For Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser, this post-game interview had to be significantly easier than the last one he gave at Blackbaud.
That was May 28, when dire fortune had just favored Orlando’s plucky U-23 PDL side 12-11 in a record-shattering shootout that dashed Charleston’s U.S. Open Cup. The heartbreaker came on the heels of Charleston’s first home wins of 2014 — a 4-0 Open Cup pasting of Panama City Beach, and a 1-0 shorthanded win over Pittsburgh. The Battery had never lost at home in the Cup to a lower-seeded team.
But if May 28th was Charleston’s nadir, then June 14’s 3-0 win over second-place LA Ga
laxy II is undoubtedly its high point so far. Asked about it by a reporter, Anhaeuser said: “I’m proud of our guys. We’re back to normal, and I’ll tell you, now we want to take a big step from here.”
In the narrow sense, a 3-0 win over one of the league’s top teams absolutely isn’t “normal” for the 2014 Battery. History and tradition aside, this is a unit that opened the year with a six-match winless streak and hasn’t had a streak of any kind longer than two matches since.
In league play the team is 2-1-3 at home and 2-4-1 away, good for eighth in the USL PRO table. Its goal production is a mediocre 14 — less than either expansion club, and three fewer than blue-collar Wilmington.
Yet listening to Anhaeuser speak, I felt like I understood him.
“Normal” for the Battery under Anhaeuser means stonewall defense and better-than-average scoring. With 13 matches in the books, there’s no question about the defending: Charleston has surrendered just 10 goals in 13 appearances. That’s the lowest raw number in the league, but it’s also the lowest by average (0.769). Club scoring remains Soviet-factory-grade for the season, but Saturday’s three goals was the team’s second-best output in a USL PRO fixture.
In other words, the Battery finally played “normally” for expectations at Blackbaud. It wasn’t beautiful, euphoric, well-oiled-attacking-machine soccer. But after months of struggling to produce enough offense to support its stellar defense, Charleston earned three goals by playing a complete game: Defense, set pieces, possession, controlling the midfield and creating meaningful chances. And they did it against a legitimate league contender.
If this is normal, it’s going to be an exciting summer.
Granted, what was newsworthy Saturday was the scoring — a Colin Falvey header off a free kick by rookie Andre Lewis; a nice finish off a good individual effort by Dane Kelly, and another quality goal off the bench by Heviel Cordoves. Cordoves, who leads the Battery in scoring across all competitions (5 total, 2 in league play) made his first impression on Battery fans in 2013 as the team’s microwavable substitute goal-scorer. Saturday marked his first goal as a sub in six appearances off the bench.
But for my money, the real story is a game plan that worked, a back line that played well above its pay grade, and a great performance by defensive-mid Amadou Sanyang. Because while teams have scored on LAG2, Charleston became only the second team to hold the Galaxy scoreless.
So how did they do it?
According to the official box score, Charleston deployed in a nominal 4-4-2, but I’ve learned not to treat those lineup descriptions as gospel. After all, when the Battery last played Pittsburgh, which began the year with a relatively novel (for USL PRO) 3-5-2 formation, the Battery’s official lineup consisted of three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards. I got a chuckle out of that, because if Anhaeuser abandoned his four-man back line against the Riverhounds (he listed Quinton Griffith as a midfielder), I certainly didn’t spot the tactical shift on the field.
Besides, as Anhaeuser, Falvey and former Batteryman Nicki Paterson pointed out repeatedly last year, the difference between 2013’s default 4-5-1 and a more traditionally attacking 4-3-3 is essentially a matter of situations. Players interchange. Individuals have different tendencies. You flood an area. Space develops. You’re defending a lead or pushing for an equalizer.
