So like I always stipulate when I’m about to say something like this, I freely admit my lack of technical soccer knowledge. On the other hand, I’ve watched a bunch of Charleston Battery games over the past couple of years. And occasionally I think I see things.
Here’s what I thought I saw on Saturday: A really admirable defensive effort by the Battery against a totally credible MLS lineup in the first half. And a lot of my attention was focused on what I saw from Austin Savage — who made his second start of the CCC — and Zach Prince. Granted, we haven’t seen that much from Savage yet, and it’s hardly news that Prince gets after people, but they were playing a high-pressure scheme, succeeding at it, and the rest of the unit backed them up.
After the half I asked several fans what they thought about the Battery’s performance, and no one quite shared my enthusiasm. The same held true in a few short conversations after full-time. Which means it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, and just too much of a homer.
But coming out of the CCC, the current version of the Battery (pending any future loans from Vancouver, or any club signings) looks like a unit that’s going to have to win with defense, turnovers, counter attacks and set pieces. Not the kind of sexy soccer soccer pundits crave, but a style that can be effective in USL PRO. Which is why that high-pressure from Prince and Savage (and let’s be honest: Wouldn’t “Prince Savage” be a great name for a comic book character?) got me excited. It had the look of something that might work in league play.
Last year’s team came out of preseason with Flying Circus swagger. And it’s always possible that one or two strikers could come in over the transom in the next three weeks and put a stinger in what is otherwise a solid foundation of defenders and supportive midfielders. But last night gave me hope that there’s a way this group can win, with or without that additional help.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
From his post-game interviews on the field.
(What do you take out of this tournament?)
You always get the little things you that you need to talk about and get out of you. Because we played pretty well. You’re playing against a good Houston team there. We kept our pace with them.
But I knew after the first, I said to the guys, let’s try to go 15 minutes in the second half, and then I knew I’d get some of the younger guys on and see what they could do. Unfortunately we made a mistake — we tried to keep a ball in, and then they caught us. You know, we made one change. But we got caught. We got caught by a good team… and then too easy of a finish. And that’s what you can’t do. Once they put that one away, the second one was even easier.
We were under pressure there (for 10), but that’s going to happen against good players. So that’s good to happen.
I’m going to see some things. I gotta look at the tape. Obviously you’ve got some players that you’re looking at.
And (then) you get the fresh guys on, and I think if it would have been 1-0, or if we could have kept it at 0-0, it might have changed it. Because they get a little more buzz, they get a little more feeling. But for us, it works out, because I get to see who can handle it. Physically and really technically, and just mentally. Because we saw a few places, even in goal.
We’ve got to make some decisions. So it’s a good thing for us.
Overall I thought we did very well. I saw it happening at the end of the first half that our legs were getting tired. Most of the guys I’ve had before played a lot of minutes. The two Cubans, even on Wednesday, they played 45 minutes, but that was tough for them to go 45, because they’ve been playing indoor. So I’m working through getting the players, getting the guys, and now unfortunately we had Dane (Kelly) break down, and that’s something that you really worry about in this situation. Because we’re playing three games in seven days, and now we picked up one injury, because we don’t have as many players as maybe they do. We couldn’t rotate quite as much.
I don’t think it happened because of that. I think that was maybe a slip or something. But I take out of it … that we battled well. I thought we really did well. But I also found out some things that I really need to make decisions.
(What were your instructions to the team before the first half?)
I said, “Listen, we know Houston.” We’ve played them twice with the reserves last year, we saw their game twice with the first team (in this year’s CCC). That they like to get it wide, cross the ball and get corner kicks. And I’ll tell you, they had four corner kicks in the first 25 minutes, and Davis is probably the best free-kick-taker in the United States. He whipped it in there four times, so we held our own.
We actually didn’t counter as well. That one extra pass. We kinda gave it away where we had the chance to break.
Nobody dominated the first half. They didn’t take control and get great chances. But I thought defensively we held our own and we stayed sound, and that’s what we were trying to do.
(Two goals in three games. Are you not happy offensively, happy offensively?)
You’re never happy that you only scored two goals (in three games), but over history I don’t think we’ve scored six goals in six games, you know what I mean? My attacking options, I didn’t have six or seven of them, the guys coming in. I think we’ll be OK. I was happy some of our play. But we sat in a little bit. I put in the extra midfielder. But like today, we couldn’t get out of there.
I thought we played great (earlier in the tournament). We could have had two or three goals on Wednesday, which I was happy about. Tonight I knew was going to be a battle, because you’re playing their first team, and that’s what it’s like. It’s going to come down to one or two mistakes, and that’s what we’ll talk about.
