Covering the offseason like it matters

Covering the offseason like it matters
This, then silence.

This, then silence.

In my first full year of Charleston Battery fandom, I went through serious withdrawal symptoms.

The 2012 team teased us, tortured us, and then got hot when it mattered most, riding a winning streak to the USL PRO Championship. There they were! Celebrating on our field! Hoisting the hardware! All that excitement and then…

Crickets.

From a media perspective, I hated that there wasn’t anything of substance for me to read about the team once the season ended. And hell, forget about the team — I couldn’t even get a clear picture of what was going on with the league last winter. Which had a lot to do with my decision to start this site. I figured if I was wondering what the team was doing to build for the 2013 season, other fans had to be, too.

Oh well. On to the off-season.

Oh well. On to the off-season.

What I learned in my first go at covering the Battery was that, for serious fans with a long history and deep connections to the team, the conversation never really stops. News trickles out from 1990 Daniel Island Drive, but it’s usually transmitted at bars, or rec league matches, or discussed on hard-to-find corners of soccer boards around the web. If you take the time to tap into that, you get a pretty good idea of who is coming, who is going, and what things are in the works for Charleston’s flagship team.

The plan here is to make it a little easier to keep in touch with those developments. Because just like I never stop wondering what’s going on with the Timbers once the MLS season ends, the same is true for the Battery. I’ve been wondering what they’re going to be doing ever since Dane Kelly screamed in frustration as his attempt at a late equalizer sailed over the crossbar in Orlando on Aug. 30th.

Over the following couple of weeks, the team went through the boring but pragmatic process of dismantling the 2013 campaign, which ended two wins shy of repeating as champions. Coach Mike Anhaeuser met with each player for exit interviews, but the heavy lifting probably had as much to do with settling up shared power bills, sorting through expense checks,  packing up apartments, booking flights and figuring out off-season living arrangements for some of the players.

Most of the out-of-town players had headed out by the time I spoke to him last week, but the Battery’s coach/general manager was still dealing with landlord details that big-league clubs would delegate to a junior-level employee.

If you’re tapped into the rumor mill, I want to hear what you’re hearing. But if you’ve got really good inside sources, it’s not likely you’ll read about something new here first. Yeah, I hear things — but unless I can confirm them with one or more reliable sources, on the the record, I’m not likely to publish them. Instead, I’ll be checking in regularly with Battery sources as the team and its 2013 players move through the off-season, and reporting on those developments ASAP. I’ll also be continuing my series of interviews with players — some long form, some shorter. Plus I’ll be starting a series of articles looking back at the 2013 season. And I’m open to guest columns if anyone feels like chipping in.

Which should give us plenty to talk about between now and the Carolina Challenge Cup.

The recurring stuff

The Battery train from February through August most years, leaving the club a five-and-a-half-month off-season that’s significantly shorter than most of its USL PRO competition, but also long by world soccer standards, where a two-month break is the norm.

Still, a big part of the club’s business runs year round. In addition to renting out The Three Lions Club to corporate clients, the Battery staff also has to keep Blackbaud Stadium and its practice fields in game shape, as the pitch gets plenty of use even when the Battery are on hiatus. This fall it’s the home stadium for Charleston Southern’s soccer team and most of the home matches for the S.C. United Battery Academy, plus a Thursday night adult 9-v-9 league and a Wednesday Tiny Tots program for young players.

September: A front-loaded schedule

TASKS: Close out the books on 2013; individual player reviews; come up with initial personnel strategy; update “the board;” make the first round of decisions on (end-of-September) player options; discuss any contract extensions; scout college players; make sure “stick-around” players are sorted properly; meet with The Regiment; prepare for Oktoberfest and Southern Ground Music and Food Festival; try to confirm opponents for 2014 Carolina Challenge Cup. 

Unlike most USL PRO teams, the Battery offers some players multi-year contracts. If those contracts have built-in options, they kick in either around the end of September or the end of October. That means that some of the first big, roster-shaping decisions of the off-season could take place before the first beer gets poured for the annual Oktoberfest at Blackbaud (Sunday, Oct. 6).

