BATTERY HOME GAME: Friday, April 18, 2014 vs. New York Red Bulls Reserves, Blackbaud Stadium, Daniel Island. Gates open at 6, first kick at 7:30. Tickets: 971-GOAL (4625).
WATCH: The match versus the New York Red Bulls reserves will be available via a live stream on the Charleston Battery website. There will be no live radio broadcast on Friday night.
The Battery return to Blackbaud Stadium Friday against a reserve unit from the New York Red Bulls of MLS for their only home game this month.
In fact, they’ll play four road games in a row up north before returning to Daniel Island for their next home date on May 10. Which makes this match against a talented Red Bulls Reserve squad one of those under-the-radar games of increased significance in this year’s schedule.
If the Battery can claim their first win of 2014, they’ll head into their road stretch against Pittsburgh, Rochester, Harrisburg and Dayton in solid shape on a 1-1-2 record. A few more goals out of their impressive collection of strikers might go a long way towards opening up their attacking flow, too.
Another disappointing result wouldn’t be a crisis. But the longer it takes to get a win, the more of an issue the psychology of the winless streak becomes. The sooner the Battery get rolling, the better.
This match will likely be the final “interleague” game played at Blackbaud Stadium under the terms of the 2013 agreement between USL PRO and Major League Soccer. That’s because all 21 MLS teams are supposed to be affiliated with or fielding their own USL PRO teams by 2015. Only MLS teams without some form of USL PRO affiliation still play Reserve league games, and each USL PRO team gets to play one match home and away against teams from MLS. The results count in the official standings for both leagues, but there’s so little emphasis on MLS Reserve League play this year that the league hasn’t even bothered to post standings yet.
One of the shocking storylines from the first year of interleague play was USL PRO’s domination of MLS reserves in 2013 (Charleston, for instance, outscored Houston reserves 5-1 in its two wins last year). It’s a smaller data set so far this season, but MLS reserve units are off to a better start on a 2-1-o record that includes the Red Bulls’ 3-0 demolition of Dayton in the Dutch Lions’ season opener on March 30.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
The Red Bulls reserves pull into town on a hard-to-figure 1-2-0 record, with five goals for and six against. The team began play with a 1-2 loss at Chicago, followed by the 3-0 drubbing of Dayton at Red Bulls Arena in New Jersey. Then they went up to Montreal on April 6 and got torched by Anthony Jackson-Hamel, an unheralded 20-year-old attacker from the Impact’s academy and U-23 team. The Canadian hopeful scored three times against New York.
That’s not to say that this team isn’t talented or experienced. Or that the Red Bulls couldn’t send down a surprise starter or two.
But so far, at least, the Red Bulls Reserves roster hasn’t offered too many surprises. Seven players have started all three matches, and only two of the 19 players who have made reserve appearances have played in fewer than two games. Here, then, is your quick field guide to the seven key Red Bulls contributors who’ve appeared in each reserve league match.
No. 18, Ryan Meara, 23, goalkeeper After four years at Fordham University and his selection with the 31st pick, Meara burst onto the MLS scene after winning the starting goalkeeper job as a rookie in 2012. He started 18 MLS regular matches that season before a hip injury wiped him off the 18, compiling an impressive 9-5-4 record to accompany a 1.5 goals-against average. Along the way he set a rookie shut-out record and worked his way into discussions about which national team — United States or Republic of Ireland — might try to cap him first. He also pitched a shutout at Blackbaud during the Red Bulls’ 3-0 win during the 2012 U.S. Open Cup.
Yet despite that experience, Meara could be a long way from his next MLS start. He didn’t make a first-team appearance in 2013, but started nine times for the reserves. He’s been the man in goal for the Reserves in all three of their matches, although he’s given way twice to 19-year-old NYRB prospect Santiago Castano.
No. 25 Chris Duvall, 22, right back. The Wake Forest defender went eight picks above Battery forward Mamadou Diouf, and managed to earn an MLS contract. He’s a high-speed sideline bomber, but his scouting report says his defending is “a work in progress.”
No. 20, Matt Miazga, 18, defender. Maizaga is one of the Red Bulls’ 2013 homegrown signings. He started nine reserve league matches and made one appearance for the first team as a substitute. This season he’s been a fixture for the reserves at center back, and used his 6-3 frame to head-home a corner kick against Dayton.
No. 3, Amboise Oyongo, 22, left back. Oyongo is one of two Cameroonians who has figured in Red Bulls reserve matches. He signed with the team in March from the Cameroon premier league, where he had previously earned call-ups to the country’s national team.
No. 16, Conor Lade, 24, midfield. A relatively obscure homegrown signing in late 2011, Lade was so good as a rookie fullback in 2012 (26 appearances, 22 starts, three assists) that he played himself into a U.S. National Team call-up in January 2013. And yet, just when it looked like the 5-7 fullback was about to take the rocket express to soccer stardom, Lade’s fuse fizzled. A combination of knee and chronic foot problems derailed his 2013 season (just five first-team appearances, and only three reserve league games), and though his health improved this offseason, he didn’t crack the Red Bulls lineup in preseason.
He’s been a fixture for the reserves this season, serving as team captain, picking up an assist, going full 90 twice and subbing out in the 83rd minute of the most recent match. But he appears to be playing as an outside mid, instead of his previous position as the Red Bulls’ right back.