Again, I’m happy defensively. I know we can get better offensively, and that comes with our movement and our passing. And some of the guys are still getting back into it.
(Austin Savage got another start and seemed to be energized on defense. Were there any particular instructions to your forwards?)
No. I mean, we were trying to get them up higher, actually. I kept the same shape, but I kinda wanted him to get in there. And he did. He started stepping in the first half. Put the goalkeeper under pressure three or four times, which we tried to do.
I put him in there because he’s more offensive. He’s not a Mike Azira type. He’s not a Justin Portillo type. He’s got a more offensive nose to him, so I wanted to try to give him a little more green light, and try to put them under pressure. They’re a solid defensive team. They stay organized, they’re hard to break down, and that’s why every year they’re competing for the (MLS Cup). Every single season. Because it’s a team that you have to break down properly. It’s a team that if you give up a chance, they’ve got the quality to cross it in and get a goal. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They’re very sound, and physically they’re very strong.
But yeah, that’s what I tried to do with Austin, and even there at the end, that’s what I was hoping. If we could have kept it at 0-0 for that first 15 minutes, but unfortunately they got the one and then the second one. And then you’re down two, and you’re recovering a little bit, and that ‘s how it works. After that we kinda had a few chances, nothing great, but you kinda expect that because it takes a little while for the new guys to get in there. Especially being a little cool.
(Mike Azira was in the stands, didn’t play for either team. What’s his status?)
He’s going to probably be with Seattle. It looks like they’re interested in keeping him, so obviously when that happens, we’ll see if it works out… We didn’t want to play him tonight, because if he’s going to move or go somewhere, you don’t want him to get injured.
(What were your instructions tonight?)
We wanted to put pressure on them, make them make mistakes, trying to pass in the middle, pick them off and then go and counter them.
I think we were a little bit tired, maybe, this game, and maybe didn’t have the legs for it. But that’s part of preseason. Three games in seven days. It’s going to wear on us, and we’re only probably 10 days into it.
(In the first half you battled an organized team that doesn’t make many mistakes to a standstill. How much of that was based on high pressure?)
Yeah yeah, we wanted to press them, get in their face up high. But you look at any game. It’s tough to break us down. We have a solid 11 out there. No team is just going to run through us. You look at Seattle, Houston and D.C. None of them really had 10 or 15 passes before they scored goals. So it was good to see that we were pretty disciplined in our play so far.
I tried to speak with Cordoves after a match in 2013, but my Spanish — even when I listened to the tape — was too weak to reliably translate. This short exchange marks the first face-to-face conversation we’ve had, and stands as evidence to his progress in learning English.
I think most fans who remember last year’s Cordoves will agree that he looks much more trim — if not “grass-fit” after an indoor season in Wichita. But with Dane Kelly — Charleston’s only proven option at forward — in limbo now due to what Kelly described as a hamstring issue, it’s likely that Cordoves won’t have the luxury of working his way to full strength over the next three weeks. The Battery play Friday against the NAIA All-Stars at Blackbaud, and then travel to Cary, N.C. to play the Carolina Railhawks on Saturday.
(How are you feeling out there? You feeling healthy?)
Yeah, yeah. I feel good. It is preseason yet, but I try to get better, you know? But when the season start, I have very good feelings.
(Do you feel you are more fit this year than last?)
I feel 10 times better. I try to get better (with) my scoring. I hope everything is good.
(Tell me about the play when you got that nice through-ball, and it looked like there was some contact in the box.)
I see the ball but I no can touch it, because it’s a little long for me.
THE VANCOUVER GUYS
Charleston fans got their first look at 2014 Whitecaps loaners Jackson Farmer and Marlon Ramirez Saturday. Farmer entered the match after the break, replacing Shawn Ferguson, while Ramirez was announced as a forward when he subbed in with the Battery down 0-1.
Farmer demonstrated a nifty bit of athleticism when he deflected a dangerous long ball that put him in a tricky position, but he also gave the ball away several times. Ramirez was aggressive and frenetic while tracking back against veteran fullback Corey Ashe, but didn’t turn in a large body of work to consider. It’s not possible to evaluate either player on such a small sample, but it’s also fair to say that neither made a compelling case for vaulting any veterans on the Battery depth chart.
My understanding of what we can expect from the rest of the Whitecaps’ 2014 loans is based on nothing more than Canadian fan chatter on social media, cryptic statements in the B.C. press and club website, and whatever the Battery staff has been able to say (which isn’t much). Figuring out what they might do is also made far more complex by the sheer number of players in the Whitecaps Academy/Residency/PDL system, not to mention the front office’s recent flurry of new signings at positions that previously appeared to be developing a logical hierarchy.
