It’s not exactly a point of pride, but if there’s a signature distinction for USL PRO soccer at this point in its development, it’s the 2/24 road-trip. Send your team out with an 18-to-20-man squad, play two regular season matches on two consecutive days, then come straight home.
Anyway, teams rarely do well in these 2/24 excursions — particularly on the second night. And that’s pretty much the story of what we watched — or tried to watch — this past weekend.
On Saturday night, a Battery team missing its captain/top defender ran a cautious 4-4-2 in Pittsburgh against a Riverhounds squad that lives to counterattack out of an explosive five-man midfield. By night’s end, Pittsburgh had been shut out for the first time this season, while Charleston celebrated its first clean sheet. On Sunday afternoon, a heavily rotated Battery lineup deployed in a 4-5-1 against the Rochester Rhinos, got burned for a first-half score, and fell short of an equalizer despite out-shooting the home side 11-5, including a 7-3 advantage in the second half.
That’s disappointing for professional competitors, even with the overwhelming statistical evidence that says road teams tend to lose when they play the night after their last match. Plus, with the team now winless after six matches, that search for that first win starts becoming the primary topic of conversation.
But here’s the good news. The Battery have now completed their only 2/24 trip of 2014.
Yes, there will be other short-turn-around road trips this season, starting this weekend. The Battery play Friday at Harrisburg and Sunday at Dayton. They’ll repeat that Friday-Sunday trick again the first weekend in August. Plus there will be at least two weeks this season with three games on the schedule — a number that will rise if the Battery move deeper into the U.S. Open Cup or add the two international friendlies they been talking about.
But ask the players and they’ll tell you: Even that one night of added rest can make a big difference in mental and physical performance.
There’s just no scoring
Let’s get the caveats out of the way first: Orlando, Richmond and Rochester aren’t creampuffs, and the Battery’s home match against the Red Bulls Reserves would have been different if it hadn’t been played in a monsoon. But with more than 20 percent of the season in the books, the numbers are nearing the point where they’ll start to mean something.
The Battery are averaging just .667 goals per game. That’s the lowest average in USL PRO, and only two other teams — Harrisburg, with three goals in four games, and Dayton, with four in five — have averages below 1.00.
You can’t say it’s because Coach Mike Anhaeuser won’t put two strikers up top. Last year Anhaeuser lacked depth at forward and ran a 4-5-1/4-3-3 almost exclusively. This year he’s started two forwards in four of his six matches. You can make that five if you count the season opener, when Anhaeuser started forwards Heviel Cordoves and Adam Mena and then pushed Zach Prince up into what looked like an interchanging 4-3-3 backed by Maikel Chang, Jarad van Schaik and Amadou Sanyang.
You also can’t say it’s because the attacking group lacks talent or depth. Cordoves and Mena would be a decent pair of forwards for most teams, but they’re fighting for playing time with Omar Salgado, Mamadou Diouf and Dane Kelly in Charleston. Throw in attacking midfielder Andre Lewis and double-threats Prince and Chang and you’re looking at an armed and dangerous unit. Total output for those primary attackers? Two goals and three assists in six matches.
So whatever the reason, that’s the problem. Yes, there have been moments when the defense has looked scrambled, but it’s giving up just a goal a game, and has yet to give up more than two. Get the offense clicking and the Battery’s fortunes can turn around rapidly.
OK then, WHY aren’t they scoring?
That’s a little bit like asking a career .300 hitter why he’s batting .200 in April. Even the best hitters are seldom .300 month after month. When the great ones fall into a slump, they just keep on swinging until they find their groove again.
That answer is true, but it’s also a cop-out of sorts.
Here’s another way of looking at it. Charleston has an attacking unit that’s comprised of 10 players: Kelly, Cordoves, Chang, Prince, Salgado, Diouf, Mena, Lewis, Dante Marini and Marlon Ramirez. Six of those are primarily forwards. Only three of them — forwards Kelly and Cordoves and midfielder Prince — contributed significantly in 2013, and Prince is often asked to play more of a defensive role, depending on the opponent.
Here’s that attacking crew ranked by 2014 minutes played, with information about how they figured in the lineup:
Prince: 333 minutes, six appearances, four starts, one full game.
Cordoves: 267 minutes, six appearances, three starts, no full games.
Lewis: 242 minutes, five appearances, three starts, one full game.
Chang: 221 minutes, five appearances, two starts, no full games.
Mena: 208 minutes, five appearances, two starts, no full games.
Salgado: 188 minutes, four appearances, two starts, no full games.
Diouf: 181 minutes, four appearances, two starts, no full games.
Kelly: 167 minutes, two starts, one full game
Ramirez: 60 minutes, one appearance, one start.
