Charleston Battery at Charlotte Eagles
7 p.m. Saturday, June 21st
Queens Sports Complex, Charlotte NC
Radio: Sports Radio 1450 AM / www.charlestonbattery.com
Here’s the question that hangs over the Charleston Battery’s Summer Solstice road date at Charlotte on Saturday: Can the disappointing 2014 Eagles find that special mojo that has made them such a difficult opponent for the Battery over the years? Or will their two-month slump continue?
After opening the season with a respectable 2-2-0 April, the Eagles — who reached the USL PRO Championship Final last fall only to be bombarded by Orlando — have slouched to a 1-6-1 May and June. Their home record is 1-4-1, with a -3 goal differential and an average draw of fewer than 900 fans. They now sit just three points above cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh, which has generated half its points this season during a 1-1-1 June. Charlotte is in its final season under the management of a Christian evangelical organization, which means everyone involved in its operations faces an uncertain future.
Yet as any Battery fan with some history with the club understands, Charlotte has a special knack for giving Charleston a game-day wedgie. Last season the Eagles won at Charlotte in what probably counted as the Battery’s most frustrating match of the season, then came to Blackbaud and stole a 2-2 draw on a stoppage-time header by Drew Yates. They’re also a team with a tendency to finish strong — the Eagles not only won the Southern Derby Cup last season, but leapfrogged multiple teams in late summer to earn the 5th seed. And for all their scoring woes, only three of their eight losses have been by more than a goal. They’ve yet to lose by more than two his season.
“For us it’s a battle,” Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser said after an Old-v-Young scrimmage on the Blackbaud Stadium pitch Friday. “It’s like having a rivalry game. We could be undefeated and they could be winless and it would be an absolute battle. They want to do everything they can to beat Charleston. They seem to have that little bit of extra energy. And they always get the bounces.”
Charleston will host this incarnation of the Eagles for the final time on July 12, but Saturday will be the Battery’s final trip to Queen’s University Stadium to face this historic and unique franchise. The Charlotte Eagles are not only North America’s oldest franchise in continuous operation, they’re also the only professional team that operates as a non-profit religious organization. Missionary Athletes International sold its USL PRO franchise to the ownership group behind the Charlotte Hounds professional lacrosse team earlier this season, and is expected to compete next season in the PDL.
The new ownership group calls itself Queen City Soccer Club LLC, and its plans remain largely a mystery. But three things are clear: The new owners have publicly stated their intent of following Orlando’s lead by using USL PRO as a springboard to MLS; Charlotte is the 25th largest media market in the United States; and with new owners with an ambitious, for-profit mission waiting on the sidelines, there is no professional future that anyone involved in the current club can bank on.
Saturday is the final night in what has so far been a dismal four-match homestand for the Eagles. They went 0-2-1 in the first three, losing 1-2 to Wilmington, drawing Oklahoma City 1-1, and then surrendering to Orange County 0-1 on a goal in the 80th minute last Friday in front of 738 fans.
Coach Mark Steffens — himself an ordained minister — has been the Eagles’ head coach since 1997, winning two championships, collecting two Coach of the Year awards, and making the USL Hall of Fame in 2007. His 2013 team was the first to make the playoffs since 2009. The current squad lost a few key players — including Ghanaian midfielder Stephen Okai, who was signed by Orange County in the offseason. But it returns plenty of familiar faces, including defenders Matthew Gold and Ben Newnam, midfielders Drew Yates and Darren Toby, and midfielder/forward Jorge Herrera. Herrera leads the team in scoring with four goals and two assists, while Yates is having another good season with three goals and five assists, tying him with Orlando’s Kevin Molino for the league lead in helpers.
Thirty-year-old midfielder Wells “El Diablo” Thompson — whose MLS career with the New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids and Chicago Fire ran from 2007-2013 — joined the Eagles in March. He’s scored twice.
But the newest newcomer — Chicago Fire goalkeeper Alec Kann, who arrived on loan earlier this month — is also the most familiar face for Battery fans. The 6-4 Kann is a former Battery man from 2012, and was in line to be the starting goalkeeper during the club’s championship 2012 season until an injury knocked him out of the lineup. He’s started the Eagles’ last two matches, surrendering just two goals.
