While the big Battery news of the day is the apparent end of Ben Fisk’s 2013 season, there’s still a game to play Saturday — and a tough opponent coming to town.
The Houston Dynamo Reserves have played five matches in 2013, including games against Columbus, Chicago and Dallas — twice. So far they’ve earned 12 points, good for first place in the MLS Reserve League Eastern Conference and a six-point lead on the rest of the field.
The only blemish on their 5-1-0 record? A 0-1 home defeat against a focused Charleston Battery squad on May 19.
That was the first leg of a two-match western road trip for the Battery that came on the heels of an irritating 0-1 loss at Charlotte. The Battery won both and returned to Charleston to start a five-match home stand in good spirits. But with the exception of their 1-0 win against San Jose in the U.S. Open Cup, the Battery have struggled since returning to town. In league play they’ve drawn a rebounding Rochester club 0-0, lost 1-2 to revenge-minded Richmond and dropped two points on a late equalizer to Charlotte.
Getting past Houston for a second time won’t be easy. But then again, what’s come easily for Charleston since April?
The Traveling Dynamo Road Show
Like Charleston, Houston rolls into town contending with the grind of a long season. Team spokesman Matt Pederson said they’ve been hit with a bunch of injuries lately.
That said, the 18 players they’ve brought to Charleston still probably represent the equivalent of a top-flight USL PRO team.
This is a younger group than the one the Battery faced in Houston (when Brian Ching played). Only fullback Mike Chabala, midfielder Luiz Camargo and forward Omar Cummings fall into the MLS-veteran category. Camargo was a regular for the first team in 2012, and Cummings was a starter for Colorado last season.
Five of the 18 are academy players, but what’s really exciting about this group are these names: Forward Jason Johnson, the Dynamo’s 2013 Superdraft first-rounder and a reserve-league terror in 2013; attacker Bryan Salazar, their acclaimed (and blazing-fast) 2013 homegrown signing; and 22-year-old defender Kofi Sarkodie, a 2011 Superdraft first-rounder who can overlap with the best of them.
There’s another guy here the Battery simply can’t get away from: Second-year outside midfielder Brian Ownby. This will be his fourth match against Charleston (Carolina Challenge Cup in February, on loan with Richmond in April, at Houston in May), and he’s been impressive so far.
It looks like 24-year-old homegrown product Tyler Deric will start in goal.
Dynamo traveling roster: Michael Chabala, Luiz Camargo, Leopoldo Castillo (Academy Player), Warren Creavalle, Omar Cummings, Tyler Deric, Alex Dixon, Christian Gonzalez (Academy Player), Jason Johnson, Brian Ownby, Elochukwu Ozumba (Academy Player), Irvin Ramirez (Academy Player), Bryan Salazar, Kofi Sarkodie, Louis Thomas (Academy Player).
Managing the Battery roster
That Charleston has been slogging through a dense schedule over the past three weeks is in part their own doing. May and June were already going to be a busy time for them in USL PRO, but their Open Cup success has made the Battery one of only two league teams to advance to the Fourth Round (Wednesday in Salt Lake City). They’ve done it while managing a 22-player roster that’s often struggled to find 18 healthy match-day bodies.
Heading into Saturday, they have exactly 18 players available for selection, so there’s zero drama involved in selecting the names for the card. Some academy help is expected to be on the way according to Anhaeuser, although I didn’t interpret his comment to apply to Saturday night.
It only takes a short glance ahead to see how things are about to get complicated. The Battery will take Sunday off, train Monday, and then fly out for the first match in a three-game road trip. That’s Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer on Wednesday with the Open Cup quarterfinals on the line, followed by back-to-back matches at Pittsburgh and Rochester on Saturday and Sunday.
I bring all this up because with just 18 players available, Coach Mike Anhaeuser‘s options when it comes to managing the team through Saturday night and the upcoming road trip are basically down to squeezing as many minutes as he can find out of his substitutes and crossing his fingers on injuries.
For instance, the Battery would certainly like to see 35-year-old left back John Wilson play at the top of his ability in Wednesday’s Cup match. But with Emmanuel Adjetey nursing an ankle sprain from the Charlotte game, Wilson doesn’t exactly have another backup trained up to take his place.
Forward Austin Savage and defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang will also miss the Houston match, while Fisk is expected to return to Vancouver.
The good news is the return of Quinton Griffith, one of the fastest players in North American soccer. Griffith can play left or right wing, and subbed for Wilson in preseason before Adjetey’s arrival. Anhaeuser couldn’t quite rate his confidence in Griffith’s recovery from his groin injury, saying that he thinks the Antiguan international is 100 percent, but acknowledging how difficult it is to be sure when a player is working his way back after a month-long layoff.
Star attacker Jose Cuevas, who missed Wednesday’s match with a bruised heel, is also available.