Marini: 21 minutes, two appearances, no starts.
So here’s one way to think about it: Six games into the season, only two Battery forwards (Cordoves and Mena) have logged more than 200 minutes. No Battery forward has more than three starts (Cordoves). Only one Battery forward (Kelly) has gone 90 minutes in a match — and, ironically, he left that game with an injury in stoppage time.
Wanna see that in context? Here’s the full Battery roster, ranked by minutes played. I’ve set the forwards in bold type, and put italics on midfielders who play a primarily attacking role. Returning players are in black type, players on loan from Vancouver are in blue type, and first-year players signed by the Battery are in green type.
1. Jarad van Schaik, midfielder: 537 minutes
2. Odisnel Cooper, goalkeeper: 450 minutes
2. John Wilson, defender: 450
4. Taylor Mueller, defender: 431
5. Quinton Griffith, defender/midfielder: 428 minutes
6. Shawn Ferguson, defender: 363 minutes
7. Colin Falvey, defender: 359 minutes
8. Amadou Sanyang, midfielder: 348 minutes
9. Zach Prince, midfielder: 333 minutes
10. Justin Farmer, defender: 271 minutes
11. Heviel Cordoves, forward: 267 minutes
12. Andre Lewis, midfielder: 242 minutes
13. Aminu Abdallah, midfielder: 236
14. Maikel Chang, midfielder: 221 minutes,
15. Adam Mena, forward/winger: 208 minutes
16. Omar Salgado, forward/winger: 188 minutes
17. Mamadou Diouf, forward: 181 minutes
18. Dane Kelly, forward: 167 minutes
19. Justin Portillo, midfielder, 101 minutes
20. Eric Shannon, goalkeeper: 90 minutes
21. Marlon Ramirez, forward: 60 minutes
22. Dante Marini, midfielder: 21 minutes
23. Michael Kafari, midfielder: 0 minutes
Get the picture? The core of the 2014 Battery team so far consists of nine returning players, all of whom play in goal, on defense or in the midfield. As a group, those nine players have averaged 5.0 appearances with 4.67 starts and 82.9 minutes per appearance over the first six matches.
Compare that to the team’s six forwards, Mena, Kelly, Salgado, Diouf, Cordoves and Ramirez. Even if you set Ramirez and his one start (at Rochester) aside, the first five have averaged 4.2 appearances, 2.2 starts and 52.37 minutes per appearance.
Why the big differences? Well, for starters, there are only six defenders on the team, and they split four starting spots. The six forwards must share two slots, so you would expect the average number of starts to be lower. But when you consider that all six defenders on the roster have logged more regular-season minutes than the most-used forward, you start to see the shape of the issue.
Now consider games missed due to injury. Kelly has missed four. Diouf and Salgado have missed two each. Mena missed one. Of the forwards with more than one appearance, only Cordoves has been healthy enough to appear in each game this season. Not surprisingly, he leads the group in all three appearance categories.
But it isn’t just that Anhaeuser’s strikers are competing for limited minutes. It isn’t just that four of his five regular forwards have missed games and significant training time with injury. Look at the makeup of that striking corps and the other thing you’ll notice is that most of Charleston’s attackers are new to the team. Not only that, but the Vancouver players — including Mena, who signed a Battery contract — were relatively late arrivals in preseason.
Charleston has the talent to score and the depth to bring on fresh strikers in the second half and score more. What it lacks at the moment are players who are used to each other — and the Battery system.
Here’s Anhaeuser last week: “Luckily we have five or six forwards, because we keep going down up there, which stinks, because we can’t get any continuity.”
So that’s my answer to the question. And if the follow-up is “What do the Battery need to do to start scoring goals?” my answer to that is: Get healthy, and keep swinging. It’s a long season.
The envelope, please…
MAN OF THE WEEKEND: Four Battery men started both matches, with only Quinton Griffith going the full 90 both matches. Jarad van Schaik wasn’t far behind, going 90 at Pittsburgh and 87 at Rochester — his first early departure of the year.
Odisnel Cooper belongs in this discussion, too. Not only did he record three saves at Pittsburgh en route to his first clean sheet of the season, he also came up with a dramatic save at the far post on the Hounds’ final play — a stoppage time corner kick. But if I’m giving out an award for both games, it’s hard to offer it to a guy who only played one.
Both Griffith and van Schaik came up with gutsy defensive plays at Pittsburgh. Griffith blocked a sure goal off the line in the early going, and van Schaik’s perfectly timed sliding tackle in the penalty box traded a dangerous Hounds attack for that final corner kick.
