With a new winning streak underway thanks to this week’s 2-0 road trip, the Charleston Battery wrapped an abbreviated week of training in advance of tomorrow’s match against a wounded and dangerous Rochester squad.
Saturday’s match against the Rhinos features two of the marquee franchises from lower-division North American soccer. They’re the only two lower-division teams to reach the finals of the U.S. Open Cup during the MLS Era, with the Rhinos winning it in 1999. Charleston made it to the finals in 2008. They last met in the 2012 USL PRO playoffs, with Charleston stealing a road win in dramatic fashion But when it comes to 2013, each has been on a distinctly different trajectory.
With 18 points in eight games, Charleston (6-2-0) trails only powerhouse Orlando (7-1-2, 23 points in 10 games) in the USL PRO table. Rochester sits one slot above cellar-dwelling Antigua, and even a win in its last USL PRO match (on the road at Wilmington on May 10) was not enough to save Coach Jesse Meyers‘ job. Management pulled the plug on Meyers’ two-year tenure on May 19.
For his replacement, the club went back to the future, installing Canadian Pat Ercoli in the role. Ercoli was the club’s first coach and led the team through its glory years, managing the Rhinos from 1996-2004. The team fired him in 2004, but brought him back in 2009 as its general manager. By the time he re-assumed coaching duties, Ercoli’s title with the Rhinos had risen to club President and Chief Operating Officer. The club’s owner immediately announced that he saw Erocoli as a long-term solution for the team.
The new-coach bump
So why pay so much attention to a new coach on a struggling team?
Because conventional wisdom says that struggling teams typically respond to a coach change with an immediate improvement in play. That upgrade in performance doesn’t always last, but no team wants to be the first to play against an opponent that’s just installed new leadership.
In a sense, the GPS Portland Phoenix, a PDL team from Maine, drew that assignment. Ercoli took over on Sunday, right before the Rhinos played GPS Portland in the Second Round of the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday. The Rhinos won 1-0 at home, which puts them on a two-game, multi-competition winning streak.
“(A new coach) gives them that extra bit of something, because everybody works harder right from the beginning,” said Charleston Coach Mike Anhaeuser. “(Ercoli) is going to make decisions on who he’s going to play and get things sorted. You know they’re going to come in here with effort, with their running. Hopefully it’s warm and that nullifies their ability to run, because they do have some guys that work hard, and some quality. But they’re going to be a tough team no matter what.”
Anhaeuser called the Rhinos a good 2013 team despite their record, and characterized their early season woes as a combination of too many Red Cards and not enough breaks.
“They had a couple of results that didn’t go their way and a couple of goals that got scored late, and that put them on the back burner,” he said. “If they can run off five or six wins like they’ve always done, they’re right back in there. I’m sure that’s what he’s going to tell them.
“(Ercoli) is a great coach. When I was playing (injury ended Anhaeuser’s playing career in 1999) he was the coach, and those teams were tough to play against and you know they’re going to be organized. You know their free kicks are very dangerous, because he lives off of it, and they’re big. So that’s one thing I talked about. You don’t know who is going to play, because he might make some changes, but I know most of the players, so we’ll be prepared when we see the lineup tomorrow.”
Road Battery, home Battery
Since the Battery lost its season opener at Richmond, the team has developed a split personality.
On the road, they play defensive-minded football and look for opportunities in the counter-attack. The team has gone 4-1 on the road in all competitions since the Richmond loss, putting up more than one goal only once. Three of their four wins came on 1-0 scores.
At home, Anhaeuser lets his horses run. The Battery are not only undefeated in three games at Blackbaud Stadium this season, they’ve also out-scored their visitors 10-2.
Rochester begins the Battery’s longest stretch of home games this season. They’ll play the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer on Tuesday in the Third Round of the Open Cup, followed by return matches against Harrisburg (May 31), Charlotte (June 5) and the Houston Dynamo Reserves (June 8). If the club can maintain its 2013 groove at Blackbaud Stadium, this May-June stretch of games could put them on the high ground for the rest of the summer.
The personnel situation
Look for Charleston to start a lineup that will probably resemble the unit that took the field on Sunday at Houston. That’s in part because of suspension (Rochester is the final game in centerback Cody Ellison‘s three-match ban), part because of rotational concerns (Anhaeuser will rest left back John Wilson Saturday in anticipation of starting him again on Tuesday), but mostly because of injury.
That’s not to say that the team’s injury situation is worsening. It’s actually improving. But if Anhaeuser had more healthy bodies at his disposal, his lineup Saturday might be a bit more rotational. Several Battery players, including star forward Dane Kelly, have been putting in major minutes and could be due a break.
Starting right midfielder Quinton Griffith, an All-League Second Team man with Antigua in 2012, remains on the injury list with a pulled groin. He hasn’t played since May 11, and the earliest he could return to training would be next week. Anhaeuser compared Griffith’s injury to the one suffered by Nicki Paterson in Feburary, which cost him several weeks of rest. Midfielder Maikel Chang joined Griffith on the sidelines during Friday’s scrimmage, although Chang ran and did skills drills.
The good news for the Battery on Friday was the return of its two Canadian youth international players, midfielders Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson. Both scrimmaged with the rest of the team, and Anhaeuser said either could play if called upon. But he wasn’t ready to declare them healed. Of the two, Fisk — who recently underwent surgery to repair a tear in his MCL ligament — is the one nearest to returning to the 18, Anhaeuser said.
