Though we likely have the Jan. 23 MLS/USL PRO cooperation agreement to thank for whatever behind-the-scenes negotiations have thus far brought us three Vancouver Whitecaps, on Sunday (11 a.m. livestream on the Dynamo website) that deal will produce its first tangible results for Charleston.
This year’s new home-and-away series with an MLS Reserve side counts in the USL PRO standings, and every USL team has been paired with a different MLS opponent. But not all MLS Reserve units are created equal, which means some league teams will have tougher task than others. Count Charleston among those on the “harder” side of the scale.
Houston’s reserves are undefeated in three matches against MLS opposition, beating reserves from Dallas home and away before putting down the backups from Chicago on Tuesday. They been good for a 7-2 aggregate score so far.
One reason for that is simply who has been playing. Regular first-team forwards Brian Ching, Cam Weaver and Omar Cummings have each played a game. So has midfielder Andrew Driver.
The six players who’ve played every minute of the reserve schedule are a mixture of MLS veterans and quality young talent. Defenders Eric Brunner and Mike Chabala were both regular starters with the 2011 Portland Timbers before injury (Brunner) and inconsistent form (Chabala) ended their 2012 seasons in the Rose City. Midfielder Luiz Camargo appeared in 26 matches and had 16 starts for Houston’s first team in 2012. Meanwhile, defender Anthony Arena and Alex Dixon are both promising rookies, and midfielder Brian Ownby‘s name ought to sound familiar to Battery fans. He’s officially “on loan to the Richmond Kickers through September,” but he’s come back for Reserve games. You may well remember Ownby giving us fits in Richmond on April 13th.
Forward Jason Johnson is a Jamaican in his first year, and so far he’s put up the best statistics on the reserve squad, scoring twice and adding an assist in two starts and a substitute appearance. Homegrown Houston forward Bryan Salazar is supposedly blazing fast, and the club considers him a future star. In goal, Erich Marscheider has two starts to Tyler Deric‘s one.
Four academy players have logged minutes in the three Dynamo Reserve matches, combining for four starts between them.
So the Battery will have their hands full playing against these guys at either BBVA Stadium or Houston Amateur Sports Park, where they’ve played their previous home reserve matches.
The tough draw
Looking at this Houston unit, it’s pretty clear that Charleston drew two extremely tough matches when it was paired with Hosuton for its 2013 home-and-away series. By comparison, Harriburg drew the Colorado Rapids Reserves, which has so far put up a 1-3-1 record, including a home loss to the City Islanders. None of which would matter if these were friendlies, but these matches count in the USL PRO standings.
So is this a tougher draw than most?
“Absolutely,” Coach Mike Anhaeuser said Friday. “When we got Houston, we knew it. Their reserve team, they don’t treat it like a reserve team. It’s their second team. (Coach Dom Kinnear) rotates their first-team players. Who we played against even in Challenge Cup (a 2-1 Battery win on the final night), you could say that was their first team… but their reserves can go on the pitch and probably play just as well. And they play the same style. They play a good 4-4-2, they will press with their wingers and pressure your defenders.
“So is it a tougher draw? Yeah. They take every game the same way, and that comes from inside. Just like I try to get our guys. I don’t care who I put on the field, we’d better play the same way. It doesn’t matter. You’d better go out there and perform. And that’s what we’re going to need.”
What Charleston brings
If Houston represents a competitive disadvantage in the Battery’s 2013 USL PRO schedule, Charleston probably represents a decent challenge for a reserve unit looking to gain experience or keep depth players (like Brunner, Carmargo, Weaver and Cummings) fit and sharp. They’ll remember the winning performance the Battery put up against them in this year’s Carolina Challenge Cup, so it’s not as if the Black and Gold will be sneaking up on anyone.
If this unit was fully healthy we might be looking at Anhaeuser’s rotation and reading the tea leaves. Do you go all-in for a regular season road point against what is probably the most talented team you’ll face all year, or do you save some firepower for your first U.S. Open Cup match on Tuesday in Portland? But with four players (Ben Fisk, Bryce Alderson, Maikel Chang and Quinton Griffith) from the Battery’s 22-man roster left behind in Charleston, and with U.S. Open Cup rules for Tuesday limiting the number of foreign players who can participate, Anhaeuser has fewer options for Sunday.