Coach Mike Anhaeuser (right) before the 2013 USL PRO semi-final at Orlando.

Coach Mike Anhaeuser (right) before the 2013 USL PRO semi-final at Orlando.

Anhaeuser said that the club won’t always pick up the option on a player it hopes to bring back. But letting a player test the market is always a risk. And given the unknowable variables of North American soccer, the club will have to make some calculated gambles very early in the process.

The same applies to contract extensions for players with time on their contracts, and new offers to players who are out of contract. Some of those out-of-contract players may be on the training pitch at Blackbaud come January, competing for a roster spot against new arrivals. But if a player is definitely in the team’s plans for 2014, early is good.

The obvious problem with all of this? Several of the Battery’s top players are expected to get a shot at joining an MLS roster for the 2013 stretch run, and even if they don’t catch on in the fall, those same players could be invited to MLS camps come January. So just because Anhaeuser extends a player or picks up an option in September, that doesn’t mean he can count of the guy suiting up for Charleston in February. He might collect a transfer fee, but a late MLS signing could leave Anhaeuser scrambling to replace a key starter.

Of course, to do that, Anhaeuser has to have some idea of how much money he has to spend. The coach said he has already had his first off-season sit-down with team owner Tony Bakker and doesn’t expect he’ll have to trim the budget as he has in some previous years. That doesn’t mean that the coach has a budget already, but the two went over Anhaeuser’s board — which includes players they have under contract, players they want to extend, college players they’re scouting and pros from other teams they’d like to acquire.

It’s all tricky, but the trickiest part might be what Anhaeuser called “the Vancouver board.” In other words, will Charleston’s budding  relationship with the Vancouver Whitecaps continue or expand in 2014? And if so, does that mean Charleston fans will get another look at Whitecaps PDL stars Ben Fisk and Emmanuel Adjetey, or senior roster reserve Bryce Alderson? Not only that, but regardless of players, what positions is Vancouver likely to to ship south? For instance, if the Whitecaps want to loan out a midfielder, that’s one thing. But what if they want to get playing time for a promising young goalkeeper? That’s a significant distinction when you’re building a roster for a USL PRO team.

8-30-Odisnel-web

Odisnel Cooper

And while it’s still relatively early in the college season, Anhaeuser is already attending college matches. And if that’s not enough, he’s also involved in getting the Battery’s Cuban defectors settled in for their first off-season. That means extending a lease on an apartment for them, lining them up jobs, etc. Draw your own conclusions, but I figure that means we’re going to be getting another look at Odisnel Cooper, Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang next year.

As for formal announcements, Anhaeuser said the club will announce all player contract actions.

So how many of this year’s players could be on their way back to Blackbaud for 2014? Anhaeuser said it wouldn’t surprise him if as many players return next year as returned this year (12).

Earlier this week, club President Andrew Bell met with Mikey Buytas, president of The Regiment, the club’s official supporters’ group. It’s too early to announce anything from that meeting, as the details have not yet been finalized, but it looks like there could be some significant match-day changes between now and the CCC.

Meanwhile, as the club works on renewing season-ticket-holders and sponsors, it’s also trying to nail down the three MLS teams that will open the Battery season in February. While the CCC announcement is always a big one for the Battery, this year could be particularly interesting. Bell said he hoped to have something to announce “in the next few weeks.” Stay tuned.

October-November: Not exactly ‘time off’

TASKS: Oktoberfest (Oct 5); Southern Ground Music and Food (Oct. 19-20); Field repairs; USL Board of Governors meeting; decisions on end-of-October player options; college scouting, including tournaments; R&R (such as it is); overseas scouting trip(s).

brown-vultan

Zac Brown, country musician, left; Prince Vultan, leader of the Hawkmen, right.

If there’s a “slow-period” in the Battery offseason, this is it. The front-office keeps the cash flowing with their five-hour German beer festival on Oct 5 and its two-day country music festival (the ZBSGM&FF brought in 23,500 people over two days last year, and the Battery are anticipating 25k people next month). It’s a small staff to put on such a big event, and even Anhaeuser said he expects he’ll be pitching in.