So let’s limit this section to nothing more than setting expectations. The Battery’s need area is pretty obvious — forwards — and the Whitecaps have more young attackers than they can rotate constructively through their weekly 18. So Vancouver could send Charleston some highly regarded MLS prospects who could help the Battery right away. Or they could send us more residency players and leave it to Anhaeuser to find ways to work them into his game plans.
But as to what they’ll actually do? Guess away.
For what it’s worth, midfielder Bryce Alderson was getting good reviews opposite veteran Nigel Reo-Coker in the Whitecaps’ new two-deep 4-2-3-1 midfielder set. But then the club traded for former Toronto Designated Player Matias Laba last week, and now Alderson appears to be caught in the same numbers game that’s stymieing the progress of attacker Ben Fisk, the other Canadian youth international who came to Charleston from Vancouver in 2013. Neither appears to be among the top two choices at their respective positions.
According to Canadian sources, neither player would be interested in a second year in Charleston, but I have no idea how reliable any of that chatter might be. I mention them here simply as I would other former Battery players.
THE FORWARD THING
If you figure in the diminutive Ramirez (who has been described elsewhere as more of an attacking midfielder), then the Battery come out of the CCC with three healthy forwards, plus Prince, who acts like more of a forward when Anhaeuser’s base formation shifts into its 4-3-3 flavor, and more of an outside midfielder in its 4-5-1 alignment.
I’m not going to speculate about Kelly’s health, but here’s a simple bit of logic. Dane Kelly’s super-power is his ability to make multiple lung-busting runs with enormous defenders hanging all over him. If his hamstring is tender, or even less than 100 percent for a matter of weeks, then Anhaeuser will have to deploy him very, very cautiously. That’s not to say he’s not going to play. It’s just to point out that until he proves himself fully fit after limping off the pitch, the other guys at his position are going to have to step up.
The person at the top of that list — on paper, anyway — is Cordoves. But the player who has gotten the longest look from Anhaeuser so far is Savage. He’s a local player, and something of a ‘tweener — not the fastest, not the tallest, not the deftest. He got few opportunities in his rookie season, but did manage to demonstrate flashes of that intangible goal-scorer’s knack for the finish. He looks grittier than last year’s version, like a man who understands he’s not going to earn a spot on this year’s roster without fighting for it.
But here’s the interesting development. Instead of just using him as a squad player, Anhaeuser has started Savage the past two games. It’s a role that sort of morphs in and out of being called “forward” — central, a bit recessed, certainly not the classic “two-up-top” strike pairing with Kelly. And it makes Savage an interesting player to watch as preseason continues.
BTW, that two-striker attack that Anhaeuser has discussed trying this year? He hasn’t said this, but I just don’t see how he can plan around that idea until he gets some reinforcements at the position. At the moment, Charleston is just a few tired legs away from fielding a formation based on four defenders and six midfielders.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THIS YEAR’S CCC
IT’S JUST TOO EARLY TO EVALUATE SEATTLE: The Sounders compiled an uninspiring 1-0-2 record that would have been three draws if not for a final-minute penalty kick against Charleston. And they did that with lineups composed primarily of starters.
The problem is that Coach Sigi Schmid‘s offseason challenge was to build a team around superstar Clint Dempsey, and then Jurgen Klinsmann essentially denied him the opportunity to test that new team concept with Dempsey in the driver’s seat. What was Seattle going to do, deny the U.S. National Team’s coach when he called for his top MLS players to go on offseason loans to European clubs? Refuse to let Dempsey miss more offseason to prepare for the upcoming friendly with Ukraine?
I feel good about the potential pairing between Dempsey and veteran Kenny Cooper. And when you watch Designated Player Obafemi Martins close up, you can’t deny his shocking athleticism. But the attack seemed disjointed here in Charleston, and if it’s ever going to work, it’s going to require Dempsey operating within his comfort zone, with the other parts revolving around him. As for the defense, color me “Not Sold.”
All of which bodes well for Mike Azira, if not Seattle’s ultimate fortunes. The Sounders need more guys like Azira — affordable, versatile, supportive, team-first guys — both on the field and in the locker room. We wish him well.
D.C. UNITED COULD BE THE EAST’S SURPRISE TEAM: New York and New England both made strides last year, and Philadelphia has been making headlines this offseason. But from what we saw of the rebuilt United team, this group could be for real. I didn’t spot any obvious holes, and if Eddie Johnson can finish his chances and Chris Pontius can make it back to something close to full fitness (he didn’t play in Charleston), D.C. will score enough points to be competitive.
But the best news is that the club’s young talent appears to be progressing. Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon and Luis Silva aren’t at the elite level yet, but if they keep playing like they played here, United could really shock people.