“We’re managing it like we do two games on the road,” Anhaeuser said. “The only difference (from the Harrisburg/Dayton trip) is we’re limited to … five (five foreign players on Tuesday), so I have to manage that a little bit (in terms of) who goes (on Sunday). The good news is… the Cubans were considered foreigners until today. So now that helps, because we didn’t have a backup goalie. If I didn’t take one, I was going to have to get one on loan.”
So to understand who the Battery will likely play at Houston, you really have to start with Tuesday’s Open Cup match and extrapolate.
Working backwards toward a lineup
Adding the two available Cubans as domestic players by Open Cup rules makes a big difference for Tuesday, since with five allowed foreigner players that now gets the game-day group up to 17. But Anhaeuser also offered some clues as to what we might see on Sunday.
“We have 10 Americans… so we have to be a little selective about who I pick as the foreign players and making sure they’re guys who can play (90 minutes if needed), because we only get three subs in the Open Cup,” Anhaeuser said. “And because we only have five foreigners… that could change things a little bit on Sunday and I could possibly play a couple of guys 45 minutes to maybe save their legs a little bit. And a guy like John Wilson, (because) he’s an American, I might save him until Tuesday. He’s not 22 years old anymore.”
AVAILABLE AMERICAN PLAYERS: Defenders Mark Wiltse, Taylor Mueller, Shawn Ferguson, Cody Ellison and Wilson; midfielders Jose Cuevas, Jarad van Schaik and Zach Prince; forward Austin Savage and goalkeeper Kevin Klasila. Plus two Cubans: Goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper and forward Heviel Cordoves.
AVAILABLE FOREIGN PLAYERS: Michael Azira, Nicki Paterson, Dane Kelly, Amadou Sanyang, Colin Falvey and Emmanuel Adjetey.
CONJECTURE: Assuming that Anhaeuser was serious about what he said Friday and not exercising a little gamesmanship with opposing coaches, then we can project that John Wilson will likely sit out Sunday, and that Jose Cuevas will be limited to a substitute role against Houston. Also, if Charleston tries to pick foreign players for Tuesday who can play a full 90, that means Azira, Paterson, Falvey and Adjetey are probably in, but Kelly (nursing a calf injury) or Sanyang (still working back to match fitness) could be left off. So I’ll tentatively assume that Sanyang will be the player picked to fly home to Charleston Sunday night, with Kelly a better candidate to go out to Portland.
Which produces a possible Sunday lineup that could include Cooper in goal, Wiltse, Ellison, Falvey and Adjetey across the back, van Schaik, Prince, Azira, Paterson and possibly Sanyang in the midfield, and most likely Kelly as the lone forward. It sounds entirely possible that Anhaeuser could make use of all five substitutions in order to keep his regular starters as fresh as possible for Portland. Given the significance the club has placed on the Open Cup this year, that could make for some unusual substitutions. Falvey has yet to be subbed off for a single minute this season, but if it’s going to happen, Houston might be the place.
Alternately, Anhaeuser could choose to revert to the 4-4-2 he’s deployed several times this season, using Cordoves and Kelly up top. It might not be the best matchup formation for Houston’s power 4-4-2, but it would take some pressure off the Battery midfield staff. All four of Anhaeuser’s injured players are midfielders, and Cuevas and Sanyang are still building match fitness.
We’ll be joining Battery fans at Molly Darcy’s for brunch on Sunday, with the game start set for 11 a.m. But this is actually some seriously awful planning that Houston has laid on us. At the same time the Battery kick off, every single match on the final day of the 2012-13 English Premier League season kicks off. Included in those 11 games are Newcastle vs. Arsenal and Tottenham vs. Sunderland, which happen to be two matches that actually mean something.
Will that cut down on the fans who show up to watch the Battery on a rare Sunday morning game? Of course. The question is, will we be the only people at Molly Darcy’s? Should be an interesting test.