Game 15: Tampa comes to town

Game 15: Tampa comes to town

Ralph-Lundy-soccer-sponsorship-message2Here’s a number to keep in mind as you think about Saturday’s match against VSI Tampa Bay FC, an expansion side with a roster of veterans that plays its home games in Plant City, Fla.

0.500

That’s the average number of points that USL PRO teams playing back-to-back away-games on consecutive nights have earned in eight matches that meet those qualifications so far this season.

If that average were a team, it would rank below 12th place Phoenix F.C., which averages 0.667 ppg. Only winless Antigua Barracuda would rank beneath it.

Oh, and if we figure Antigua into that statistic, it gets even worse. The Barracudas have played three matches that would qualify, boosting the total number of games to 12. That drops the points-per-game number for second-away-matches-played-within-24 hours to a truly pathetic  0.333 ppg. Once you include Antigua’s statistics, and include all matches played within 24 hours of each other (including home matches) the goal differential drops to 7-to-36. Home teams are scoring 2.4 goals to every goal scored by visitors on very short rest.

In fact, only two teams have managed to get points in this situation this year: Orlando, which beat Rochester 1-0 on May 18th, the day after drawing Harrisburg at City Island, and Charleston, which is coming off a draw at Rochester on Sunday.

That’s a whole bunch of numbers to make one important point: When Tampa Bay rolls up to Blackbaud Stadium on Saturday after their Friday night 0-1 loss at Charlotte, they’re going to be an underdog. And after the most grueling road trip of the Battery’s 2013 season, that’s a welcome break for the home side.

What this match means

To sum up this first meeting between these two franchises, think of it this way: Charleston — the defending champion — expects to compete for hardware, and enters the back stretch of 2013 looking like a team with its best soccer ahead of it. VSI Tampa Bay FC, which has done better than expected for an expansion team, shows up looking like a team at the crossroads.

In fact, there hasn’t been a Battery match with this many indications of success since May 11th, when Wilmington came to town and lost 2-4.

Tampa arrives as the 5th place team in the league table, three points behind Charleston, making this one of those famous “six-point matches” (if you want to get technical, all matches are six-point matches, but it’s really a question of significance, not math). They’ve played their last three matches on the road and gone 0-3-0. Despite dismal attendance figures (just 250 attended their blowout win against Antigua on June 7) while playing in their baseball stadium home field, Tampa has compiled a 6-1-1 home record that’s better than Charleston’s (4-1-2) by five points. But they’ve sucked on the road, with only one win to their credit.

With the hardest part of their season behind them, Charleston has the opportunity to separate itself from the middle tier of USL PRO teams while putting pressure on Richmond, which is tied with the Battery for 3rd place. But Richmond’s 25 points have been based on a steady diet of home cooking . They’ve played away from home only once in 2013, and 10 of their 15 remaining matches will be played on the road. So if Charleston can win here against Tampa, and Richmond begins to fade, that sets up a three-way race for the Commissioner’s Cup (USL PRO’s regular season championship) between Orlando, Harrisburg and Charleston.

Oh, and it’s Florida time…

We’ve been talking about his since the schedule came out, but one of the big quirks in this year’s calendar is that all four Battery matches against the league’s Florida teams occur in four consecutive dates within 21 days, with a back-to-back home-and-away duel with Orlando taking place on July 5th (Blackbaud Stadium) and 11th (Florida Citrus Bowl).

If Charleston can take care of its next two home games, while continuing its relative success on the road (3-2-2), opportunities will open up for them. So we’re actually entering a hugely significant stretch of matches for the Battery, who have a generally favorable schedule over the rest of July and on into August.

What Tampa Bay brings to town

Andrew Miller of The Post and Courier asked that question after training Friday afternoon. And Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser pretty much laid things out in his answer.

Experience. They’ve got three of our players (2012 Battery forwards Tony Donatelli and Sallieu Bundu, plus defender/midfielder Kyle Hoffer). They signed three players from Wilmington: The goalkeeper (Alex Horwath), (attacking midfielder Andriy Budnyi), who’s been in the league for five years, and one other guy, who’s not playing much (defender Troy Cole, who has logged only 90 league minutes). And then they picked up guys from Charlotte:  (33-year-old defender Josh Rife), who has played for 10 years, and (Darren Toby) in defensive mid.

So they’ve got experience in there, but at the same time, hopefully … we can utilize our speed and our quickness out on the field to really put them under pressure. But they did pick up a lot of players. For an expansion team, they don’t have rookies. They brought in a bunch of experienced players, were able to pay some of them, and that’s why they’re doing well, because they have guys who can go onto the pitch and they know what it takes day in and day out to get it done. So we’ve got to be prepared, because they’re going to be very organized defensively. And you can’t give them chances, because they do have that quality.

Up front they’ve got (forward Maricio Salles), Bundu, and Dontalli. All of them have scored goals. We’ve seen two of them here, and Salles has scored goals for Puerto Rico, Charlotte last year, now for Tampa. So they’ve got that experience, but we don’t want to give them space, we don’t want to give them time and we want to shut them down.

On paper, the 35-year-old Salles appears to be the team’s clear offensive leader. After all,  he leads the team in goals (eight), shots (35) and assists (tied with four others at 2). But a closer look reveals that he’s been little more than the Scourge of Antigua, scoring seven of his eight goals in two matches against the Barracudas. Toss those exhibition numbers aside, and VSITBFC looks like a 4-3-3 team that platoons multiple forwards, including Shawn Chin (974 minutes, 3 goals), Donatelli (927 minutes, 1 goal), 22-year-old Douglas Dos Santos (801 minutes, 2 goals and 2 assists), Salles (705 minutes) and Karamba Janneh (309 minutes, 2 goals). Bundu — the wayward 29-year-old former Battery man, has played the least of that group, logging 259 minutes, a goal and an assist. Thirty-year-old Ukranian attacker Budnyi, though listed by Tampa as a midfielder, has scored four goals in 468 minutes across nine appearances.