Wilson’s backup at left back, Emmanuel Adjetey has been more than adequate in relief this season, and with central midfielders Amadou Sanyang and Jose Cuevas both returning from early season injuries, Anhaeuser’s options look an awful lot better than they did after the Charlotte match.
Michael Azira, who returned to Charleston directly from Houston despite the team having room for another international player in its Open Cup match at Portland, is healthy. His early return to South Carolina was to deal with work-visa issues, Anhaeuser said.
Speaking of John Wilson…
The ring in the box that Wilson is holding on the right is an ACC Tournament Championship ring he earned as a member of the 1998 Clemson squad. It was the first championship ring in Wilson’s collection (he since earned an MLS Cup ring with the Kansas City Wizards, plus three championship rings with the Charleston Battery), and his Clemson ring also had extra sentimental value based on his memories of that team, which was ranked No. 1 the country before losing in the NCAA quarterfinals.
But what makes this a story is that the ring in that box actually went missing several years ago. Wilson figured it was gone for good.
Until it showed up this month.
Here’s how it went missing: While Wilson pursued his career in Rochester and Washington, D.C., he left his various championship rings and his Clemson class ring at his parents house in Seneca. He’s not exactly sure which year it was, but one day….
“…I get a call from my brother David, and he goes ‘I’ve got something to tell you. I lost one of your rings.’ And I go ‘How?’ And this is where story gets kinda funny.
“I have three nieces. Two of them were at my parents’ house and somehow they got their hands on all the rings. They decided to go in the back yard and play ‘Bury the Treasure.’ They were pretty young. I guess if I was playing ‘Bury the Treasure’ and I saw those rings, I’d be like ‘Wow, this is perfect.’ So my brother happens to go outside and see them and says ‘What are you doing?’ And they told him and he looked and he saw my rings.
“So he found them, and he was trying to do a good thing, (so) he took them to get them cleaned. And along the way, I guess maybe before or after the rings were cleaned, that one ACC Championship ring was lost. And at that time, I was pretty upset.
“I never yelled at my nieces… but now that the ring is returned I can laugh about it. I remember talking to my mom and she was like ‘It’s gone,’ and I was really frustrated, and I said ‘Mom, let me call you back.’ And my brother felt really bad. It’s a ring, and it had a lot of memories.
“I hadn’t thought about it until Whitney Woods (Battery marketing and communication director) said ‘Did you lose a ring?’ She said, ‘There’s a guy in Georgia who just contacted someone at the radio station that he knew, and the radio station contacted her and said that he has it.’ So it’s pretty crazy.”
The guy who returned the ring is Seth Gee, a 2003 Clemson graduate who apparently lives in New York now. At one point in his career he wound up working for a printing company in Lawrenceville, Ga. I’ll let him take it from there.
I quickly became friends with one co-worker. After discussing some college football, he told me that he might have something that I was interested in.The next day, he brought this ring to work. I asked him how he acquired it. The details of where the ring was found are a bit fuzzy, but it eventually made it into a box, which he later rediscovered the ring. He pulled it out of the box and put it in his desk. After two years in that desk drawer, he handed it to me and told me that I might have some luck finding the person it belonged to through my connections at Clemson. After he handed it to me, I took it home and set in the hutch on my desk.I contacted Clemson Athletics asking them if they had any records of their past athletes and they said, “No, but if you want to bring it by we will try and get it back to the rightful owner.” Well, I was a little skeptical…thinking that it might just bet shoved in a drawer and forgotten about. Also, since this was something personal, I wanted to return it in person…not just some random UPS box being delivered.
For a few years, the ring sat on my desk. Pondering ways (mostly Facebook searches) that I could find the person who the ring belong to, a light bulb finally went off. So, I did some internet sloothing and found some old rosters of Clemson’s Soccer teams. I eventually arrived at a PDF that had rosters dating back to the early years of Clemson Soccer. Knowing the last name was on the ring…I searched the file, came to the 1998 roster and there it was in black and white. John Wilson was a Senior Forward with 4 goals and 11 assists. I than did a quick search for “John Wilson Clemson Soccer”, well the first search result brought me to his wiki site…thus leading me to the Charleston Battery. Knowing Jessica had some deep connections into the community in Charleston…I thought I would reach out to her and here we are!
That’s probably not the most detailed provenance you’ll ever hear about a missing object, but Wilson said he doesn’t really care about the gaps in the story of how the ring got from Seneca to Lawrenceville.
“I want to leave it (be),” Wilson said. “I think sometimes there are situations where you’re just grateful that the good Lord made a way.”
The Old Sod
One thing you might notice when you return to Blackbaud Saturday are several yellowish-brownish patches on the stadium’s typically flawless turf.
I asked club President Andrew Bell about it, and wound up learning a lot more about grass, turf, heat, water, nitrogen cycles, lightning and other turf-related topics than I’d expected. Apparently you have to know these things when you’re the president of a USL PRO club
Bottom line: Don’t worry about the field. It’s perfectly healthy and not suffering from any over-use. What we’re seeing is the transition between the field’s winter rye and summer Bermuda. The club over-seeds both varieties in order to have green turf year-round, which means that as one dies back, the other fills in around it.
There’s a lot more that goes into this. But suffice it to say that if this whole running-a-soccer-franchise thing doesn’t work out, Mr. Bell can always find lucrative work at some country club golf course somewhere.
TOP IMAGE: Forward Dane Kelly controls the ball at the corner as defender Taylor Mueller challenges him during today’s intraquad scrimamge. Dan Conover photos.