Yet for all that fluidity, for all those caveats, concept matters. After all, the Battery played what amounted to a 4-2-3-1 in both its trips to Orlando this season, a combination of personnel and positioning we haven’t seen elsewhere. We’ve seen them play plenty of 4-4-2, but also some pretty obvious three-forward sets. And while Charleston is more likely to offer its opponents an open game than other defensively stingy sides, the Battery back line migrates up and down the field from week to week depending on how tactically conservative Anhaeuser is feeling.
My initial impression of the Battery approach seemed to jibe with Anhaeuser’s comments about the Galaxy from early in the week: That the way to deal with their offensive firepower began with high Battery pressure and an attacking mentality that would keep Galaxy defense under stress. That he wanted to run them hard, wear them down, and drain the fight out of them early.
My up-close-but-limited vantage point on the sidelines isn’t the best, but I thought the Battery took control of the game early with three men dedicated to the attack and aggressive overlapping play by John Wilson. True to his word, Anhaeuser kept the Galaxy under siege, with Kelly setting the attacking tone. But with Zach Prince suspended, the high-pressure tactic of strikers instantly morphing into aggressive defenders every time the ball turned over just didn’t seem to be in effect.
Prince’s replacement on the left side of the formation was Lewis, a rookie attacking midfielder. And with Griffith getting the start in right midfield in front of newly arrived right back Emmanuel Adjetey, it was as if the “holding” side of the field flipped. Griffith and Adjetey stayed home on the right. Lewis and fullback John Wilson practically camped out in the attacking third over on the left. That’s a very 4-3-3 kind of concept, with forward Mamadou Diouf in the middle of things.
But after speaking the Sanyang about the Battery game-plan, I began to think that by focusing on where the attacks were coming from, I was missing the important point. Sanyang said Charleston entered the game with the intent of disrupting the Galaxy attack by wresting control of the midfield with a “two-and-two” concept: That’s Diouf and Kelly at the top of the formation, backed up by Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik in central midfield. The two “outside guys” would do their thing, but Sanyang and van Schaik would win the midfield duel with Galaxy Captain Rafael Garcia and get the ball ahead to the two forwards.
“I think we played well, and coach prepared us very well for this game,” Sanyang said post-match. “He talked to me about this game and the role he wanted me to play. I think that helped a little bit, the information that he gave me. So I was a little bit clear on what would be going on in this game.
“It’s about them having the ball in the middle. And I think coach knows them very well. That’s what he put in our minds: This is how they like to play. They like to keep the ball, and we didn’t let them do that. So I think we kinda gave them a little trouble in that.”
That freshly re-acquired fullback/midfielder Emmanuel Adjetey played on Saturday night was no surprise. He looked good in practice when I saw him on Tuesday, and the staff said he seemed fit. But starting? That was interesting.
The Battery has played what amounted to a rotational set of five back-line starters. Do-it-all defender Taylor Mueller has the fewest starts with eight, but he also missed three matches outright with injuries, and became the unsung hero of the Pittsburgh win when he returned ahead of schedule from a knee issue to hold down the second center back spot and shut out the Riverhounds.
But while Adjetey’s return bolstered the Battery’s back-line depth, it also appears to have had the concurrent effect of pushing Griffith back into the midfield. A defense-first coach like Anhaeuser has to like the idea of Griffith and Prince holding down the flanks in midfield.
As for Adjetey, who is under contract to Vancouver (but not MLS), he reminded Charleston why he earned a regular starting role late last summer.
“He’s steady ‘Jetey,” Anhaeuser said in his post-game interviews. “He’s the guy who sits back there, he does his job, he gets forward when he needs to. He keeps the ball for us. You can play it to him and then it gets to one of our players. Which is big. He really settled us down back there.”
And here’s Falvey: “He’s very quick. He’s very alert. That little ball between the center back and the fullback, he’s very quick to read that. And he’s got a very tidy left foot. He can play right back. It’s great to have him back with us, you know? Not only on the field, either. In the locker room. I don’t think I’ve ever not seen him smile. All the kid does is smile. It’s good to have him around.”