Though the Battery (8th place, 16 points, 4-5-4) enjoyed back-to-back wins on a weekend road trip in May, last Saturday’s 3-0 deconstruction of second-place LA Galaxy II probably stands as its most complete and promising result of the season. The team’s earlier successes were powered by solid defense and the sudden emergence of forward Omar Salgado, who was promptly recalled to Vancouver. Saturday’s win was a complete team affair.
Charleston’s defense has been stellar (the team has more clean sheets than wins) and leads the league in goals allowed average. Second-year players Odisnel Cooper and Shawn Ferguson have made tremendous progress, and the unit was reinforced last week by the return of 2013 Batcap Emmanuel Adjetey. Central midfielders Amadou Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik have firmly established themselves among the league’s elite.
The Battery’s glaring weakness this season has been on offense. Its young, talented striker corps has failed to score in six of the team’s 13 league matches, and spent the first eight trying to integrate a forward rotation around the oft-injured Salgado. His immediate departure after the team’s first break-through success in early May proved another setback.
Yet the progress and improving fitness of forwards Heviel Cordoves, Dane Kelly and Mamadou Diouf give the Battery reason for optimism. Cordoves leads the team in scoring across all competitions and leads all forwards in starts and minutes. Diouf started against LA and played an influential match despite not attempting a single shot.
But the single player who appears to have the most direct connection to the Battery’s scoring efficiency might well be Kelly. The Jamaican has scored four goals (two in league play) in six appearances — all starts — while missing seven matches with injuries and another on a red card. On Saturday he scored once on four shots in 79 minutes, but it was something of an uneven performance. Kelly repeatedly broke down the Galaxy back line, creating chances for himself and his teammates. But his finishing hasn’t returned to peak prowess after weaving in and out of the lineup this season.
“He’s still not 100 percent sharp, on maybe his touches and everything, but that will come,” Anhaeuser said Friday. “He just causes problems. It opens things up for other players. And the more we can get him involved, the more we can get other players involved, that just opens up gaps for us in different places.”
With the mercurial Kelly in the lineup, Charleston simply has a more dynamic attack. Without him, it has struggled to create space against USL PRO defenses. Cordoves is a quality finisher with an expanding portfolio of skills, and Diouf can be a fine hold-up forward, but working Kelly into this year’s two-forward system appears to be the key.
All three forwards looked sharp enough in Friday’s scrimmage, and everyone from the roster participated. Anhaeuser said the team is once again 100 percent available for selection on Saturday, but will be monitoring two players whose knocks could make them risky choices. The team’s current depth should make those decisions a bit easier. When Charleston is at full health, there’s probably a USL PRO starter-quality player on the team’s bench at every position.
NOTES: Friday morning’s scrimmage under bright sunshine was warm enough that Anhaeuser skipped the team’s usual finishing drills and sent the players to cool down and stretch under the shade of the West Stands. “A full week of training in this (weather) is great, but you’ve also got to be careful, because it’s just use.”… The scrimmage wasn’t particularly intense or physical, but passing and finishing looked crisp… Cordoves looked fluid and aggressive, and rookie Dante Marini threaded a nice assist across the goal mouth to midfielder Maikel Chang… Colin Falvey was named to the USL PRO Team of the Week for his Man of the Match performance against the Galaxy. Oddly enough, not a single other Battery player received even an honorable mention to the Team of the Week… speaking of Falvey, today is his 29th birthday … Charleston will reach the mid-point of its 2014 regular season schedule tomorrow on Midsummer, the longest day of the year… The Battery will be hosting the American Outlaws at the Three Lions Club on Sunday for the Group G clash between the USA and Portugal…
TOP IMAGE: Midfielder Amadu Sanyang splashes water on his face during a break in the action Friday. With humidity driving the heat index into the mid-90s, the Battery have moved up the start of their regular training sessions to 9 a.m. Dan Conover photos.