Their defensive core is based on Horwath in goal and a backline led by Hoffer, Rife and Alex Frietas. Joseph Noone has put in the most minutes in midfield.

Tampa’s offensive stats are skewed by their two big wins over Antigua (including an 8-0 dumpster toss), but one trend is undeniable. In their six road matches, they’ve managed just three goals. Which isn’t going to feed the bulldog.

Charleston getting it together

I got to sit and chat for a few minutes with team athletic trainer Bobby Weisenberger today after practice, and that’s significant for one reason. At every other practice I’ve attended, Weisenberger has been monitoring, treating or working with at least at least one injured player as things wrapped up at the end of a session.

Allow me to repeat that: This is the first practice session I can remember that didn’t feature at least one guy on the sidelines nursing one thing or another.

That’s not to say that they’re 100 percent healthy. Three guys (Taylor Mueller, Mark Wiltse and Jarad van Schaik) came down with some kind of stomach thing on this bus trip, and though they’re all training, that doesn’t mean they’ll all play.

“I’ll be honest, I’m trying to make some decisions here on the fly … to make sure that we put guys out that can perform for 90 minutes,” Anhaeuser said. “Because Pittsburgh, where we got hurt was we had two guys who got sick and they had to come off at half time. And that hurts you when you have to sub two guys when you’re winning the game, especially a defender and a defensive midfielder. I might be a little cautious with those guys who have bumps and maybe a little sickness, to maybe just leave them on the bench.”

That said, it’s not like the Battery don’t have options. Rookie defender Shawn Ferguson has played at both center back and right back, got his first start against Rochester and scored the equalizer in the second half. Emmanuel Adjetey has been up and down a bit over the past two weeks after a great start to his Charleston loan, but he’s still a versatile player with starting talent. And while the return of winger Quinton Griffith from injury and Jose Cuevas‘ recent move to the outside has pushed van Schaik into more of a deep central role, Amadou Sanyang, Bryce Alderson and Michael Azira are all viable midfielders starters if he needs a night off.

A different style of attack

There were two headlines from today’s training (both of which I Tweeted this afternoon). First, attacking midfielder Ben Fisk had knee surgery in Canada. The Vancouver Whitecaps have informed the Battery that the operation went well and that Fisk could return to Charleston to complete his loan as soon as late July. That’s awfully fast recovery for knee surgery, but Fisk’s quick return from his last knee problem surprised people, too. And when we spoke right before he left for Vancouver, Fisk all but promised to shock everyone by making it back to the game roster in 2013. Not only is that great news for a good young Canadian, but it could also be an excellent boost for a late Battery playoff run.

The second headline has more immediate ramifications. Dane Kelly will miss the Tampa match, and could miss next Friday’s game against Orlando on July 5, too. There’s nothing wrong with him — he’s just in Jamaica working on getting his Green Card. If all goes well, the change in Kelly’s immigration status could make it much easier for him to land a spot on an MLS roster.

That means emerging star Heviel Cordoves will get the start at forward Saturday. Anhaeuser expressed confidence in his big Cuban striker, who recently earned league Team of the Week honors for his off-the-bench performance against Charlotte.

But while Charleston has played well with either Kelly or Cordoves alone up top in a nominal 4-5-1 formation, the differences in their styles of play clearly change the way the Battery approach the attacking third.

“The difference is we can’t play the ball in behind (Cordoves) all the time,” Anhaeuser said. “Dane can just do it six times in a row, and get on the defenders and kick ’em and run them down. Cordoves, it has to be the right time. He gets in, but you also can play it in to his feet. He’s a big guy, so we need to do that.”

If that sounds like a more plodding style of soccer, it shouldn’t. Cordoves has proven himself effective at holding up the ball in the box and creating chances for teammates outside. Anhaeuser spoke about the things that Cordoves can do for Nicki Paterson, as well as the crafty Cuevas and the dynamic Griffith on either side. “So that’s what we’re hoping for,” Anhaeuser said. “And also, his shot. If they don’t close him down, he’s got a great shot.”

As we’ve discussed before, the return of offensive stars Cuevas and Griffith to full health and good form radically reshapes what the Battery are capable of doing, and the game experience the backups have logged prepares the team for a deep and dangerous run down. But what might be truly different coming out of the crucible of last week’s epic road trip could be the team itself. His players showed character and heart under tough circumstances, Anhaeuser said, but also team unity.

In other words, there are several reasons to suspect that the second half of the Battery’s 2013 season could be better than the first. And that new chapter starts tonight.

“I think we have a strong group,” Anhaeuser said. (I think we’ll) be able to come out (Saturday) night and we’re going to keep the tempo up, to keep the legs going and buzzing, and you know what? We’ve got five substitutes, and if we have to use them, we’ve used them wisely in the last two games. I think we’re ready to go.”

TOP IMAGE: Taylor Mueller, Kevin Klasila, Nicki Paterson, Jose Cuevas and Shawn Ferguson autograph T-shirts for soccer campers after training Friday afternoon. “This is the best part of the job,” Cuevas said. Dan Conover photo.

1 Comment

  1. Wish he’d play a 2 or 3 man front line. Seems to work if he uses players who won’t just sit there and wait for the ball but will go on defense as soon as the ball is lost.