It’s much to early to predict how Adjetey changes things in Charleston. Wilson remains a rotational starter at left back, Griffith is going to get his minutes somewhere, and Mueller is a tall, physical presence who matches up well against a lot of USL PRO teams. But what the 5-5 ‘Jetey lacks in height, he tends to make up in explosiveness and versatility. Stay tuned.
ABOUT THAT PEP TALK
Like Matt Doyle over at MLSSoccer.com, I’m wary of analysis that boils the complexities of soccer down to emotional intangibles. There’s a school of soccer thought that tends to negate the cool abstraction of tactics and with the manly verities of determination, courage and guts. I’m more from the school that says, “Yes, it’s good to ‘want it more,’ but it also helps to have players with skill and a game plan that puts them in position to succeed.”
So what am I supposed to make of these two bits of evidence? No. 1: The Battery played their most complete game of the year on Saturday. No. 2: Captain Colin Falvey gave his team a pre-game talk that — while I didn’t hear any of it — looked like it was quite the motivational speech. He gestured. He emoted. He gave the team so many intense facial expressions that I put up a separate “Faces of Falvey” gallery yesterday just to share them.
And watching it I thought, “I’d sure hate to be Los Angeles tonight.”
Now, to be honest, I felt pretty damned good about the Battery’s chances regardless. And Charleston didn’t see Galaxy forward Chandler Hoffman, he of the eight goals, either. But the Galaxy are a significant opponent, and the whole Battery team played well. Several of them certainly earned Team of the Week Honors. Something special, something intangible, seemed to be in effect.
The trick to urgent calls to action is that their value is connected to their frequency. You can try them every week, but your returns will diminish. The art is largely in the timing.
If the Battery build on this win and start climbing the table — as I believe they will — it’s quite possible that we’ll look back on that moment and say “That’s where it started.”
MAN OF THE MATCH: OK, how can you not give this to Falvey? He was the captain of a very “team win.” He gave that pep-talk. He led the defense that earned a clean sheet against the league’s top-scoring side. He won headers. He blocked shots. And when Lewis dropped a free kick into the mixer in the 26th minute, he rose up and did the thing he’d called on the team to do: He put their nose in front.
Falvey has been a quality player all season, but his performances typically haven’t risen into the heroic zone that earned him league Defender of the Year honors in 2013. What I’ll remember about his play on Saturday though isn’t so much its heroism as its spectacular, organized efficiency.
I can remember only one instance in which a Galaxy counterattack left the Battery scrambling, and even that was defused without resorting to emergency defending. I’ll remember it less for Falvey’s first regular season goal than for his sliding tackle at the top of the box to block an impending shot in the second half. That was dominant veteran cool, baby.
DIFFERENCE MAKER: So, having stipulated that Falvey deserves his award, don’t we need to do something to recognize Amadou Sanyang for his shift? He’s all over my digital photo roll — making tackles, winning second balls, distributing. There he is blowing up an attack just a couple of yards in front of Falvey. There he is running wide of Adjetey to push a Galaxy winger into the irrelevancy of the far corner.
Yes, the Battery back line deserves great credit for the shutout, for giving goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper a clean sheet with no saves. But when you consider how clean Sanyang kept the back line, how much of an advantage he created in central midfield. you have to give the man tremendous credit for the win.
And here’s a less tangible observation. After sustaining a couple of injuries in early 2013, the 21-year-old Sanyang seemed to fade into the background. His future was in doubt, and his already soft-spoken demeanor grew even softer.
True, his return to the starting lineup in mid-summer sparked the Battery’s late run to the playoffs, but even then he seemed — in retrospect — to be playing within himself.
Not anymore. At 22, Sanyang’s confidence appears to be on the rise again. He looks comfortable with his teammates. He’s becoming an assertive leader. He laughs more, and louder.
