Despite suffering just three losses in 16 USL PRO matches, Charleston departed for a two-game, four-day Florida road trip this morning under meaningful pressure for the first time this season.
Over the past three weeks, the Charleston Battery has squeezed just two points out of two home matches against VSI Tampa Bay FC and the Orlando City Lions, dropping from third to fifth in the league table. And while Coach Mike Anhaeuser has made a point of saying the key to the Battery’s success will be winning its home games, four consecutive draws have left the team in need of a win and battling to keep up with surging Charlotte and a surprisingly hot Dayton side.
So let’s put this Florida trip in the most brutal context possible. The Battery play at Orlando on Thursday night and at VSITBFC in Plant City on Saturday. If they lose both, they could return to Charleston tied for as low as eighth in the league table, with just eight games left to pull themselves back into a favorable playoff seeding.
Of course, if you flip that script and give the Battery back-to-back wins, Charleston could find itself within striking distance of the top of the table.
Conventional wisdom says that a more likely outcome would be anywhere from 1 to 4 points, which would likely erode the Battery’s place in the standings without placing it in crisis. But conventional wisdom also said that the MLS Reserve teams would be tougher opponents, that no visiting USL PRO team would ever lead Real Salt Lake 2-0 at the half, and that at least four of Charleston’s six draws should have ended with Battery victories.
So screw conventional wisdom.
First up: Orlando
The Battery left this morning for Orlando and will train in “The City Beautiful” this afternoon in advance of Thursday night’s showdown at the Florida Citrus Bowl (official Battery watch party at Molly Darcy’s at 7:30 p.m.).
Orlando was the dominant team in USL PRO during the first half of the season, but have started the back-half of the season a disappointing 0-1-2, losing at home to Richmond but earning road draws at Wilmington and Charleston last week. To put that in context, the club went 10-1-2 through the first half.
The most obvious reason for the Lions’ recent woes is the loss of loaned stars Dom Dwyer and Yann Songo’o to decisions by parent club Sporting Kansas City. Then two more players — starting midfielder Kevin Molino and reserve defender Jean Alexandre — left for international duty during the Gold Cup.
But while Charleston was disappointed to let Orlando escape Blackbaud Stadium with a point, Orlando lost something perhaps more important: Defender Bryan Burke. Orlando Coach Adrian Heath poached the talented 24-year-old from the L.A. Blues during the off-season, and he was leading the team in minutes played until he went down after a hard tackle by Battery left back Emmanuel Adjetey near the sideline in the fourth minute of Friday’s match. The collision ended Burke’s season ended with a broken foot.
Still, there are plenty of reasons not to bet against Tampa to repeat as the Commissioner’s Cup winner. Dwyer’s departure means more minutes for forward Dennis Chin, who set the league single-season scoring record last season with 11. Midfielder Jamie Watson is an MLS-quality midfielder. Defender Rob Valentino is a hard-working tough guy in central defense. And goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo is a veteran bad-ass who has been forced to share starts with homegrown Kansas City keeper Jon Kempin.
With Dwyer setting league (15 goals) and franchise marks for scoring (18 in all competitions) in the first half of the season, Heath typically deployed his Lions in a 4-4-2 with Dwyer and forward Long Tan operating as partners in the attacking third, while Chin cleaned up as a super-sub. Since Dwyer’s departure, Heath has fielded a 4-5-1 both at home and on the road, with Chin and Tan rotating starts. Both players have two goals on the season.
Trinidad and Tobago continues play in the Gold Cup, but replacing Molino shouldn’t be too difficult, given Heath’s deep midfield roster. Replacing Burke, on the other hand, might not be so easy. The Lions have already brought in one midseason defensive replacement in Renan Boufleur. Veteran Erik Ustruck filled in for Burke on Friday and did a solid if unspectacular job.
Finally, the chippy tone of play on Friday probably helped the visitors… at least up to the 63rd minute, when young midfielder Adama Mbengue‘s maturity reached its breaking point. Mbengue punched Jose “Chiva” Cuevas in the throat for no discernible reason, and left the field on straight red. That leaves Orlando without his services for Thursday… but then again, central midfielder Freddie Braun‘s second-half performance looked like a more-than-adequate resume for a starting role.
Charleston: When will things click?
It’s not that the Battery have played poorly in 2013 — it’s that players, coaches and fans had such high expectations going into the season that merely playing above-average soccer in league matches often feels like a disappointment.
A dense May-June schedule accounted for some of their problems, as did a series of disruptive injuries. But the quiet story over the past two weeks has been the steadily improving health and fitness and availability of the Battery roster.
Veteran left back John Wilson sat out the first Orlando match with a minor injury sustained in training, but should be available for Thursday night’s start. With Odisnel Cooper in goal, Colin Falvey and Cody Ellison in the middle and Wilson and right back Mark Wiltse holding down the edges, Charleston has surrendered just 16 goals in 16 games.
The midfield has been far more variable, with injuries, fitness and late arrivals juggling the group from week to week. Yet the group that started on Friday — Nicki Paterson, Jarad van Schaik and Michael Azira in the center, with Quintin Griffith and Cuevas playing out wide — has the look of a fit, stable group that should grow sharper with each match.
Charleston struggled in the two matches Jamaican forward Dane Kelly missed while working out his visa status. But while Heviel Cordoves might not be a great option as a 90-minute striker yet, he’s proven himself extremely effective as a second-half substitute.
In a sense, the Battery have paid a price for their players’ versatility — particularly in midfield. Multiple players have slotted into multiple positions and roles. But as the schedule smooths out a bit and recovering players get more training time together, it’s possible that we’ll start to see more of the offensive flash we glimpsed in preseason. Griffith looks determined to showcase his talent in the remaining games, and both Cuevas and Paterson appear to be benefiting from Chiva’s move to the left side of the formation.
Kelly, Paterson, Cuevas and Griffith are clearly the Battery’s top offensive threats (with Cordoves and Zach Prince also chipping in attacking firepower), but the pleasant surprises on this team are van Schaik and Azira, both of whom have played their way into regular starting roles with steady, intelligent, selfless soccer.
With those two controlling so much of the middle of the field, and with Griffith and Cuevas widening the formation, Paterson’s ability to read the game and adapt himself to needs and opportunities could be the Battery’s biggest X Factor.
So while conventional wisdom and logic says Charleston will play for the draw at Orlando, I remain unconvinced. Sure, it’s a hostile environment — Orlando’s fans are vocal and the Lions’ average attendance would fill every seat in Blackbaud Stadium plus put almost 3,000 standing-room-only fans in the beer gardens — but the one place where Charleston has exceeded expectations has been on the road, where the Battery are 3-2-2.
We’re driving down for the Orlando match and will file from the road on Thursday night.