Game wrap: Battery v. Phoenix

Game wrap: Battery v. Phoenix

So if you were one of the 2,786 fans who skipped the USMNT’s Gold Cup Semifinal against Honduras and turned out Wednesday for a night of goals and goofs, you probably left Blackbaud Stadium with the sense that you’d just witnessed an unusual night. Not unusually good or bad (although one can make a strong case that any night when the home side scores five goals is almost always unusually good), but just … different. 

The club its official supporters' group a late-notice opportunity to rent the skybox at a discount on Wednesday, and Mikey Buytas, president of The Regiment, made the most of it. The group sold out the available tickets and filled the box to capacity. One unexpected benefit: The West Stands were louder.

The club offered its official supporters’ group a late-notice opportunity to rent the skybox at a discount on Wednesday, and Mikey Buytas, president of The Regiment, made the most of it. The group sold out the available skybox tickets and filled the box to capacity. The move pre-empted most tailgating and left the E-1o Supporters Section desolate. But one unexpected benefit: The West Stands were louder.

Maybe it was the midweek scheduling. Maybe it was the weather, which covered the field like a steaming hot towel before a barber-shop shave. Maybe it was the heavy, breathless sky, which seemed to deaden sound and never once fluttered the south-end flags. Or the empty tailgating section of the parking lot — left lonely by a late opportunity to move The Regiment into the skybox typically reserved for the club’s jersey sponsor.

So yes, the Battery won their first-ever matchup with expansion Phoenix FC — a club coming off a home draw against unbeaten Richmond — by an impressive four-goal margin. Yet in the context of everything else around the game, that outcome felt expected.

The Battery will write their own story over the course of the remaining schedule, but for me Wednesday night felt like the beginning of a new chapter. Yes, Friday’s hard-fought (and borderline ugly) 1-0 win over Dayton put an end to Charleston’s excruciating six-game winless streak (seven if you count the heartbreaking U.S. Open Cup loss to Real Salt Lake). Yet the Dayton win felt more like a better outcome to the same type of match — congested, physical, frustrating — that defined the middle third of the Battery’s 2013 season.

Wednesday night didn’t even remotely resemble that trench warfare style of soccer. Even with three of Charleston’s most significant starters on the bench, there was no question which team had the better squad, and there was nothing the Wolves could do to hide that fact. The Battery never looked rushed or anxious, yet repeatedly found ways to break down their opponents.

Yet No one I spoke with after the match — not the coach, not the players, not the fans in the pub — sounded even remotely giddy despite the 5-1 score. Happy? Sure. But certainly not surprised. Or cocky. It had to be the most low-key, almost relaxed 5-1 victory I’ve ever witnessed. It’s high summer, crunch time in a crowded playoff race, and there’s still lots of work to be done.

Colin Falvey warms up before Wednesday's 5-1 win.

Colin Falvey warms up before Wednesday’s 5-1 win.

On another level, I don’t think it’s any more complex than this: This year’s Battery has always had the potential to make wins like this routine. And Wednesday night it finally happened.

“I think, as I said — I might have said it a few weeks back — we’ve been very unlucky in front of goal,” Captain Colin Falvey said as he signed a little girl’s forearm over the wall behind the south goal Wednesday night. “We kept out-shooting teams and out-passing teams, and I felt like this was coming. So I’m delighted it’s come. I know it’s another game, a midweek game, the games are catching up with us, people can say. But we’ll be buzzing because of that result, and we’ll take that into Saturday night.”

Could it be that the same bad luck that held the Battery in check through most of June and July is about to be replaced with some well-deserved good fortune?

Speaking of good luck…

The Wednesday night match with the biggest playoff implications wasn’t at Blackbaud, but at Queens University Stadium in Charlotte, where the fourth-place Charlotte Eagles (33 points, 19 games) were set to take on the fifth place LA Blues (32 points, 21 games).

Until nature intervened.

A weather-related power outage at the stadium delayed the kickoff as severe storms prowled around the Piedmont, and eventually the hosts had to postpone their match. On Thursday morning the club and the league announced that the game had been rescheduled for Thursday afternoon.