This is the calendar window that Anhaeuser mentions as his chance to grab some down-time, but as soon as he says this he starts listing the other things that need to get done, and it makes the first statement seem non-sensical: College scouting, October options to be picked up or declined, plus his usual scouting trip to Jamaica — with a couple of other countries also in consideration this fall.

Speaking of Jarad van Schaik, that's him at the Grand Canyon this week. The versatile midfielder, who is a good bet to return for 2014, is taking his time driving home to Portland from Charleston.

Speaking of Jarad van Schaik, that’s him at the Grand Canyon this week. The versatile midfielder, who is a good bet to return for 2014, is taking his time driving home to Portland from Charleston.

Plus, as the college season winds down, the conference and NCAA tournaments pick up — and those are big draws for scouts and small-club GMs. Anhaeuser keeps an eye mostly on the region, but he’s part of an informal national coaching fraternity. So sometimes he’s scouting for the Battery, and other times he might be looking more on behalf of another coach with a particular interest in a player. That’s the network that brought Jarad van Schaik — a Portland, Ore., product who was out of contract with the Puerto Rico Islanders —  to the Battery’s attention last winter.

Anhaeuser keeps his focus fairly tight on the Southeast, because local players generally cost the team less, and it’s an approach that’s easy to spot on the 2013 roster. Five of his players — including his only two non-Cuban rookies — are South Carolina products: Zach Prince and Shawn Ferguson of College of Charleston; John Wilson and Austin Savage of Clemson; and Mark Wiltse of USC. The Battery have a close relationship with the College of Charleston and Coach Ralph Lundy Jr., but also keeps tabs on Clemson, USC and Coastal Carolina. He also follows the ACC closely.

In addition to the Southeastern base, Anhaeuser has mined the Jamaican Premier League for talent for years. This year’s team featured only forward Dane Kelly, but his recurring loan from Tivoli Gardens paid off for the Battery in 2013 to the tune of a team-leading 11 goals.

Kelly is one of several players who is expected to attract attention from MLS. No word yet on the outcome of his trial with the Philadelphia Union, although the Union have since announced the signing of Harrisburg City Islanders attacker Yann Ekra — probably not the best indicator for Kelly’s prospects.

October is also the month when the USL Board of Governors’ tends to meet to go over the nuts and bolts of league operations before the league meetings in December. The Battery’s Bakker serves on the board, with Bell as an alternate.

Scheduling is always a big issue for these meetings, but no scheduling can take place until the number of team participating in the league has been established. The league has already announced expansion teams in Sacramento and Oklahoma City, and in recent weeks the Los Angeles Galaxy have announced plans to launch a USL PRO team as soon as 2014. Toronto F.C. appears to be pursuing a lower-league partner through a plan to move the city’s PDL club, the Lynx, to Hamilton, Ontario, while upgrading it to USL PRO.

On paper, those reports could bump the league up to as many as 17 teams. In reality, it’s hard to imagine that the Antigua Barracuda will return without massive changes, and there will be a lot of nervous glances toward Phoenix, an attractive market that just suffered through a disastrous expansion season. The other 2012 expansion club, VSI Tampa Bay, is still in search of a suitable home stadium.

And while there’s no plan to change jersey sponsors or home jerseys in 2014 — SPARC is on a two-year contract, and the club is extremely happy with its black-and-gold home jersey — the away jersey might be up for a change. That’s another decision that has to be rather front-loaded, but since the Battery won’t play any significant away matches until well after their home season opens, the push to have their “away reds” settled is far less urgent.

Finally — this is the time of year when the Battery grounds staff really does much of the work to get the grass ready for spring. The club prides itself on its beautiful field, but a cool, wet spring played hell with the transition from rye to Bermuda this summer, and the pitch suffered through — pardon the pun — a rough patch. The job this winter will be to make sure that’s all repaired in time for the Challenge Cup.

December: Ramping up

This year's CofC team is short on seniors, but players like defenderand captain Tam McGowan (seen here saving a shot on an otherwise open goal against Vermont) would get an extra look from the Battery.

