Round One of the Carolina Challenge Cup was a night of cold temperatures, hot chocolate, uncharacteristic mistakes and 3-2 scores (Chicago 3, Houston 2; Vancouver 3, Charleston 2). In Round Two, Chicago and Vancouver will be looking to take control of the 2013 Cup points race, Houston will be looking to avoid an 0-2 start, and the USL PRO Champion Charleston Battery will be taking the fight to their big-league opponents.
FIRST GAME: Houston Dynamo v. Vancouver Whitecaps, 5 p.m.
Maybe it was the slick field and “Chicago weather” that set the tone for everything on Saturday, but the Houston Dynamo squad that dropped its opening match to the Fire only vaguely resembled the team MLS fans have gotten to know in recent years. To climb back into 2013 CCC contention, they’ll need to take points from their bout with the new-look Vancouver Whitecaps.
Vancouver finished 2012 on a blue note, slumping down the stretch and succumbing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the franchise’s first MLS playoff match. But the Whitecaps have been on a run this winter, drafting two talented young attackers with picks 4 and 5 in the MLS Superdraft, and then tearing through their early warm-up schedule. The team in undefeated in the 2013 preseason, with wins over New England Revolution, Houston Dynamo, Arizona Sahuaros, Charleston Battery, and College of Charleston.
The Whitecaps put the Battery on the back foot from the opening seconds of their Saturday match, pressing high-speed attacks down the left wing behind 18-year-old winger Kekuta Manneh and 22-year-old Jamaican striker Darren Mattocks. With the pacey youngsters breaking down the Charleston defense and defensive midfielder Gershon Koffie blowing up Charleston’s attempts to move the action forward, Designated Player and Scottish national captain Kenny Miller found plenty of space to feed through-balls to open teammates. The Whitecap’s physical back line may have been missing captain Jay DeMerit, but it snuffed out all of Charleston’s rare first-half threats by mauling striker Jose Cuevas whenever a pass approached him. Charleston clawed back two goals in the second, however.
Houston will challenge the Vancouver defense with a different style of attack, one represented by freshly minted U.S. International forward Will Bruin. A former basketball player with only a few years of year-round soccer emphasis, Bruin is one of the faster-rising players in the U.S. system. He’s a physical challenge to most center backs and an improving finisher, but he had little effect on Saturday.
The key to Houston, of course, is veteran midfielder Brad Davis, who spent last month with the USMNT. The MLS assist leader notched two more against the Fire. And if Tally Hall, one of the best keepers in MLS, can get back to his usual form, Houston should be solid defensively. But is Houston dynamic enough to compete with a Vancouver team that’s definitely finding the flow right now?
Meanwhile, on the Vancouver side, pay attention to DeMerit’s status. The hero of so many legendary Watford and U.S. international battles is battling a chronic foot/heel injury, and his absence on Saturday sent up alarms among the U.S. soccer media. And there’s one new Whitecap we won’t be seeing tonight.
SECOND GAME: Charleston Battery v. Chicago Fire, 7:15 p.m.
Saturday’s match against the Dynamo had a herky-jerky, back-and-forth feel to it, without much of a clear storyline. Which, come to think of it, is exactly the type of game you’d expect a veteran team to wring by the neck and carry home. And the Fire tend to fit that description.
The club finished 2012 with a surprising (to me, anyway) record, sixth overall in the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings. They did it largely with good coaching, veteran MLS leadership and some breakout performances by young defenders. But the big story this offseason in Chicago has been the acquisition of even more quality veteran talent in the form of midfielders Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz. With those two commanding the middle of the field, Chicago captain Logan Pause has become something of a nomad, contending for time in the midfield and the back line.
With Pause in the mix at right back, the credibility of Chicago’s blue-collar style deepens. The back line could feature center backs Arne Fredericks and Austin Berry, left back Gonzalo Segares (injured on Saturday), and either Pause or Jalil Anababa at RB. Though not flashy, that’s not a group that’s going to lose track of the ball very often.
But Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser has no intention of laying back and playing for the draw.
“I think I’m going to go a little more offensive,” the coach said Tuesday. “(On Saturday) I kinda put a little more defensive set-up in there. I knew Vancouver was very offensive. I knew they were going to come at us. Unfortunately they got at us anyway.
“I’m gonna probably start (Jamaican forward Dane Kelly) in there. I’ll probably drop (midfielder/striker Jose Cuevas) back a little bit, which gives us a little more offensive power in the midfield coming forward like we did last year. (We’ll) try to stretch them a little more from the beginning instead of waiting until the second half.”
Anhaeuser conceded that some of the players in the lineup on Saturday might not have been ready for the start of Saturday’s match, and spent time talking with his back line this week about defensive recognition and the importance of turning attackers to the outside instead of giving up runs through the center.
The other concern for Anhaeuser is simply the health and fitness of his small squad. Mark Wiltse, Evier Cordovez, Maikel Chang and captain Colin Falvey have all been sidelined with one injury or another, and with few options available on a squad that typically suits up no more than 17 field players for practice, costly wins are definitely not on the preseason program. Several academy players could also see time in the second half.
Fans should expect to see a different lineup tonight, with Kelly up top and some familiar players filling unfamiliar roles. Just don’t view those lineup changes as tactical adjustments specific to Chicago. “We’re looking to the future,” Anhaeuser said. “I’ve got to try a few guys, even guys we have, in positions to try to see what I might do come the season if I’m in these same situations.”
In addition to more time for Kelly, who scored a memorable goal Saturday, look for a possible first appearance by the 23-year-old Cordovez, a former striker for the 2012 Cuban Men’s National Team, plus a possible opening to Falvey’s preseason account. The team captain has been rehabilitating a tweaked hamstring and could be cleared for tonight, though Anhaeuser signaled his cautious attitude earlier this week.
“We’re trying to feel out what players we have, and sometimes that makes it difficult, because I want to put them in,” Anhaeuser said. “But then at the same time, you do want to win a game or maybe compete more? So it is a trade-off.”
TAILGATE NOTE: It being a midweek match, The Regiment won’t be doing its full tailgate this afternoon. There might well be some beverages, however.
OH, AND BTW: Like I did on Saturday, I’ll be watching the games from the stands (usually the East stands), avoiding the pressbox as much as possible, and Tweeting out the random note and picture. Feel free to say howdy (I’ll be the guy in the bright red “Deuce Face” T-shirt), and if you’ve got any questions you’d like me to ask coaches and players down on the field after the match, Tweet it to @Chssoccernet.