No. 23, Michael Bustamante, 24, midfielder. He’s a second-year Colombian prospect who made four first-team appearances last year to go with 11 reserve leagues games. He produced three goals and an assist in those reserve matches, and already has a goal in his three starts this season.
No. 19, Eric Stevenson, 23, midfielder. A former Akron Zip who fell to the 34th pick in the 2014 Superdraft, Stevenson has been good enough to make the Red Bulls 18 Wednesday night, but not good enough to make a first-team appearance… yet. He’s the guy who takes set pieces for the reserves, and has a goal and two assists in his three reserve starts. From his pre-draft scouting report:
… one of the most skillful, technical players at a school that’s known for producing them. A wide midfielder who’s good in 1-v-1 situations, he can cut inside and dribble by guys. His shot from distance can be devastating, and he can pick a pass decently. Stevenson’s performance suffered this year partly because he was playing through a torn labrum, but even without the injury, Stevenson isn’t quite the complete package. He’s quick over five yards, but not particularly fast over distance. He can be inconsistent at times, and he’s not a great defender.
ALSO WATCH FOR: No. 9 Andre Akpan, 26, is a six-year vet at forward; No. 21, Ruben Bover, a 21-year-old Spanish midfielder from Mallorca’s academy system. He played in all 12 reserve league matches in 2013 and has played in two this season; No. 13, Marius Obekop, a 19-year-old midfielder from Cameroon who joined the club in 2013. Obekop made five appearances with first team as a sub and scored five reserve-league goals in 11 appearances. He’s already recorded two assists in two reserve league appearances — both starts — this season.
The things that don’t change for Charleston are starting to look pretty obvious after the first month of the season. Odisnel Cooper starts in goal, Zach Prince, Amadou Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik start in the midfield, and some combination of Colin Falvey, Shawn Ferguson, John Wilson, Quinton Griffith and Taylor Mueller starts along the four-man back line. Griffith is the nominal starter at right back, but he sat out training on Wednesday with a toothache, and Mueller can play any defensive position.
It’s the other three spots that change from week to week.
The players in the mix so far have been attackers Heviel Cordoves, Maikel Chang, Mamadou Diouf, Andre Lewis and Adam Mena. All five have made at least one start and one appearance off the bench.
What’s changed is the addition of forward Dane Kelly, last year’s leading scorer. After sitting out a month with a hamstring strain, Kelly made his first appearance of 2014 at Orlando, starting alongside Diouf and playing 77 minutes.
With Kelly on the sidelines, “we’ve had to mix-and-match a little bit,” said Coach Mike Anaheuser. “We’ve had depth, but I haven’t been able to play the same guys together. This week might be the first time, if I play Dane and Diouf together, that they play two games in a row together. So we have depth, but at the same time, you want continuity.”
Does that mean it’s the Dane-and-Diouf show on Friday? Maybe. Maybe not. Every one of the players on the list above is starter quality — and the list gets even longer when Omar Salgado makes his return from a foot injury within the next few weeks. Figure two of them will start, with two or three of them coming off the bench in the second half.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
WHO IS CONNOR LADE? Battery fans witnessed the highlight reel moment of Lade’s professional career in 2012 when the 5-7 fullback whipped in a goalazo finish from the shadow of the West Stands. At the time, his big shot portended a big future. Today, it’s just a reminder of the potential Lade flashed before injuries dropped him down to after-thought status at Red Bull Arena.
At his best, Lade is a fast, relentless wing player with multiple tools. But the truth is, we haven’t really seen him since injury wiped knocked him out of his 2012 run of form. To Red Bulls fans he’s now an enigma, a player trying to re-establish himself as a factor in Coach Mike Petke’s plans.
If Charleston’s midfield can keep Lade under control the Red Bulls will have to look elsewhere for their spark. And that would be a good thing.
CAN CHARLESTON FINALLY UNPACK ITS OFFENSE? The Battery have scored just three goals in three matches. Two of them came from central midfielders. Only one came from a forward. And no starting striker has yet crack the goal line with a shot.
All of those statements are true, yet they’re all also misleading. Charleston has played three matches against the combination of Orlando and Richmond, two of the best possession and defensive teams in the league.
With veteran players in the back four and midfield, Charleston will always be a tough nut for visitors to crack. But there’s probably more raw talent up top with the attacking crew, and those players are young, inexperienced and just getting to know each other. Give them some room, and there could be fireworks.
“Orlando’s a team you’re not going to develop that many chances against, unfortunately,” Anhaeuser said. “But we did create some decent chances, some things that worked out well for us. So that’s really what we’re building on. Now it’s, ‘Hey, can we take it to that next step? ‘You know, we had the lead at home, both games. Can we get the lead and then get the second goal and then put this team away?”
Anhaeuser said he wants to attack on Friday. The team emphasized it this week in practice, and looked sharp on Wednesday.
LATE DEFENDING: As we covered in Monday’s game wrap, Charleston led both its draws and was level in its loss after 65 minutes. The three opposing late goals that define the team’s season so far weren’t so much problems of tactics and personnel as just moments of inattention.
“I think we played well at home (against Orlando and Richmond). Now it’s just to really wrap it up for a good 90 minutes, and I think we’re ready to do that. Now we want to step it up. So I’m excited. I think the guys are, too.”
TOP IMAGE: From left: Ryan Meara, Zach Prince, Connor Lade, Mamadou Diouf.