This year’s CofC team is short on seniors, but players like defender and captain Tam McGowan (seen here saving a shot on an otherwise open goal against Vermont) could get an extra look from the Battery.

TASKS: USL Annual General Meeting in Florida; Finalize the club budget for 2014 season, start reaching out to college seniors and other players you’d like to sign, invite players to tryouts on Daniel Island; finalize the 2014 budget.

With the NCAA tournament wrapping up in early December and the USL family of leagues converging on Clearwater Beach, Fla., several things will start to come into focus.

First, the end of the college season means player evaluation season begins in earnest. Second, the Battery staff will basically decamp en masse to Florida for the United Soccer Leagues annual gathering of the clans — an event that should orient everyone to the upcoming year across their various specialties: technical, marketing, etc.

But the big thing is that the Battery can invite players to come to town and train under the direction of the coaching staff. No dates have been set, but you could see a couple of these events in December or January. That means Anhaeuser will be burning up the phones — and taking calls from players and agents.

For returning 2013 players who’ve stuck around the area for the winter — think the three Cubans, plus Wilson, Prince, Wiltse and Savage (and possibly some others) — it means their training tempo probably steps up. Anhaeuser is hoping to set up regular group training session this offseason for those who remain in the area.

January: Bringing them in

TASKS: MLS Player Combine, TBD; MLS SuperDraft, TBD; MLS Supplemental Draft, TBD; USL PRO Combine, Jan. 23-26 in Bradenton, Fla., MLS training camps open.

Colin Falvey thanks the fans after the playoff loss at Orlando on Aug. 30.

Colin Falvey thanks the fans after the playoff loss at Orlando on Aug. 30.

In many ways, January is one of the biggest months on the Battery calendar. It’s the month when they fill out their invitation card for training camp — and even though those final roster spots won’t be decided until right before the start of the regular season (typically in April), it’s the moment when all the moving pieces start to take on distinct form.

The MLS drafts will sort players and agents into new expectation levels. With MLS camps underway, lower-league coaches will get a sense of which players may be moving up (if Colin Falvey doesn’t sign with an MLS club this fall, January could be his last best chance) but also which big-league trialists might be looking for lower-league work. Out-of-contract players who hope to return to Daniel Island get their first look at the competition. It’s our coldest month, but the competition will be heating up.

Once upon a time, Anhaeuser attended the MLS Player Combine on a regular basis. These days, that’s not a given. But the coach, Dusty Hudock, John Wilson, Andrew Bell and Tony Bakker will all likely descend upon Bradenton to evaluate the 80 to 90 players who turn out for the USL PRO combine. The Battery have done well scouting these showcases in previous years, bringing home marquee players like Tom Heinemann and Mike Azira. And there will be local tryouts, as well.

February: The new group

TASKS: Invite players to training camp; host the Carolina Challenge Cup; book the 2013 preseason schedule.

After assembling a list of players to bring in, training camp typically opens about a week before the start of the Carolina Challenge Cup . This year that meant Feb. 8, with an assortment of players — old, new and former — gathering to start the season.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the faces on that first official day of training this season weren’t around by March. But most were. It’s also worth pointing out that with MLS teams finalizing their rosters in February and March, it might be late before Vancouver — or theoretically some other MLS partner — decides which players it wants to send out on loan.

Plus, it was Seattle’s decision to cut ties to Amadou Sanyang that first brought him to town in 2012 as a trialist with the Chicago Fire during the CCC. When the Fire decided not to sign him, Battery had a pretty good idea what kind of player he was — and slotted him right into the lineup on the eve of the regular season.

The lesson I took: No matter what you see when you study those fluid CCC rosters, don’t write your predictions in ink.

One other thing to point out here: In my conversation with Anhaeuser, he indicated that the evolution of the rules regarding development academies is making it increasingly likely that the theoretical connection between the senior roster and the academy roster could legitimately become more fluid.

That could be important, but then again, some skepticism might well be in order. Anhaeuser gave a couple of academy players minutes in last year’s CCC, but that was the only time they saw the field for the club. It’s also possible, he said, that you could bring in a young Jamaican player who could be on the team… but also in the academy.

