Game 1: Richmond-away preview

Game 1: Richmond-away preview

Ralph-Lundy-soccer-sponsorship-message-2With a trip to the Richmond Kickers to start their season, the Charleston Battery face both the familiar and the unknown.

Richmond they know. The clubs have been playing against each other for two decades, making this one of the older rivalries in North American soccer, not just the current iteration of USL PRO. Not only has Charleston Coach Mike Anhaeuser been making this trip for Charleston since 1994, but 11 of the 18 players on the travel squad have played there before — including 10 who were with the Battery last year.

The Battery roster is unusually stable this season. Richmond’s is more the league norm, with plenty of turnover and questions. The biggest among them: What effect will the influx of players on loan from MLS clubs have on their 2013 USL PRO fortunes?

Richmond and D.C. United were among the first four affiliations announced in the wake of January’s MLS/USL PRO cooperation agreement. Which meant fans knew for months that at least four DCU players would be headed down I-95 on season-long loans. The only questions was, who?

Casey Townsend

Casey Townsend

The answer came on March 19:  Forward Casey Townsend (17 appearances and 10 starts for Chivas USA as a 2012 rookie) defender/midfielder Taylor Kemp (17th pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft out of Maryland), forward Michael Seaton (2013 Homegrown player, and at 16 the first player born after the founding of MLS to sign a league contract)and defender/midfielder Conor Shanosky (fourth year on the DCU roster, but has yet to make an MLS appearance. He spent 2012 on loan as a regular with NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers).

 It’s an interesting mix of talent and potential, though not exactly a gift-wrapped USL PRO title.

Brian Ownby

Brian Ownby

But that wasn’t the end of the dealing. Three days later the club announced the acquisition of midfielder and Richmond native Brian Ownby on loan from the Houston Dynamo, for whom the former Kicker made seven appearances in 2012.  And on April 3, perhaps the biggest shoe dropped: Andrew Dykstra, the DCU reserve keeper who helped Charleston to its 2012 championship, returned to USL PRO with Richmond. Though league observers had speculated since January that Dykstra would wind up in the net for Richmond, the significance of him coming over separately from the first four is probably that it allows the parent club to recall him to duty should one of its top two keepers go down with an injury.

In other words, that’s a lot of shiny MLS connections. But do MLS ties necessarily equate to superior talent?

Colin Falvey, skipper

Colin Falvey, skipper

As the Battery demonstrated in February, the gap between quality USL PRO players and the average MLS Joe is less than one might imagine, particularly when you consider that the biggest barrier between MLS and players like Colin Falvey and Nicki Paterson is likely their citizenship. So while the loaned-in players get more attention, the strength of this Richmond unit might well be its lower-league veterans, guys like defender William Yomby, midfielder Philippe Davies and Richmond’s career scoring leader, 31-year-old Matthew Delicate.

Matching up

John Wilson

John Wilson

Based on the way the Battery have played in the preseason, there are a few players on the Richmond travel squad you can expect to see on the pitch as starters week in and week out.

Falvey and John Wilson are locks on defense when they’re healthy. Paterson and Cuevas are versatile stars. Newcomers Quinton Griffth and Jarad van Schaik typically line up on the edges at midfield.

While we won’t know the Battery’s starting lineup until later today and very little would surprise me, I figure there are four big question marks.

Zach Prince

Zach Prince

Who starts for concussed defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang? The obvious answer to this one would usually be Michael Azira. But Azira’s international paperwork hasn’t arrived, so he didn’t make the trip. One option would be to slide Paterson into a deeper role, perhaps opening the way for young veteran Zach Prince to get a start farther up the field.

Who starts in goal? Anhaeuser has suggested that former Cuban international Odisnel “El Gato” Cooper has edged into the lead for the starting role, but 2012 opening-day starter Kevin “Godzilla” Klasila turned in plenty of good preseason performances and remains in the mix. He also started on the road in the 2012 season-opener at Richmond, preserving the 2-1 win.

Dane Kelly by Kim Morgan Gregory

Dane Kelly

Will Dane Kelly’s loan deal get done before kickoff? As we reported yesterday, the Battery front office and Kelly’s parent club in Jamaica have been trying to finalize a deal for 2013. Kelly is the Battery’s best all-around forward, and would be the likely starter if he’s available. Anhaeuser’s options largely consist of oft-injured but powerful Heviel Cordoves and 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas. The versatile Cuevas is a virtual lock to play in every match his health and fitness allow, but where and how Anhaesuser choses to deploy him is always something of a guessing game for fans. If Kelly isn’t available, Cordoves isn’t the answer and the coach doesn’t feel comfortable starting rookie Austin Savage in his first professional game on the road, then the Battery could start the game against the Kickers in a formation that consists of essentially four defenders and six midfielders.