So let me boil this down to what it means from a Charleston (33 points, 20 games) perspective. No matter the outcome of tonight’s match (although a draw would be awesome), the secondary outcome is that Los Angeles will arrive in Charleston for Saturday night’s critical showdown with their travel and training routine disrupted, and will take the field at Blackbaud Stadium on less than 50 hours of recovery time instead of 80 hours of recovery time.

Meanwhile, back in Charlotte, the Eagles will host the underdog Wolves on similarly short rest. But the Wolves will have had the fully allotted time to recuperate, acclimate, and prepare. It’s not a huge thing, and Charlotte and Los Angeles are unlikely to roll over and die this weekend. But it’s an edge, and at this stage of the season, every advantage you can find is an important part of winning.

The bench

Jarad van Schaik smirks as Ben Fisk chats with Nicki Paterson on the bench before Wednesday night's match.

Jarad van Schaik smirks as Ben Fisk chats with Nicki Paterson on the bench before Wednesday night’s match.

The first story of Wednesday night unfolded as the Battery’s substitutes for the match took their seats before the player introductions and National Anthem: Regular substitutes Kevin Klasila, Zach Prince, Taylor Mueller and Heviel Cordoves were joined by three “surprise” faces: Midfield iron men Jarad van Schaik and Nicki Paterson, and fresh-faced Ben Fisk, a 20-year-old Canadian flash whose promising season looked like it might have been all but finished just seven weeks ago.

All but Klasila (the backup keeper) and Paterson  (who pushed his team-leading scoring total to six on Friday) would make appearances in the match as Coach Mike Anhaeuser made use of his full contingent of substitutes in advance of Saturday night’s crucial game against the high-scoring LA Blues. Afterward, Anhaeuser rejected the idea that he’d shown confidence in his bench by resting two of his “main guys.”

“It’s not even resting our main guys, you know,” he said. “We’ve got other guys that can do the job. So really it’s good for our balance, because we’ve got two games next weekend and we have two games the following weekend. So we need our guys playing at a high level, because to win our last six …  it’s very important that we get guys rest. It’s important that we get guys clicking.”

With van Schaik replacing left back John Wilson in the 83rd minute, the team offered a brief flashback to March, when Amadou Sanyang was the Battery’s first option at defensive midfield and van Schaik was scrapping his way into the starting lineup as a versatile left midfielder. When injuries sidelined Sanyang early in the season, van Schaik morphed into a reliable regular in the deep midfield.

Wednesday was Sanyang’s first full-90-minute match of 2013, and he capped it with an easy finish in the 88th minute for the night’s final goal.

“I’m doing alright, giving thanks,” the former MLS wunderkind said afterward. “It’s a good feeling. Good to be out there, get the 90 minutes, and finally get a goal. It was a good game.”

Jose Cuevas steps in

Jose "Chiva" Cuevas laces up his boots. Though the Battery and the USL PRO official score sheet disagree on how many assists Cuevas earned, Wednesday was one of his finest nights this season.

Jose “Chiva” Cuevas laces up his boots. Though the Battery and the USL PRO official score sheet disagree on how many assists Cuevas earned, Wednesday was one of his finest nights this season.

Van Schaik has been one of this season’s pleasant surprises, but few players have meant more to the Battery than Paterson. Not only did the Scot enter the night with the team lead in scoring, but his intense on-field demeanor has helped define this team’s personality. With Paterson taking the night off, the burden for directing the offense fell on the shoulders of Jose Cuevas.

In recent weeks, Cuevas has flourished in his new role as an outside attacking midfielder. On Wednesday night he slid into the central role typically reserved for Paterson.

“I feel that’s kinda what we needed… was somebody to create and stuff,” Cuevas said en route to his radio interview as the Battery’s official Man of the Match. “Nicki’s been doing a good job of it, but I had to fill in that role tonight.

“To be for real, coach just gave me freedom. Gave me freedom to roll, you know, on the board, he put it. He just gave me freedom, he told me to work off the forward and just pretty much be his little helper.”