Sanyang has always been athletic, rangey and deceptively strong, but on Saturday he looked like an experienced, savvy vet. And facing a team made up entirely of MLS players and young prospects, Sanyang stated a case for his career that scouts had to notice. Remember: The first MLS team to almost sign Sanyang as a Gambian teenager was the Galaxy — and they would have won Saturday if he’d been in their kits instead of Battery stripes.
GOALS: Two. That’s the most league goals scored by anyone on the Battery roster. And four players (Kelly, Cordoves, Sanyang and the departed Omar Salgado) have done it, with another six players chipping in a single.
That’s not a particularly encouraging stat, but there’s reason for optimism. Forwards Kelly, Diouf and Cordoves are all finally healthy and available for selection, and there’s no particular reason to expect that the Whitecaps will recall Diouf any time soon. It wouldn’t be a shock if first-round pick Lewis (1 goal, 2 assists, 10 shots) went back for a first-team look, but other than that, the team is finally benefiting from a run of valuable continuity. Saturday, for instance, was the first time since Salgado was recalled that two Battery forwards scored in the same match.
COOPER: In his rookie season, Odisnel Cooper put up one of the best goals-against averages in USL PRO. He did it without recording many saves, and that was the story on Saturday, too.
But there’s no way to talk about Cooper’s progress without acknowledging these numbers. His GAA? 0.750 — the lowest in the league. Clean sheets? Five, tied for best in the league. Number of times he’s allowed more than one goal? Twice. Number of times he’s allowed more than two goals? Zero. Record? 4-3-4. He’s been on the USL PRO Team of the Week three times, with two additional honorable mentions, and earned league Player of the Week for his roll in the Battery’s season-opening draw with Orlando.
True, his 31 saves are 20 saves behind league leader Matt Williams of Dayton, ranking him 8th overall. But the saves stat is also a measure of desperation. Of the eight teams currently in playoff position, only four have goalkeepers ranked in the Top 10 in saves: First-place Orlando’s Miguel Gallardo is fifth with 36; second-place Richmond has Joe Willis in ninth place with 28; Patrick McLain of the seventh-place OC Blues is ranked third with 46, and Cooper is ranked 8th for 8th-place Charleston.
The other six are all from the six teams with the fewest points.
ETC: Defender Taylor Mueller‘s mother Patti Mueller was in the West Stands on Saturday and sat with members of the Regiment. She’s visiting from Washington State and will be traveling to Charlotte for Charleston’s first 2014 meeting with the Eagles, who sit just two point above cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh…
Here’s a question: How much attendance did Saturday’s 6 p.m. marquee match-up between England and Italy cost the Battery? The official gate came in at 3,377 — about 600 fans below the club’s 2014 regular season average. But when you take out the abysmal attendance for the monsoon match against the New York Red Bulls Reserves, Saturday was more than 900 less than average. And compared to the average for the two previous home games, Saturday was more than 1,500 tickets off the pace.
No matter which number you prefer, the bottom line is that England-Italy hurt Charleston’s bottom line.
The good news is that Saturday was the last time the World Cup will hurt the Battery. The Battery is on the road this weekend, and plays at Blackbaud on Friday, June 27, against Richmond. That’s the night after the USMNT plays Germany in the final match of the Group, and it’s a day with no Cup action.
Charleston won’t play at home again until the Charlotte match on Saturday, July 12, when the only Cup game will be the third-place match that starts at 4 p.m. And while that televised event will certainly draw attention, it shouldn’t directly conflict with local attendance for a match that starts at 7:30.
The hope is that World Cup will actually play to the club’s advantage, both in terms of exposure and interest, but also in terms of fans who come out to watch parties at The Three Lions Club.
The Battery will be hosting viewing parties at the Three Lions today, Thursday and Sunday, plus Tuesday, June 24, and Thursday, June 26. A large contingent from the Charleston Chapter of American Outlaws is expected at the Three Lions for the Portugal match at 5:30 on Sunday.
TOP IMAGE: Amadou Sanyang patrols the center of the pitch on Saturday. Dan Conover photos.