(12:30 UPDATE: Player health status for Wednesday provided by athletic trainer Bobby Weisenberger, added in below… dc)
Two reasons why I wouldn’t want to be the Charlotte Eagles Wednesday night at Blackbaud Stadium:
Reason No. 1: Charlotte 1, Charleston 0, at Queens University Stadium on May 14. The Battery can be a cantankerous bunch when they lose, and they were in a decidedly foul mood after dropping this one on the road. There’s a feeling among longtime Battery fans that Charlotte typically plays its best soccer against Charleston, but the team appeared to genuinely feel that it had been robbed of a win or draw two weeks ago.
Reason No. 2: Harrisburg 2, Charleston 1, at Blackbaud Stadium on May 31st. The Battery’s most recent match featured a game-changing Harrisburg equalizer off an error by the goalkeeper, plus a penalty-kick goal off a risky sliding tackle. Once again, the post-game mood wasn’t pretty.
I believe it was the ancient Greek philosopher Lombardus who said “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” And for better or worse, these 2013 Battery men have been fairly lousy losers. They seem insulted by it. They take it personally. They seem to want to argue with it. And they clearly haven’t responded to disappointment by accepting it. Lose at Richmond 4-1? They came home and beat Antigua 4-0. Lose at Charlotte? They went on the road and beat the undefeated Houston Dynamo Reserves and a surprisingly tough Timbers U-23 team. Give up a scoreless draw to Rochester at Blackbaud — a result several players described as feeling like a loss? The Battery shocked the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS 1-0 just three days later.
Anybody out there want to lay money on the odds that any of these guys — with Coach Mike Anhaeuser and skipper Colin Falvey in their ears, day after day — are going to come out Wednesday and give a less-than-full effort when faced with the prospect of their first back-to-back losses of 2013?
Not just better than their record, better
Now let me be clear about something, and fair to the team. I’m totally talking out of my rear-end right now. Normally I go and catch a little practice and talk to Mike Anhaeuser and chat with some players before I write one of these previews. It’s called “reporting,” and I believe in it. But I’m writing this one in the evening without doing my usual practice-and-interview routine because I’m just too slammed to take an extra couple of daylight hours out of my deadline schedule this week. My apologies.
So, you know. Read at your own risk.
But one of the most interesting things that came out of the San Jose game were the statements from several Battery men who said they saw a lot of themselves in the Earthquakes. San Jose won the 2012 MLS Supporters Shield — the regular season championship — with a bunch of underpaid, over-achieving, blue-collar players who wore their “Bash Brothers” identity as a badge of honor. You hear a description like that one and you expect to see a lot of 1-0 scorelines. Au contraire, mon frere. The 2012 Earthquakes ran away with the league scoring title, logging 72 goals in 34 games, the first time an MLS team had broken the 70-goal barrier since Los Angeles and D.C. United both did it over 32 games… back in 1998.
Which is why I agree. There are a lot of similarities between the clubs. Because you can take pride in defending and still score. Even though the scoreboard hasn’t reflected it recently, the 2013 Battery are a team with a load of offensive talent. And I think these guys are itching to demonstrate it.
Here’s Anhaeuser responding to a question on May 30th about whether the Battery’s trend toward lower-scoring games since May 11 has been the result of injuries, scheduling, or something intentional in the way they’ve approached match-ups:
Nothing’s intentional, is it? Mike Azira‘s scored three goals, John Wilson has two. Naturally they’re not your leading goal scorers, are they? Nicki Paterson‘s has had five saved off the line in the past five games. Did you know that? You didn’t know that. Clears on balls across. So maybe (it’s) good defending on the other team’s part. Maybe they figured it out. Jose (Cuevas), let’s see, our leading goal scorer in preseason… hasn’t scored, has he? No? He wasn’t in there, and he’s not as sharp. He’s getting there, that’s great, but people watch. It takes time to get there. And playing games.
Defense wins you championships? You ever hear that one? You wonder why? Defense wins you championships and goals win you games. And goals make it exciting. But unfortunately 3-1-1 (over the past five games), it’s nothing we’ve done. Teams are obviously weary of us. But we have had a change. Quinton got injured. Now you’ve got to put a guy (out there) that’s not as offensive, not as fast. Jose is getting into sharpness, so you’re working him back in there, and that takes time because if he’s not as fit and can’t get from point A to point B six times, he can only do it once. Well, if he doesn’t get a goal (that one time)? He didn’t have any shots against Rochester. A team who sat back. You look at that as a coach, and maybe you shouldn’t play him. And people might worry about it.
