If you were among the 3,700-ish people on hand for the Battery’s 4-2 win over the Wilmington Hammerheads Saturday night, you witnessed an entertaining play in three acts. Or maybe you were just blindly feeling your way around an elephant.
Scratch that. Mixed metaphor. Forget about the elephant for the moment.
In Act 1 of our imaginary play, the Battery (5-1-0) displayed their most stylish attacking soccer of 2013, scoring four goals in 29 minutes. Act 2 revolved around a valiant effort by the star-crossed but defiant Hammerheads (1-5-0), a proud group battling fate as well as the Charleston defense. Wilmington scored twice between the restart and the hour mark, and appeared ready to do more damage in this rematch of the 2012 USL PRO championship game.
In Act 3, with the outcome teetering between success and catastrophe, Coach Mike Anhaeuser’s team grimly slugged it out (and that might be a literal description of what happened, depending on who’s describing the action) to claim their well-earned victory.
Of course, games aren’t scripted dramas, which is why we like them. The only themes that exist in sports are the ones outsiders drape over them after the fact. So this is where my mixed metaphor about the elephant comes in, because of that parable about the blind men describing one.
If you saw only the the first half-hour, you’d tell people about how dashing and sharp this Charleston team is. If you watched just the next 30 minutes, you’d talk about how much more aggressive and determined Wilmington was. And if you came in for just the last 30 minutes, you’d probably complain at the bar about how ugly lower-tier North American soccer can be.
I’m no analyst, but I can report that if you’re just judging the event by the mood in the stadium last night, this match was a knock-down success. From the most lively tailgate of the 2013 season to a genuine post-game excitement that we haven’t seen since the upset win over the Houston Dynamo in February, the fans seemed caught up in the energy created by a winning team on the rise.
After sleeping on it, I’m here to argue that what made this win so satisfying was that it was difficult. Had the Battery doubled its 4-0 halftime score in the second 45 we might be talking this morning about how the offense finally found its groove, but a blowout in professional soccer typically says more about the opponent than it does about the winner. Charleston beat woeful Antigua 4-0 last month and it didn’t feel nearly as encouraging as this one.
This victory wasn’t given. It was taken. And while there seemed to be some ill-will between the players last night, I have no problem offering respect to the Hammers this morning. Coming off a terribly disappointing 1-0 home loss to Rochester the night before, playing on short rest, facing a Charleston team that doesn’t offer hospitality to visitors, Wilmington played with courage.
When you grind out a win against an opponent capable of knocking you down, that’s something a player remembers with pride.
But that’s just my elephant.
Closer than you’d think
A 4-2 score often suggests domination. That wasn’t the case Saturday, and a quick glance at the rest of score sheet confirms it.
How closely played was this one? Both sides had six fouls and one red card. Offsides? Battery 1, Hammers 1. Saves? One each, both in the second half. Corners? Charleston won that stat 4-3. Shots? Wilmington led 13-12.
What ultimately made the difference was that the Battery’s ability to convert its chances early, temporarily rocking the Hammerheads. Like I mentioned last night, this match could have easily been 0-1 in favor of the visitors in the first minute if it weren’t for a well-place right goal post. How dramatically might that have affected the flow of the game?
If there was a singular advantage for Charleston in the first 30 minutes it was forward Dane Kelly. His game-changing speed produced three threats in the first three minutes, one of which he converted. Wilmington never quite shut him down entirely, but the Hammers adjusted to his speed midway through the half by closing on him quickly, denying him the chance to reach full stride.
Kelly’s ability to create havoc and attract so much attention probably cleared the way for some of the team’s other offensive successes in the early going. But Wilmington adjustment also stopped their bleeding before halftime. And when frustrated defender Gareth “Gaz” Evans finally retaliated in the 77th minute, the man he took down was Kelly. Perhaps it was symbolic.
Nicki Paterson earned Man of the Match honors, but I can’t help thinking that in a game this close, much of the outcome hinged on Kelly.
Speaking of Nicki
You may remember that Nicki Paterson led the team in scoring last season and had multiple goals waved off in the first three games of 2013. What you might not know was how this apparently ate at him. Paterson mentioned his frustration after the Antigua win, and clearly felt some relief when he got his first goal of the regular season off a penalty kick in Harrisburg. He converted another one two nights later in Dayton.
Last night’s goal was his first from the run of play this season, and it follow the assist he laid out for Kelly to open the book for the Battery. He led Charleston in shots with three.
From my perspective, though, Paterson earned MotM with his overall effort, not his offensive stats. Even in the middle phase of the game, when Charleston simply couldn’t find its footing against an inspired Hammerheads assault, Paterson stayed in the thick of things, battling for possession. Down the stretch he looked spry and energetic.
He’s also now tied for the team scoring lead. Again.
Paterson’s goal came off an assist from team captain Colin Falvey, an Old-School Irish centerback who played at Wilmington on his first stop in the United States.
“I’d rather take away the assist if you give me a clean sheet,” he said.
Falvey attributed the second-half turn-around to sloppy ball by the Battery in the first 20 minutes. But he also included Wilmington in the equation.