Interesting.

 Etc., etc., etc.

Some other things to keep in mind as we go through the off-season…

WORLD CUP: So next year is a World Cup year, and with the USA already qualified for a spot in Brazil (this is hard to believe, but we’ve now qualified seven times in a row) plus a new American Outlaws chapter in Charleston, now is the time when ideas get knocked around.

The Battery owns and operates one of the great soccer pubs in the Southeast in The Three Lions, but it’s kind of a Goldilocks Zone. If you open it for matches and not enough people show up, the club eats the loss. Then again, if you do open the Three Lions for a big US World Cup match and every soccer fan in Charleston shows up, what do you do with the overflow? The club only holds about 200 people.

Andrew Bell is thinking and talking about these things, but at the moment that’s all there is to report: Thinking and talking. But here’s one perspective on the Battery’s stake in the World Cup: Every local fan of the national team is a potential fan for the Battery — if the club can help that person make the mental leap from “I watch soccer on TV” to “I support my local club.”

And since the World Cup runs concurrent with the Battery season in June and July, there will still be plenty of Battery home matches to sell to TV fans once the Cup ends.

Another consideration: The time difference from South Africa in 2010 meant afternoon matches in Cape Town were morning matches at Madra Rua. Fans still turned out — Hell, I worked across the street from a suburban Wild Wings in 2010, and I could hear the fans going nuts during the middle of the work day.  But with this Cup in Brazil, afternoon matches will be afternoon matches. Night matches will be night matches.

And with the American Outlaws brand prominently displayed at every USA match, and Charleston’s chapter watch-party information displayed on the national A.O. website, it will be easier than ever for casual fans to find their local soccer tribe and join in.

INTERNATIONAL FRIENDLY — OR RUGBY? The Battery have traditionally done a good job of booking traveling European clubs during their summer break, even though their last date in 2012 fell through when Nottingham Forest had to cancel its American tour.

In 2013, however, the front office tried something new, booking a big qualification match between Canada and the USA for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Canada won big here in August, earning automatic qualification to England 2015, but that still leaves the USA a shot at qualification via a playoff with Uruguay.

Here’s why the Battery cares: They sold out that Aug. 17 USA-Canada rugby match, and the event rocked.

So what’s a better deal? Bid for the US leg of a dramatic, home-and-away international rugby qualifier, or try to bring in a touring international soccer club to play the Battery in the middle of the hectic USL PRO season?

A LONGER SEASON? One reason the Battery is feeling OK about its bottom line this off-season is simply the number of home dates the club managed to play in 2013.

Adding expansion teams — Phoenix and Tampa — accounted for two home games, and Antigua’s homeless season offered another. Then the MLS agreement gave us a home-and-away with Houston. Add in a U.S. Open Cup run that brought the Battery a match against the San Jose Earthquakes, plus the playoff win against the L.A. Blues, plus the preseason rematch with the Wilmington Hammerheads in March, and the 2013 Battery season featured 20 home games with paid gates.

In 2012, that number was 16 — a number boosted by playing both the team’s Open Cup matches at home and hosting the championship, but decreased by the cancellation of the third CCC game and the Nottingham friendly.

So while we won’t know the total number of teams until the league announces it, and we won’t know how the league will schedule those teams (home and away? Unbalanced conference schedule? Balanced regional schedule? Compressed? Spread out?) until January, there’s reason to anticipate more matches in 2014.

Keeping a conservative estimate and assuming that USL PRO expands to 14 teams and keeps the MLS reserve series (but drops the extra Antigua match), then that’s a baseline of 14 regular-season dates — the same number the club played this year.

The Big Growth Scenario? If Hamilton and an L.A. Galaxy club join the league along with Sacramento and Oklahoma City, and all the current teams return, and the MLS reserve series continues another year, that’s as many as 18 home matches. Throw in a bonus Antigua match (not likely if you ask me, but hey, it’s the Big-Growth Scenario) and it’s 19. That’s almost as many regular-season matches as the Battery played in all competitions (20) in 2013.