SAME OLD HOUSTON: Maybe the only issue you could label a “concern” for this Dynamo this offseason was the loss of 30-year-old centerback Bobby Boswell. I suspect replacement David Horst erased those concerns with a big Challenge Cup. He’s not a name brand MLS star (so few are, including Boswell, come to think of it), but it’s easy to forget that Horst was starter in Portland until he broke his leg, one of a series of injuries that forced the club to invest midseason money in central defenders.
The only other newcomer of significant note is winger Tony Cascio, and like Horst, he had an excellent tournament.
STAY TUNED IN CHARLESTON: The Battery gave a respectable showing, but there’s no flash to this team — yet. The important thing to remember is that unlike last season’s squad — which changed little between the CCC and the season opener — this year’s roster could change dramatically between now and March 22.
Anhaeuser had 21 players (eight of them midfielders) in camp, and once Odisnel Cooper’s thumb heals, one of the other keepers leaves. If Vancouver sends no more than two additional players, that still leaves two openings Anhaeuser can choose to fill if he wants to go with a 24-man roster (up two from what he carried most of last season). He’s got prospects who might otherwise be in camp right now, but until he gets solid information from Vancouver, he can’t really move on any veteran signings.
CHSSOCCER CCC ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM
Write in to tell us how wrong we are.
GOALKEEPER: Believe it or not, I’m going with Andrew Dykstra. He played very well in his start against Charleston, and was good enough to earn a draw against Seattle with United down to 10 men in the final minutes. Plus Joe Willis, who actually started some matched for D.C. last season, got loaned to Richmond this week. All in all, he had a great week.
FULLBACKS: Even with his senseless red card against DeAndre Yedlin, I thought United left back Cristian Fernandez (name on the back of his jersey: “Christian.” Don’t ask) had a good week. United right back Sean Franklin (formerly of L.A. Galaxy) is more of a known commodity, and I give him the nod over Houston’s Kofi Sarkodie. Charleston’s Taylor Mueller gets an honorable mention at RB, as does rookie LB Drew Ruggles, if only for that awesome equalizer against D.C.
CENTERBACKS: There are bigger names out there (including teammate Jermaine Taylor), but David Horst impressed all week. He lines up next to Colin Falvey, who had his usual smart, effective run of form against MLS opposition, and also managed a goal in the opener. There’s just no telling when — or if — someone in MLS is going to actually notice.
MIDFIELD: Seattle’s Brad Evans was as good as advertised, as was Houston’s Brad Davis. Houston’s Tony Cascio was far better than expectations, and I give him the Cup’s MVP trophy, too. Former Battery star Osvaldo Alonso was OK, but didn’t dominate the way he often does in the regular season. It’s a close call for the final spot here, but I’ll give it to Alonso, narrowly, over Perry Kitchen. Both had nice goals from the run of play while working out of the No. 6 spot. Charleston’s Jarad van Schaik gets an honorable mention here, too.
FORWARDS: Seattle’s Kenny Cooper has been more places that Johnny Cash in that “I’ve Been Everywhere” song, but this might work out to be one of his better stops. He gets the first forward spot. Giles Barnes and Will Bruin both did well, but I’ll give Barnes a slight nod over his teammate for the second All-CCC forward. You’d expect to see Eddie Johnson in this spot, but EJ whiffed on a great opportunity against Charleston, then sat out the finale. Seattle’s Obafemi Martins is another big-name star who disqualifed himself with some simple mental errors. Chalk it up to preseason.
CCC GUYS I BOUGHT IN MLS FANTASY MANAGER
Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, DCU ($5); Defenders Cristian Fernandez, DCU ($6.5), and David Horst, Houston ($5.5); Midfielder Tony Cascio, Houston ($6); Forward Kenny Cooper, Seattle ($7.5).
Also considering: United midfielders Nick DeLeon ($7) and Perry Kitchen ($6.5) are tempting, but it’s generally better to go with someone roughly comparable once you stock up on a couple of players from the same team. Fernandez and Hamid were simply too valuable at those spots to pass up. Remember, the trick to this game isn’t knowing which players are the best in the league, but which players will outperform their current market value.
Interested in playing along? Local leagues are available, baby.
Oh, and if you play Soccer Manager online, buy Mike Azira. He’s ranked a 70 right now, which means he’s selling for $10,000, but once his rating improves (typically to 75 or 77) later this year, his market value should jump to between $250,000 and $500,000. Buy low, sell high.
TOP IMAGE: United’s Perry Kitchen tracks down Seattle’s Obafemi Martins in their final match of the Carolina Challenge cup on Saturday. Dan Conover photos.