“I think they were a little more aggressive and hungry than us,” Falvey said. “Obviously they probably got an absolute ear-bashing at half time. And I played at Wilmington, I know (Wilmington Coach Dave Irving) quite well. I knew they weren’t going to lie down.
“And credit to them. They came out. You must give credit to them. They put it up to us second half. I’ll tell you what: People will probably forget this. The last 20 minutes we had to weather a storm there. And we’ve done that. We done it against Pittsburgh when we needed to grind out a result. We done it again there. So I don’t want to be too hard on the boys for the first 20, 25 minutes of the second half.”
‘It was handbags’
My favorite quote of the night came from Falvey in response to a question about the red card on his partner in central defense, big Cody Ellison. You’ll notice I haven’t written much about the incident, and that’s because it was off the ball in a scrum, and I didn’t see it. That was in the 70th minute, and three minutes later the referee handed out a second red, this time to Wilmington’s veteran centerback Evans for his take-down of Kelly.
The two reds didn’t end the on-field hostility entirely, but the tone of the match seemed to improve a bit after the second card.
“The linesman’s said (Ellison) used his elbow,” Falvey said. “To be honest, I haven’t seen it. It was hands and pushes everywhere in there.
“I think it was handbags, to be honest. I think actually what kicked it off was one of their players actually had a swung off the ball at one of our players, which kicked the ruckus off. It led from there, to be honest. And their center back goes and does something silly to even it up.”
For those of you raised in North America, a quick trip to Google might be in order. It turns out that “handbags” is British slang for “a harmless fight,” a shortened reference to the phrase “handbags at dawn,” which is itself a reference to dueling.
Was it a pushy game? You bet. By both teams. Other than the two allowed goals, Saturday’s match was the sort of match the Captain from Cork professes to enjoy most, with plenty of contact, defiance and gamesmanship.
In fact, it was a sliding tackle by Falvey in front of the Wilmington bench that turned up the heat in the 68th minute. The visitors went nuts on the sidelines, but from my vantage point in the East Stands Falvey’s challenge looked both hard and clean. Whatever your perspective, the altercation that ended with red for Ellison and yellow for Wilmington forward Steven Perry came on the ensuing possession.
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince
When Zach Prince’s name comes up this spring, it’s usually because people want to talk about how improved he is, or how versatile he’s become, or how skilled he looks in the attack. You could also talk about the extra effort he puts into signing autographs and making himself available to young fans, or the distinctively smooth way he seems to glide around the field.
He’s certainly putting up the offensive numbers. The career utility man has appeared in all six Battery matches in 2013, starting three of them, and now has two goals and two assists in the regular season.
“You know, when you get confidence, and when I have a couple of starts, a couple starts in a row, it’s been good,” Prince said last night. “I have a lot of confidence right now, and so I’m happy. I’m really happy.”
That’s all well-and-good. But what I want to talk about today is what an absolute pain-in-the-ass Prince is when the other side has the ball. Because when he’s defending, Prince doesn’t look happy. He looks irritated.
A few weeks ago Prince acknowledged in passing that his personality probably made him one of the most competitive players on the team. And though I didn’t start to pick up on this until late in preseason, he’s really not kidding. When called upon to defend, Prince is no artist. He pushes. He shoves. He looks like he’s in a running dialog with the opposition, and players who challenge him on his feisty attitude appear to get extra helpings of it.
It was certainly true last night, but it’s also true in training. If you’ve got the ball and Prince wants it, he’s annoyed when you don’t give it to him.
Prince described his evolving offensive style as one that looks to combine creatively with other players because he lacks the speed and strength to consistently outrun or overpower opponents at the professional level. But I’m beginning to think that as good as he’s become with the ball, his ability to bug the hell out of opponents on defense might be at least equally valuable to this team.
Don’t mess with ‘Jetey
Another guy I’m starting to put in that mental category of “Nice Guy You Wouldn’t Want to Mess With” is Emmanuel Adjetey. Off the field, he’s a polite, shy, smiling young man from Ghana who doesn’t want to be interviewed. On the field he’s flashed explosive talent.
Last night he didn’t do anything that would show up on the sheet after replacing Prince in the 66th minute. But deployed ahead of Wilson in left midfield, he found himself matched up against defender Shaun Utterson — a stout, ginger-haired, Newcastle-born Englishman. Utterson came on in the 77th minute with the apparent intention of asserting himself on the 5-7 African. The technical term for that would be “a mistake.”
Utterson repeated leaned in on Adjetey in dead-ball situations, taking every opportunity to subtly move the smaller man around. Adjetey, however, was having exactly none of that. He wasn’t worried about being subtle, either.
Every time Utterson put hands on ‘Jetey, ‘Jetey flung them off. He confronted Utterson’s gamesmanship with direct defiance, yet never appeared close to losing his composure.
The Azira Question
I covered this a bit on Thursday, but in many ways the team we saw last night was probably the best representation of the 2013 Battery that we’ve seen all season, or at least dating back to the season-opener at Richmond.
Injuries kept the lineup in turmoil in April, and the Battery’s lesson from the Richmond loss was that opening up on the road might be tempting, but it was also tempting fate. In their back-to-back road wins at Harrisburg and Dayton, the Battery outscored the home teams 3-1 on aggregate, launching counterattacks out of a defensive crouch.