Bottom line? There’s an outside chance the club could host 25 or more matches next year, in a season that stretches from February into September — with USL playoffs beginning as late as October. I’m not betting on it, but let’s leave it at this: Every additional home date is good news.

WHAT ABOUT VIDEO? One of the big changes in 2013 was the establishment of Molly Darcy’s as the official Watch Party partner for the Battery’s away games.

Not every date was a winner for the pub — awkward midweek USL PRO scheduling and late West Coast start times didn’t always help — but then again, some of my favorite memories of 2013 are of nights at Molly’s with co-owner Tommy Snee, some of the team’s most passionate and knowledgeable fans, plus a smattering of club employees and injured/suspended players.

But here’s what sucked (and no, I’m not going to say paying for parking… because we get there by bike): Depending on the host team, the USLNation.com livestream could vary from professional grade (Harrisburg and Pittsburgh) to middle school AV club (Tampa and Phoenix) to complete and utter failure (L.A. Blues).

Bottom line (and it quite literally is the bottom line for Molly Darcy’s, because it affects how many people come out for watch parties): The league needs to do something this off-season to improve the reliability — if not the top-end quality — of its video component.

A starting point might be a program to standardize elements of every team’s live feed — if only to allow the efficient sale of out-of-market advertising and sponsorship space on the home team’s webcast. Generally speaking, web-stream viewers are fans of the away team — which means the only advertising that really makes sense on a stream is away-team advertising. Snee wanted to buy space on away-game streams to encourage sit-at-home fans to come down to his watch parties, but the front offices he contacted couldn’t even get their acts together to take his money.

And the money matters, because right now teams view their livestream as nothing but an overhead cost. True, they can face league fines for poor feeds, but do those fines approach the cost of adequately funding and staffing their video component? Who knows? But if the league gets involved in improving video quality and creates some kind of standardized, low-cost exchange for away-match advertising, then maybe clubs will pick up some extra cash to help defray the cost of their livestream. Win-win.

MORE PARTNERS? Will the role of the S.C. United Battery Academy expand in 2014? Will the Battery formally affiliate with the Vancouver Whitecaps?

Those are standard questions this off-season. But here’s one that might be more interesting: Will the Battery redefine its relationship with the Palmetto F.C. Bantams, a PDL franchise that plays its home matches in Greenwood and Columbia?

Not only would a closer relationship with the club expand the Battery’s options when it comes to farming out young talent that doesn’t quite make the regular season roster (think trialist Chris Thomas, a top-scoring college player with Elon who joined the Battery late in the preseason, and ultimately signed with a Midwestern PDL squad). Or think of the possibilities for getting Battery rookies — think Austin Savage and Maikel Chang — extra game minutes.

One last potential benefit: The Bantams are “linked” with the Bradford City Bantams, one of the great old franchises in the English Football League. The club is on the rise in the UK, winning promotion to League One (the third level of English football) in a season that saw them reach the final of the FA Cup, defeating Premiership sides Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa. Could forging closer ties to the SC Bantams mean closer ties to Bantams A.F.C., too? Who knows? But the Battery and the Bantams have been cooperating and scheduling friendlies with each other since the club began competition in 2012, and Anhaeuser has mentioned an interest in exploring options with his PDL neighbor.

Corrections, clarifications, additions, suggestions

Did I get something wrong in this overview? Wanna bring up another point, or offer another perspective? Leave me a suggestion in comments, or shoot me a private email at dan AT danconover.com if you’d rather.

5 Comments

  1. Great article Dan. In the past, it was really tough to hear any solid news in the offseason. Looking forward to more news!

  2. Great round up Dan,

    Dane looks like he is back in Jamaica according to his Facebook page.

    also some rumors floating around about a team “moving” to Louisville not sure if that is a current team moving there or a new team moving into the area.

  3. Thanks for keeping us updated, Dan. It’s very hard not knowing what is going on with the team during the off season. Keep up the good work.

  4. saw Zach Prince, Mark Wiltse, Shawn Ferguson and Gibson Bardsley playing for the same team yesterday, after our game.

    • Gibson. That’s interesting.