It’s just like minutes played. It’s just like Dane (Kelly). What are you going to do? Dane’s played a lot of minutes, and (Heviel) Cordoves had more shots than Dane.
There’s no theory to it. You just need to adjust. You have to have the players to step in. And you always have to defend well. Because, like 0-0, people are unhappy. But honestly, (Rochester goalkeeper Kristian Nicht) made three good saves for them. He doesn’t, it’s 3-0. Probably.
From what I’ve seen of this team, there appears to be a group sense that they’re not just good, but that they have some kind of responsibility to play up to that level of quality. And while I think they’re happy to win, ugly or otherwise, I also keep picking up this attitude that suggests a perpetual sense that they can do better, should do better, want to prove to the world that they can do better.
So I don’t predict scores. And weird things happen in soccer.
But the Battery are due.
Rested, ready and probably pissed off
So I’m not discounting all the motivating factors, but here’s the thing: As important as it can be, a chip on your shoulder will only take you so far. From that point on, you need fit bodies, fresh legs and clear minds. Coaches and athletes typically downplay the long-season grind in public — whether that’s for competitive reasons or psychological ones is above my pay grade — but the physical and mental stress is real.
So yes, the Battery are likely focused and motivated, but I suspect that the value of that between-the-ears advantage is probably secondary to the benefits of being home and getting a little break. This is the first time this group has been granted four straight days of rest, recovery and normal training in Charleston since they returned from Dayton after an all-night bus ride on the morning of May 4, and then got a week to prepare for Wilmington on May 11.
Result? They gutted the Hammerheads 4-2. And it wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated.
Vengeance is a strong word. Probably the wrong word. But the Battery have been a constrained and occasionally frustrated group over the past three weeks. As someone who pays close attention to them, every time I’ve thought about this matchup over the past two days, everything about it adds up to a statement game.
Eagles upset Battery, then hit the skids
Beating Charleston on May 14 probably stands as the Eagles’ signature win of 2013 right now, but they didn’t manage to build on it. Since then they’ve gone 0-2-1 in USL PRO play, winning only their Second Round Open Cup match against Seattle Sounders U-23s at Queens University. They hosted the Chicago Fire at Winthrop on the 29th, but lost 0-2.
They’re currently 8th in the USL PRO table with
a 3-4-4 a 3-2-4 (typo corrected) record, and winless on the road (0-1-2). The only Eagle to figure near the top of a league statistical category is Samuel Asante — who leads the league in fouls, with 20. They’ve scored 14 goals with 14 allowed in nine matches. Their leading scorer, Christian Ramirez, has three on the season. Former Columbus Crew man Shaun Francis played well against Charleston on May 14, and has two goals and two assists as a defender. Goalkeeper Eric Reed is active and extremely vocal, but at 6-feet-even, he’s a bit compact for a pro keeper.
The Battery bring…
While the Battery have several guys with notable speed, neither of their two fastest players were available against Harrisburg. Of the two, I know more about Quinton Griffith and less about Dane Kelly. Griffith was a surprise scratch for the first Charlotte game and has been nursing a groin injury ever since. Kelly went 90 minutes against San Jose, but picked up an unspecified injury in the process. I’m not going to speculate about it, but it’s probably worth noting that Anhaeuser rated him at “60-40″ before the Harrisburg match, and didn’t completely rule him out the day before. Cordoves played well in his second start of the season, but Kelly’s pace stretches the field, and has been more valuable than ever since Griffith’s injury.
(12:30 UPDATE: Weisenberger reports that Griffith will be available for Wednesday night’s game, his first appearance on the Battery’s card since May 11. The trainer didn’t mention Kelly on the list of players likely to be reserved for Wednesday with injury issues.)
Anhaeuser guaranteed before Harrisburg that Battery fans would see the full roster of available players in action during the remainder of this home stand, and he lived up to those words Friday, playing five substitutes. Those subs included regular starters John Wilson, whom Anhaeuser manages carefully, and Mark Wiltse, who looked like he was due for some recovery time after Rochester.