All of which made this home game particularly interesting. With the Battery getting back its injured stars and their replacements playing quality football, what lineup would Anhaeuser select? And most notably, what would he do with midfielder Michael Azira now that defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang is available?
The answer? Start him.
Azira is now tied with Paterson for the team scoring lead with three goals, but operating from a deep holding position, he seldom figured into the Battery attack last night. His three goals this season actually came while filling in for the injured Jose Cuevas in a more attacking role.
Sanyang started in the win at Dayton but didn’t sub in Saturday night until the first minute of stoppage time. He’s more of a tall, rangy performer who excels at winning aerial 50-50 chances. Azira is quicker, plays more of a ground-based game, and sneaks up on defenders when he shifts into attack mode.
How does he figure into the Battery’s plans with Cuevas and Sanyang getting close to full fitness? I couldn’t guess. But while he might rotate in and out of the lineup during the heavy parts of the schedule, I can’t imagine him not playing if he’s healthy.
What was that?
When I asked Anhaeuser about what he expected from Wilmington, I knew what I expected: The Hammerheads would be coming to town on short rest with a team known for its defensive ability and suffering from a lack of punch.
I expected Irving to pull up to Blackbaud Stadium, park the bus in front of his team’s goal, and then just leave it there. And when I spoke with Anhaeuser, he seemed prepared for that as well, saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if Irving sent out five or six defenders. According to the official score sheet, that’s exactly what Irving did.
But does anyone think that’s what we saw from Wilmington? Because that’s not the approach that I witnessed.
Rather than bunkering early, Wilmington played a high line and looked to be aggressively seeking the win. Kelly and Paterson made them pay for that, and they never recovered — but they never retreated, either. High pressure by the Hammers almost broke the Battery in the second half, but it seemed to me that quality defending, not conservative tactics, were the way that Wilmington thwarted Charleston’s counterattacks.
Practice makes perfect
John Wilson (hey — read our feature profile on him here) was a forward for Clemson but converted to defense in large part because he was never a classic finisher. He first joined the Charleston Battery in 1999 and is now in his 10th season with the club. And if memory serves, he entered the 2013 season with either one or two career regular season goals in his Battery account.
Last night he scored his second goal of the 2013 season, and only a special save by keeper Philip Tuttle kept him from adding another in the 80th minute.
Wilson’s goal in the 29th was a highlight-reel screamer from roughly 25 yards out. But what really made it special was that it came off his off-foot.
“I think, honestly, it’s practice,” said Wilson, whose health and fitness at 35 is perhaps the best it’s been since he returned from Major League Soccer in 2008. “I think the past couple of years, when we do finishing at the end (of practice) I’d kinda sit out just to kinda save my legs. And really, I think the only way you get better at anything is to practice. As simple as that.
“That was my right foot. I mean, I’ve been working on that (for a long time). I think when you get in positions like that, it’s a science, but it’s not hard. You keep your head down and strike through it and put it on target. Anything can happen.”
Quinton Griffith hairstyle report
Winger Quinton Griffith is definitely one of the revelations on this year’s squad, and you never quite know what to expect when this immensely talented young man steps onto the pitch. The same more or less applies to his hair.
So, what have we learned?
Worrying too much about the standings early in the season is kind of pointless, but now that the number of games played across the league are starting to even out, comparisons start to mean something.
So here’s the bottom line: Charleston’s 5th consecutive win put the team in second place in USL PRO, one point behind mighty Orlando.
Here’s Mike Anhaeuser after the game, responding to a question about how well the team played in the first 30 minutes:
“I don’t know if everybody remembers those 30, do they? (smiles)
“We held on. We got caught a little bit coming out. We talked about it at halftime, but it doesn’t matter what you say sometimes. We came out a little sloppy. It was the first pass, right off the kickoff, sloppy pass out to Nicki, to Zach and boom, they got it, put it in, and that put us under pressure. You could see the legs weren’t going and we didn’t have that same jump.
“So we’re going to learn a big lesson from this, but I’ll tell you, you can’t complain, because at 4-2, we got the three points, and we played a fantastic 35.
“You saw the goals that we scored. I mean, they were fantastic, and it was four different players, wasn’t it? Dane’s pace, Nicki scored a great goal in the corner, Zach, a beautiful bender, and John Wilson with the right foot. He’s been here so long, and he finally bent one into the far side. Beautiful. It was four great goals.
“In the end, we held on defensively. They really had us under pressure there. I was sweating. I can tell you. I think my hat’s sweating right now.”
I enjoyed Anhaeuser’s answers last night, and it was good to see him look happy after a match. But I’m going to give the final word to Colin Falvey, because I thought he did a good job of putting everything into perspective concisely (something no one will accuse me of doing):
“I thought we weathered the storm,” he said. “Three points is three points. I don’t want to be too harsh on (the boys). Five wins in a row isn’t bad, is it?”
TOP IMAGE: Fans mobbed the players enthusiastically in the tunnel last night. Dan Conover photos.