The result? Four shots (including a golden opportunity that glanced awkwardly off his head) and three assists… according to the Battery. The official USL PRO scorer was less kind, awarding the Californian just one. But the numbers don’t really tell the story of Cuevas’ night. Several of his better passes went for naught, and he cleared the ball out of dangerous defensive spots on at least two separate occasions.

But perhaps his finest individual play came in the 30th minute, when Cuevas put a streetball move on Phoenix fill-in right back Netinho down in the left corner, scooted around him on the goal line and fired a beautiful ball across the face of goal. Though his teammates failed to put a foot on it, the pass went out of bounds for a Battery corner, and Falvey opened the scoring with a rebound volley off of goalkeeper Neal Kitson’s initial save.

Anhaeuser was clearly pleased.

“We tried to get (Cuevas) in the hole tonight and give him the ball, and he was picking it up with nobody on him, and he was turning, and he was able to play Dane,” Anhaeuser said. “So it’s working a little bit, because he’s actually up higher, closer to goal, and finding that space. So he did a nice job. The ball from way-wide was fantastic – the cross in to Dane Kelly – that was just a great goal. (But) you’ve got to credit Dane for being in there.”

Kelly’s Heroes

Phoenix defenders couldn't hold off Kelly, the Battery's relentless Jamaican forward, on Wednesday night.

Phoenix defenders couldn’t hold off Kelly, the Battery’s relentless Jamaican forward, on Wednesday night.

While you could make a strong case for several players in naming a 2013 team MVP, the case for Kelly is pretty straightforward: The Battery’s attack is alarmingly dependent on his ability to run repeatedly at the back line, settle long passes, hold off multiple defenders and create spaces for his teammates. He’s been incredibly fit, wicked fast, surprisingly strong — and just a little off with his scoring touch. The last two times we’ve spoken after matches, he’s essentially apologized for not scoring more often — even though his remarkable play has been the Battery’s most reliable offensive weapon all season.

Kelly entered last night’s match with two assists and four goals on a team-leading 40 shots,  He produced two goals on seven shots against Phoenix — his first multiple goal match of 2013 — and climbed back into a tie with Paterson for the team lead in scoring with six on the season. And sometimes that’s what scorers need to raise their game.

Kelly opened the night with several near misses, but got on the board in the 59 minute when he headed home a perfect pass from Cuevas. Five minutes later he added his second, playing his part in a three-man game with Cuevas and Bryce Alderson that resulted in a shot ricocheting off the crossbar. Kelly pounced on the rebound to drive the Battery’s lead to 3-0. Kelly ran to face The Regiment in the skybox and dropped to his knees in celebration.

“The great thing is that we had a few guys score goals,” Anhaeuser said. “Even if one was an own-goal (in the 78th minute), Cordoves got that one. Dane got his two goals. And you know, it gets you a little confidence. It makes you feel good. And hopefully that just gets them rolling.”

Bryce, John and all that space

John Wilson's stats don't show it, but he methodically created chance after chance Wednesday night. Here he battles 19-year-old Phoenix star Netinho for the ball just minutes before the young Brazilian left the match with an injury.

John Wilson’s stats don’t show it, but he methodically created chance after chance Wednesday night. Here he battles 19-year-old Phoenix star Netinho for the ball just minutes before the young Brazilian left the match with an injury.

There was a time in May and June when the Battery treated Alderson gingerly. His arrival in Charleston was delayed as he rehabbed from an injury, and in rushing to get into the lineup, the young Canadian international left himself vulnerable to an injury that ultimately slowed hims integration into the team. With Fisk hobbled by his own recurring injury issues, Anhaeuser and team trainer Bobby Weisenberger were in no mood to repeat that performance with a second talented Canadian midfielder.

Alderson got the start Wednesday in the left midfield spot that’s been reserved for Cuevas in recent weeks. He turned in a gritty, hard-nosed performance for 78 minutes and came within a few inches of recording his first USL PRO goal with a well-struck shot in the 64 that rimmed off the crossbar.

But for roughly the first half hour of the match, Alderson and Wilson appeared to be running a two-man campaign in the left corner of the attacking third, exploiting an inexplicably large amount of space allowed by Netinho, who came into the night as the league’s leader in minutes played. Though the Wolves played a four-man back line, at times Netinho appeared to be so narrowly deployed that one wondered whether it was a three-man unit.

