL this winter. Mack was the last man cut in Tampa, and went wandering again in search of his next soccer job.
With so many North America roster spots filled by mid-April, Mack hasn’t had great options. But the off-season confusion in Antigua might just work to his advantage. Mack said he got a call from the staff of the traveling team, which used to operate as a subsidized club option for the Antigua and Barbuda National Team. This year it ran low on money and USL PRO-quality national players, so the staff is now recruiting internationals to fill out the roster. The Barracudas arrived in Charleston with just 17 players and after losing defender Omarie Daniel to what appeared to be a serious injury Saturday (he had to be carried from the field in the 53rd minute), they looked to be leaving town with just 16.
Mack promised to let me know the outcome of those talks, so I’ll pass along whatever he tells me, but since the Barracudas play nothing but road games this season, there’s a chance we’ll see a familiar face in Barracuda blue during the return match on August 15.
I’LL BE RIGHT BACK: While John Wilson is the undisputed starter at left back, the situation at right back is actually quite interesting. Anhaeuser has two talented returning options in opening-day starter Taylor Mueller and home-opening starter Mark Wiltse. Mueller, who can also play centrally, got most of the preseason reps while Wiltse rehabbed a knee injury. Mueller turned in a strong body of work over 12 games, but he also lost the edge on a play against Richmond that led to a goal last week. Wiltse represents more of a speedy wing-back threat, while Mueller does well aerially, defends physically, and likes to chip into the box on offense. So is there a clear starter at right back, or will the Mueller/Wiltse tandem be one of those spots that Anhaeuser manages tactically all year? Stay tuned.
MILESTONES: Congratulations to two local players who made their professional debuts last night. Forward Austin Savage, a Summerville kid who came up through Clark Brisson‘s Bridge FA Academy and led Clemson in scoring last fall, entered the game as a sub in the 75th minute. Shawn Ferguson of Rock Hill won a spot on the Battery squad this preseason despite missing multiple training sessions each week while he finished his degree at the College of Charleston. He logged his first nine USL PRO minutes after replacing Cody Ellison.
Ferguson’s play this spring caught the attention of veteran John Wilson. In an interview last week, Wilson spoke about Ferguson’s deceptive speed (he moves almost coltishly, yet closes rapidly) and athleticism. “And you can’t coach size like that,” Wilson said. Ferguson is listed as 6-3.
Also making his regular-season professional debut Saturday was midfielder Maikel Chang, the flashiest of the Battery’s three Cubans, but also the player who has suffered the most injury setbacks. After his most recent hamstring nick in March, Anhaeuser said the team would manage his recovery and playing time more cautiously. Chang replaced Griffith in the 75th minute, and occasionally appeared tentative.
Ben Fisk and Heviel Cordoves made their first professional starts and scored their first professional goals.
CLEAN SHEET NO. 1: When Chang subbed on, it marked the first time that all three of the Battery’s Cubans had played in the same regular-season professional game. For countryman Odisnel Cooper, Saturday marked his second professional start and his first professional clean sheet, facing five shots and recording three saves. Though seldom called upon (according to my notes, his first touch on the ball was a back pass in the 30th minute), Cooper looked absolutely in control of his area throughout. It was a nice response after the team’s nerve-rattling defensive play in Richmond.
Considering the Barracudas’ difficulty in advancing the ball past midfield for much of the night, the Battery back line faced relatively few challenges. Left back John Wilson made his biggest impression with two sudden and effective attacking runs, but Colin Falvey stayed home on defense and wiped out everything that came his way. He was particularly good in the air, and had the accuracy on his long passing dialed in. Anhaeuser praised the back line for keeping its shape and doing an excellent line of initiating the offense.
THE PRINCE: Now in his fourth season with the Battery, it’s almost trite to refer to Zach Prince as a former College of Charleston player. He is, but with that much professional experience for the local franchise, Prince’s story today is more about the savvy veteran weapon he’s become than the local college hero he used to be.
Prince has been a versatile substitute for the Battery since joining the club in 2010. But with 11 other players returning from the 2012 Championship team and talented newcomers Griffith, van Schaik, Cordoves, Chang and Fisk joining the rotation, it’s tough for him to get much preseason ink.
Just don’t make the mistake of ignoring him. While he doesn’t come with the international credentials possessed by most of the Battery’s newcomers, Prince has proven himself cool, calm and lethally effective all spring. Despite logging just 23 minutes last night he assisted on Dane Kelly’s goal and scored on a beauty from 30-yards to close out the score sheet. Not only that, but once Prince entered the game the entire offense seemed to run through him. He looked… in charge.
Earlier this season I spoke with him about the evolution of his game, and Prince offered one of the most candid self-critiques I’ve ever heard from a professional athlete. On Saturday night he looked exactly like the emerging player he described in preseason, winning not with speed or strength but with vision and soccer intelligence. He might be the easiest guy on the roster for outsiders to overlook, but he’s also the last guy I’d bet against right now.
EXTRACURRICULARS: It was cool to see so many returning players from 2012 walk across the pitch to get their championship rings from team owner Tony Bakker. The only unfortunate aspect, for me, was that I hoped to pick up the unveiling of The Regiment’s big new banner prominently in the background. It’s there, but you can barely make it out given the distance from my spot across the field to E10.
The coolest ring story wasn’t on the field, though.
If you read this site’s profile of Colin Falvey on Thursday, you know about his surprise tribute to longtime Battery fan Thyler Gregory, a 27-year-old chef who died in a car accident last August. After the Battery’s 1-0 championship win over Wilmington on Sept. 8, Falvey posed for the team victory photo in a jersey that honored Gregory as the Battery’s 12th man. The unexpected gesture moved professional photographer Kim Morgan Gregory, who happened to be on the field at the time shooting the celebration. to tears. Kim is, of course, Thyler’s mother.
On Saturday, she flashed yet another Battery tribute to her son.
This is why you love local soccer.
TOP IMAGE: Kim Morgan Gregory display’s Thyler’s ring (left) Veteran left back John Wilson (right) contributed to the Battery’s first regular-season clean sheet Saturday, but also carved up Antigua’s defense on several occasions. Dan Conover photo.