I won’t guess at who Anhaeuser plans to start in this situation — other than to suggest that with Amadou Sanyang expected back from a ridiculous red card suspension, he should be fresh and eager for minutes.
Right now, the Battery hold the fourth spot in the USL PRO table with 19 points off a 6-3-1 record. They went 3-2-1 in league play in May, but also added two wins in the Open Cup. Their league home record is 3-1-1, 4-1-1 when figuring in the Open Cup victory over San Jose.
(12:30 UPDATE: Head athletic trainer Bobby Weisenberger reports that center back Cody Ellison and midfielder Ben Fisk picked up minor injuries on Friday and that midfielder/forwards Zach Prince and Austin Savage sustained minor injuries in an intrasquad scrimmage on Sunday. Weisenberger characterized the injuries as “nothing major” and said that if the team holds them out of the lineup on Wednesday — as appears likely — it will be because the Battery is playing it safe with a lot of games in a short time frame.)
Battery players to watch
Jose Cuevas: Chiva went 90 minutes Friday for just the second time this season (the first coming at Portland on May 28th). The USL PRO stat sheet credited him with two shots on the evening, but when my friends from out of town who watched the match on USLNation.com talked about it afterward, both mentioned the beautiful cross that Cuevas put into the box in the waning minutes. He’s recorded assists in both Open Cup matches, but has yet to score or assist in league play so far. And I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.
Whether he starts or subs, Chivas is rounding into form and flashing the brilliance that (unofficially) produced nine goals and four assists in 12 preseason appearances. When it starts clicking for him, watch out.
Ben Fisk: “Ben Ten” started his Blackbaud Stadium career with a scintillating performance in a preseason friendly against Wilmington, then scored and assisted in his regular season home debut against Antigua. A mystery injury and knee surgery followed, putting Fisk-mania on hold until the Rochester match. He finally returned to the starting lineup against Harrisburg — and promptly scored.
Whatever it is that this 20-year-old has, it’s fun to watch. And with Griffith likely still working his way back to match fitness, there’s an open spot on the outside of the Battery midfield.
(12:30 UPDATE: Fisk sustained a minor injury against Harrisburg, according to Weisenberger and likely will not be available Wednesday.)
Shawn Ferguson: The only non-goalkeeper sub who didn’t see the field Friday, Ferguson has a tough depth chart ahead of him at center back. But the 2013 College of Charleston graduate is big, strong and surprisingly athletic. There are moments when it looks like he might rival Cody Ellison as the Battery’s best set-piece aerial weapon, too. He’s made four appearances this year, including a 90-minute start in Portland.
(12:30 UPDATE: If Cody Ellison is held out of Wednesday night’s match as anticipated, Ferguson could play a bigger role in the team’s plans.)
Heviel Cordoves: Cordo has appeared in the Battery’s last four USL PRO matches, and went 71 minutes Friday in his first start since Antigua. He’s looked increasingly confident both on and off the field. The center forward has scored twice in all competitions, and his hold-up play was one of the best weapons in the Battery arsenal against Harrisburg. Whatever happens with regular-starter Kelly this week, Cordoves is developing into a great change-of-pace option.
Odisnel Cooper: The Battery’s rookie keeper had his share of bad moments as the starter for the overmatched Cuban national team, but his “uh-oh” moment in the first half on Friday had to be the low moment in what has otherwise been a successful first professional season. The question is, how has he responded?
For all his talent, his winning record, and his five shutouts, I wouldn’t consider Cooper a lock to start Wednesday. Backup Kevin Klasila pushes him in practice every week and has yet to allow a goal in 180 minutes of play (at Dayton and at Portland). But competition is one thing. How a coach and a player respond to Friday’s tough situation is another.
That’s all for now. I’ll add an update if I get additional information…
TOP IMAGE: Midfielder Zach Prince launches himself to block a long pass by defender Shaun Francis of the Charlotte Eagles at Queens University Stadium on May 14. Francis, a Jamaican who is trying to work his way back to MLS, and Prince, who has been one of the Battery’s most improved players in 2013, both figured in the controversial play that set up Francis’ game-winning 65th minute free kick. Dan Conover photo.