Wilson initially noticed the gaping hole in the ninth minute, sneaking into a dangerous spot and attempting to launch a run that his friends and midfield simply didn’t notice. As the game wore on, Wilson moved up aggressively into the vacancy, often playing a two-man passing game that typically freed Wilson to attack centrally to the edge of the penalty box.

Somehow or another, none of these attacks managed to produce any goals — until Cuevas found space in the same area in the 30th minute, setting up the corner kick that ended with Falvey’s rebound volley. And soon after, right winger Quinton Griffith began showing up in Alderson’s spot, trying to find a way to exploit the opening.

Anhaeuser said that had less to do with an in-game adjustment than a larger plan.

“We talked about it,” he said. “I wanted to get (Griffin) on the other side of the field, and it worked. Even in the second half, he was able to come in on his right foot, because it’s his better foot, and we just wanted to try to shake it up a little bit, maybe get it going. He’s been getting the ball over there, going, and things haven’t happened. But you know, he got the ball two or three times on the left side. So it was something we talked about that we wanted him to do, just to give him a different look, and it did work out. But obviously we knew we’d have space on either side.”

Ironically, the opportunity appeared to evaporate after the 34th minute, when Netinho left the game due to injury — putting his league-leading minutes-played mark in jeopardy — in the 34th minute.

Captain Colin not going anywhere. Right?

Though it hasn’t been a big story in Battery world, one of the more interesting stories for me over the past two weeks has been Falvey’s miniature loan to Vancouver for a single reserve match at Real Salt Lake on July 16. RSL’s reserves came back late to win 3-2 against a Vancouver squad that featured complete games from Falvey and loaned Whitecaps Alderson and Emmanuel Adjetey.

Though Adjetey appears in the RSL highlight video, Falvey and Alderson figure prominently several times. At 1:45 you can spot Falvey (wearing No. 33) breaking up a shot on goal. That’s Alderson slipping and falling to open the way for Sebastian Velasquez’s first goal (on replay at 3:13), and there’s Colin again on slo-mo replay at 5:14, hustling back too late on a beautiful assist from Velasquez to guest player John Paul Piñeda.

I was in North Carolina by the time Falvey returned, and Wednesday was the first chance I had to ask him about it.

Colin Falvey (Kim Morgan Gregory photo)

Colin Falvey (Kim Morgan Gregory photo)

“It was good to get a little bit of recognition,” he said. “Full 90. As I said, recognition, played well there, coaching staff up there were quite happy with me. And right now it’s between the two clubs. Anything that happens, I’m sure I’ll be made aware of. And I think that if anything does, it will probably be after the season. Obviously I don’t want to leave right now, and obviously the Battery don’t want to lose me. So we’ll see. Put that to one side now and that stuff takes care of itself, usually.”

As for his play Wednesday night, Falvey remembered his goal this way:

“I was going to make the run where Sanyang made the run for the header, actually. And I see he just got there ahead of me, so I decided to peel away. Sanyang headed and the keeper made a great save and I reacted quickly to it and tucked it home with my left foot. (Laughs) Gaffer was giving me a little bit of stick. We done some finishing yesterday, and I put one or two away on my left yesterday, so that was nice. It kinda shows that practice, you get the rewards out of it. “

My favorite comment of the night came when I reminded Falvey of his miss in the second half. After coming up to support an attack in the 61st minute, a teammate played the ball back inside to him in the central channel. Falvey, a logical contender for Defender of the Year honors, found himself in a position typically reserved for strikers, and delivered a weak shot toward the keeper.

“I think I just ran out of steam from a 70-yard run,” he said. “I was actually demoralized that I didn’t see that I had any support and had to take the shot on. (laughs)

“It’s one of those things. All the good center backs, they try to step into play. I watch people try to do that. And when it’s on and the time is right, I try to do that.”

Odisnel Cooper and those goal kicks

Odisnel Cooper

One of the things you might have noticed last night were the center backs stepping up to take goal kicks on Odisnel Cooper‘s behalf. I asked him about his leg afterward and he indicated his leg was OK, but his groin was hurting him.