At Rochester, Griffith switched to the left fullback spot, and was understandably less inclined to make a bunch of deep overlapping runs up the touch line. The Rhinos tended to stay away from his side, focusing more of their efforts on trying to exploit Jackson Farmer on the right. Griffith did manage to make one standout defensive play in second-half stoppage, negating an attack that hinged on an uncalled offside attacker, but with the Battery already trailing, the stop lacked the high-wire drama of van Schaik’s tackle from the night before.
Van Schaik’s Sunday along the Erie Canal wasn’t particularly memorable, but let’s give the man a little credit for a blue collar shift. With his central midfield partner Amadou Sanyang out with an injury, van Schaik was the one veteran stalwart in a five-man midfield otherwise comprised of Portillo, Abdallah, Lewis and Mena.
So how about we share the glory between the two iron men? The Men of the Matches — Griffith and van Schaik.
CROSS WIND: For the second consecutive match, Charleston found itself contending with difficult weather, in this case a strong but shifting wind. It may have actually favored the visitors, and blew Charleston’s way in the first half and may have shifted a bit in the second, but the net effect was that long passes into the teeth of the wind were largely ineffective, and set pieces either knuckle-balled or sailed for much of the match.
FIREPOWER: Though several observers have said that Charleston played conservatively against the Hounds, it’s also true that Charleston simply struggled to get things moving forward in the first half. The Salgado/Cordoves pairing offered plenty of size and strength, but the front six wasn’t particularly fast.
Things actually seemed to open up a bit after Andre Lewis replaced Salgado in the 57th minute, and the Battery appeared to be on the verge of breaking through when they initiated a series of three consecutive corner kicks around the 62nd minute. Prince played the first two to the near post, but keeper Michael Lisch came up and took the third ball when Prince tried his luck far side.
OH, WELL, THAT’S JUST GREAT: Not only did Charleston have to play Pittsburgh and Rochester on back-to-back days, Charleston had to play both teams in their respective home openers.
THE MISSING 24 MINUTES: Rochester generally put up a decent feed, with multiple camera angles, graphics and instant replay. And though there were some early glitches — like the color man’s microphone, which would just randomly fade in and out, the webcast was entirely acceptable for USL PRO… until the 65th minute.
When it just stopped. Entirely.
The feed returned in the 89th minute with no explanation or comment. There was never any mention of the failure on the Rhinos Twitter account, and the broadcasters didn’t talk about it either. And when I tried to watch a replay of the match on Monday, the missing time was still missing. So I guess we’ll just chalk that up to one of the USL PRO mysteries…
THE LONE STRIKER: For those of you unfamiliar with forward Marlon Ramirez — and that’s most of you — he’s a short, strong, explosive attacker who does a great job pressuring the ball on defense and has the speed to catch defenders by surprise. Sunday was his third time in the Battery 18, and both his first start and his first appearance.
But with the Battery running a 4-5-1, Ramirez had to work as the lone striker at the top of the formation, and as experiments go, it didn’t go particularly well. Ramirez got few touches, the Battery didn’t run a high-pressure defensive scheme, and there was little attacking flow in the first half.
The Battery attack picked up significantly in the 60th minute when Ramirez and Portillo subbed out for Salgado and Cordoves, who joined Lewis and Mena in a much more potent lineup. I can’t really tell you how that worked because, you know, 24 minutes, but from reading the Twitter stream it appears that the Batter attack in the final 30 minutes really scared the hell out of the Rochester fans.
And I can say this: From the 89th minute until the final whistle, the Battery was in the hunt. Rochester escaped with the win by the narrowest of margins.
JITTERY: In addition to Ramirez, two other players — Eric Shannon in goal and Justin Portillo in right midfield — made their first USL PRO starts. And there were other unusual things. Griffith at left fullback. Adam Mena in midfield, and often ceding the wing to Andre Lewis. Aminu Abdallah getting his second start in central midfield and repeatedly getting farther upfield in the attack than van Schaik. Right back Jackson Farmer made his third start.
Whether the group worked tactically is another discussion, and that one is far above my pay grade. But the obvious observation was that the players making their first starts had their jittery moments in the first 30 minutes. And with Farmer fond of moving up to support the attack, Rochester seemed to zero in on the side of the field he shared with fellow rookie Portillo. That targeted pressure helped lead to the game’s only goal, which appeared to catch goalkeeper Shannon flatfooted.
Everyone appeared to settle into the match as it wore on, and the defensive organization and midfield passing tightened up. But that one early breakdown wound up being the difference-maker.
NEXT UP: It’s a short week for the Battery, who will drive up to Harrisburg for their Friday match. Then they’ll make the seven-hour, 440-mile bus trip to Dayton, get what rest they can, and play again.