Battery players to watch
Odisnel Cooper: The award for most dramatic individual performance by a Battery player in 2013 probably goes to Cooper’s heroic stand in the Battery’s 2-1 win against Houston in the final match of the Carolina Challenge Cup. His play drew national attention and probably won him the team’s starting job after a hard-fought preseason competition with Kevin Klasila. Colin Falvey and the Battery defense largely kept the Dynamo off him in Houston, He’s logged five shutouts, but struggled in the recent loss to Harrisburg.
Cooper is 3-0-0 against MLS teams so far in his professional career, recording two shutouts and conceding just once. With fresh-legged players like Johnson and Salazar prowling the attacking third, the Battery’s success Saturday might just come down to Cooper. In the weeks since the Challenge Cup, it seldom has, thanks to one of the league’s best back lines. He’s currently tied for third in the league in minutes and first in the league in shutouts, but with just 19 saves on 66 shots over 10 games, Cooper doesn’t even break the league’s Top 10 (he’s currently 13th).
Dane Kelly and Heviel Cordoves: The Battery’s style of play this season has often made Kelly and Cordoves an either-or option for Anhaeuser. But the combo looked dynamic on Wednesday in the second half against Charlotte, and with the club currently thin at outside midfield, you have to wonder if he’ll want to take a longer look at this pairing.
Kelly has a rare combination of speed, strength and skill that earned him USL PRO Player of the Week honors after his sizzling game-winner against Houston. Cordoves has been an off-and-on contributor all season, but appears to be gaining confidence rapidly. He was Man of the Match as a substitute in his last appearance, and served up the pass that Kelly converted for the go-ahead score in the 69th minute.
Quinton Griffith: They say you don’t really appreciate some things until their gone, so consider this stat. With Griffith starting the first six league games of 2013, the Battery averaged 2.33 goals per match. With Griffith on the sideline for the past seven games, the team’s per-match scoring average has plummeted to 0.85.
That’s a horrible oversimplification of what’s happened over the past month, particularly when you consider that Griffith has yet to record a regular-season goal or assist this year. But if you’ve seen Griffith play, you know what I’m talking about. He’s freaky fast, with MLS-level skills, and when Griffith attacks, defenses get pulled into Silly Putty shapes. Another star who is still looking for his first goal of 2013 is also expected to return to the lineup: Jose Cuevas. This should be their first appearance together since the first half of the season opener.
Michael Azira: The Battery have asked a lot of him this season, and Azira keeps delivering. With three goals and one assist, Azira is one of the surprise statistical leaders of this year’s club, but he’s just as comfortable as a supporting central midfielder or cleaning up and connecting from a defensive role.
Amadou Sanyang will miss this match, which generally means that Azira, Jarad van Schaik or Bryce Alderson will be asked to lay deep. Of that group, Azira is probably the most versatile, and seems to combine extremely well with star Nicki Paterson. He’s also someone that Anhaeuser has tested at fullback, and since depth at left back is going to be a concern over the next week, it wouldn’t shock me to see Azira take a turn as an outside defender.
Cody Ellison, Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson: Houston Dynamo teams have a well-earned reputation for excellence when it comes to scoring off set pieces, but Ellison (6-4), Ferguson (6-4) and Mueller (6-2) are tall, broad-shouldered defenders who can negate that Dynamo tendency and bang-in headers off corner kicks at the other end.
None of them have scored yet (the only defender to head one in for a goal this season is Colin Falvey), but that drought has been unnaturally long. Mueller almost snapped it in the dying seconds of stoppage on Wednesday when his header off a Zach Prince corner bounced off the crossbar. But even if none of them figure on the score sheet, Charleston’s ability to muscle up against young MLS talent is a competitive advantage the Battery will probably want to exploit.
Etc., etc., etc.
Saturday’s card includes a PDL game between the SC United Bantams and the West Virginia Chaos before the Battery match at 7:30. Battery forward Austin Savage played for SC United last year, and the roster includes several ex-Battery development academy players. The PDL match starts at 5 p.m., so the stadium gates open at 4.
It’s Irish Night sponsored by Molly Darcy’s. That means $5 Guinness drafts and Magners ciders, bagpipes, Irish dancers, and a Hurling (the sport, not the thing you do after drinking too many Guinness drafts and Magners ciders, smartass) exhibition at halftime.
The Regiment will be tailgating in full force, and there’s talk about an Irish theme.
Saturday’s match will be broadcast live on SportsRadio 1450 AM WQNT and streamed live on www.uslnation.com. Tickets for the double-header start at $10, and you can order them over the phone at (843) 971-GOAL (4625) or buy them online at www.charlestonbattery.com.
TOP IMAGE: Shawn Ferguson snaps a header toward Kevin Klasila’s goal in a team scrimmage Friday. Dan Conover photos.