Trainer Bobby Weisenberger said Cooper picked up the injury in training on Friday, and that it only hurt him on goal kicks. He could move normally in goal and even kick from his hands. But it was easier to let Cody Ellison and Taylor Mueller kick for him on dead balls.

The Battery’s concern for Cooper this season has related more to his decision-making than his goal kicks, and last-night featured one of those heart-stopping moments when Charleston’s bold Cuban keeper took an unexpected risk that almost blew up in his face. In the 41st minute, with Falvey in the process of shielding an attacker off a ball headed for the goal line at the very edge of the penalty box, Cooper came out — presumably to clear things up. At the last second — with Falvey seemingly unaware that his keeper was behind him — Cooper backed off the play because the ball was beyond his area.

But that didn’t stop the two Battery men from colliding. Both went to ground. And with Falvey now off the ball, the Wolves player managed to take the ball off the goal line and get off a hurried shot as Cooper hustled back toward his empty net.

Fortunately for the Battery, Ellison had back-filled on defensive, and kicked the shot to safety. Cooper finished the night with credit for three saves.

Etc., etc., etc.

Mark Wiltse, who picked up a broken nose and a concussion last week in training, is only beginning to go through the concussion protocols that will determine when he will be allowed to play again, Weisenberger said.

Taylor Mueller

Taylor Mueller

Taylor Mueller’s parents arrived in Charleston in time to watch last Friday’s match, and were on hand Wednesday to watch their son turn in 24 quality minutes against Phoenix. Included in that performance was a jaw-dropping stutter-steppy move on the right sideline that created space for Mueller to send an entry pass into the box. Though it pinballed around for a few seconds before Charleston regained possession on the left side, it wound up at the feet of Cuevas, who passed the ball across the face of goal, where Sanyang finished with his head to close out the scoring in the 88th minute. Bits of skill like that seldom make the box score, but you can be sure that Mueller’s parent appreciated what they saw.

Wolves Captain Scott Morrison had an oddly mixed night. He urged on his team even as its organization began to falter. He benefited from the free kick awarded via Falvey’s sliding tackle at the top of the box and beat a four-man Battery wall — and Cooper — with a clinical strike that smoked the upper right-hand corner of the net in the 71st minute. And then seven minutes later he apparently gave the goal back when he tapped a slow-rolling deflected ball into an empty net to put the Battery up 4-1.

I say “apparently” because I couldn’t quite tell what happened at first. I saw Cordoves work his way down the left side and put a shot back toward the near post at an impossible angle. Kitson went low and blocked the shot, but it trickled past him and — from my original perspective — appeared to spin its way across the line under the watchful eye of a Phoenix player.

After talking to several other people, it sounds like the deflection wouldn’t have rolled into goal if left alone, but that Morrison, while tracking back on defense, somehow failed to get out of its way and accidentally tapped it in. How that happened I can only guess, but soccer really is a cruel game. Kinda funny sometimes, too.

Mike Anhaeuser

Mike Anhaeuser

Humidity is our friend: Did the ridiculous humidity on Wednesday night work to the Battery’s advantage, Coach Anhaeuser?

I think so. You know with them, they play in 115 degree heat, but they don’t play with any humidity. So I’m sure if you talk to their players, the humidity wears you down, and you just can’t run the same. So they probably lost a lot of fluid. You saw that they cramped with two guys. The only thing is they’ve got to come back, and we want them to beat Charlotte on Saturday, so hopefully they just have cramps and get their water in them and maybe train a day or two and get used to the climate. But I definitely think that had a big factor in the game, because they looked like two or three of their guys were struggling to get around the pitch, box to box.

Midfielder Michael Azira splits the defense in the first half. Though he pushed forward often in the opening 45, Azira appeared to pair with Amadou Sanyang in a deep defensive role in the second half.

Midfielder Michael Azira splits the defense in the first half. Though he pushed forward often in the opening 45, Azira appeared to pair with Amadou Sanyang in a deep defensive role in the second half.

TOP IMAGE: Midfielder Bryce Alderson turned in a solid performance in a rare start on Wednesday — and almost scored his first league goal. Dan Conover photos.