Taylor Mueller

Taylor Mueller

Who is the right back? Returning defender Taylor Mueller had a remarkable preseason manning the position, but he’s also capable of moving inside to the position patrolled by big Cody Ellison. The resulting back line is big and sturdy, but the wild card in all of this is Mark Wiltse, who returned in late March from rehabbing an MCL injury. Wiltse gives Anhaeuser a speedier option on the outside should he desire it, which would translate into another decision at center back beside Falvey.

Richmond’s line-up could steer Anhaeuser’s thinking on that question. The late signing of Delicate gives the Kickers a classic center forward with the strength and savvy to tie up center backs. But Delicate signed late, has been injured, and is questionable to play.

Mike Anhaeuser

Mike Anhaeuser

“He’s one you have to prepare for, but my center backs have played against him,” Anhaeuser said. “Because when (Delicate) plays, (the Kickers) play direct and knock it down. It’s almost as if you’re playing against a Kenny Cooper. He is that type and he can score. But he didn’t play last week.

“The thing we do prepare for is we know they’re going to defend well. So we tried to work on crosses and possession. They defend. Pittsburgh (who drew the Kickers 0-0 last week in Richmond’s home opener) actually worked it around them pretty well and got some chances, and that’s what we want to do. That’s what we’re planning on doing.”

Nicki Paterson

Nicki Paterson

Paterson has a pretty good idea what the team is up against.

“They’re a big strong team,” he said. “They’ve got Dykstra in goal, he’s a good goalkeeper. They’ve got a lot of returning players, a lot of defensive returning players, and some new guys we really don’t know much about. So what you’ll find for them is a team that’s very organized, but we’ve kinda just got to go up there and treat it like any other game, whether it’s home or away. We’ll go up there confident and do what we always do: Keep it tight at the back. ”

Potential storylines

Anhaeuser’s starting 11 will certainly be interesting, but there are other things I’ll curious about as the game goes on.

Is Casey Townsend the new and improved Corey Hertzog? When Hertzog came to Wilmington on loan from New York Red Bulls, he was a former first-round SuperDraft striker (13th pick in 2011) who saw only limited duty his rookie season (five appearances, no goals). Hertzog led Wilmington in scoring last summer, and is scoring goals for Vancouver this spring.

Townsend looks ready to shoot for a similar trajectory. He was drafted higher (fifth in 2012), played more as a rookie (one goal in 10 starts and 17 appearances for Chivas), and DCU traded to acquire him. But he was also something of a disappointment on a team that struggled.

Jose Cuevas

Jose Cuevas

Will Paterson and Cuevas continue to terrorize Richmond? In their first matchup of 2012, the Battery took full points on the road as Cuevas made his professional debut with a brace against the Kickers. A week later, the Kickers returned the favor at Blackbaud Stadium with an identical 2-1 score, beating the Battery with a late winner. Paterson scored the home side’s goal. Between the two of them, Cuevas and Paterson would score 20 of the team’s 36 goals last year.

The identical but opposite home-and-away outcomes suggest just how closely matched these teams were in 2012. They finished the season tied on 38 points.

Does preseason mean anything? If you saw much — if any — of the Battery’s preseason, you know they went 9-2-1 and finished on a 10-match unbeaten streak that included one win over the Houston Dynamo, two wins against the Carolina Railhawks and another against Wilmington. Not only that, but the Battery played multiple styles of football, each of them successfully, and came within an extra-time minute of drawing the Chicago Fire 1-1.

Of course all of that adds up to less than three magic beans now that the regular season is here.

Watch party at Molly Darcy’s

We’ll be down at the new official watch-party venue for the 2013 Battery tonight covering the match and the local festivities live. Stop by and say hello.

This is the first event of its kind at Molly Darcy’s (the former location of the Meritage wine bar on East Bay Street just above Market Street), so it’s a story in and of itself. But it will also be the unveiling of The Regiment’s 2013 tifo.

The livestream kickoff begins at 7. We hope to see you there.

TOP IMAGE: MLS players on loan to Richmond this season include (clockwise from top left) Casey Townsend, Conor ShanoskyMichael Seaton, Brian Ownby, Andrew Dykstra, and Taylor Kemp. Dan Conover graphic.

Photos of Colin Falvey, Dane Kelly and Zach Prince by Kim Morgan Gregory