So maybe pink just isn’t their color.
It’s hard to know what else to make of Saturday’s frustrating 1-0 loss to rivals Wilmington Hammerheads, and I’m not convinced that it’s a game that requires too much analysis and description, either. The players certainly weren’t in the mood to talk about it — most left the pitch Saturday like they all had to catch the next plane out of town, and the mood in the pub afterwards was apparently dour, too.
And to be brutally honest, I was no mood to ask them about it, either. After my first post-game question to Quinton Griffith I tried to fake my way through a second professional-sounding question — and just flat gave up in the middle of it. It’s hard to find good things to say after a loss like that, and it’s no pleasure to put someone through the exercise, either.
OK, so that one stung a bit
I’m not one of those people who believes that “winning is the only thing” business, but then again, losing sucks. Particularly at home.
That’s a soccer thing, too. You win your home matches, you draw on the road, you win championships. Pretty simple. You only see home teams celebrating draws when they’ve come from behind. You don’t even see underdogs celebrating draws at home. And for all its disappointments this season, the Battery had at least managed to stay undefeated at Blackbaud Stadium (0-0-4) … until Saturday.
Plus they were coming off a momentum-shifting six-point weekend trip, and… and…
But let’s be clear about something. If you were going to script the perfect Wilmington Hammerheads road game, it would look exactly like what happened on Saturday. Get an early set piece. Score off it. Pack it in. Celebrate. Go home.
I swear, that’s not meant to be disrespectful of Wilmington. There have been Battery road trips where Coach Mike Anhaeuser probably would have been perfectly happy with that kind of win, and Jose Mourinho set the United Kingdom’s newspapers ablaze with that style of play a few weeks ago.
The reason I bring it up isn’t to make some point about the relative merits about “open” soccer, but to sing the praises of “ugly” soccer. Because Anhaeuser knew that’s what Dave Irving was going to do, prepared his team for it during a short week of training, and then… well, if that first set piece happens to bounce in the other team’s favor, what are you supposed to do about it? It’s not that Irving wouldn’t have been happy with a draw Saturday. It’s that catching an early break changes the dynamic of the match in the visitor’s favor.
I spoke with several fans during and after the match who felt like Wilmington wanted it more, or that our players were flat. And maybe they were. Even Anhaeuser in his post-game interviews observed that the Battery was laying back in the first 10 to 15 minutes “for some reason.”
Then again, it’s awfully hard for me to accept the notion that the team lacked effort and leadership. I didn’t see any quit in the first half, but I did see plenty of frustration — most of it brought on by sharp, physical defending, some of it brought on by passes that sailed a bit high, or through-balls that rolled a bit far.
That’s probably the biggest and least pleasant lesson to take from Saturday. As talented as Charleston is, the simple truth is that even on their best days they’re seldom more than a lucky bounce better than any opponent in USL PRO. Granted, they’re also good enough to beat anybody and win the league. But if they’re going to finish with a quality record, they’re probably going to have to rely on blue-collar grit more often than not.
Haughty teams always say they lost because they didn’t do this or that. Smart teams recognize that sometimes you lose because the other team did its job.
Forward to the new attack!
Here’s something I believe, and if Coach Anhaeuser ever agrees with this publicly I’ll probably pass out. For everything you can say about team play and 11 men working together, Omar Salgado was so good at Harrisburg (and, to a lesser extent, at Dayton) that he made all those axioms look trite. Every time he touched the ball, good things happened. And yes, that’s a hyperbolic statement, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration.
In fact, Salgado was so damned good, it blew up right in the Battery’s face.
Look, I think everyone with the Battery understood that — as the last Whitecap to arrive and the highest draft pick in franchise history — the chance of Salgado spending the majority of the season here was always low. But until the news broke about Kenny Miller’s departure, I figured he’d be on the roster at least through May.
And while losing the big kid isn’t the end of the world — the Battery has three forwards under contract in Dane Kelly, Heviel Cordoves and Adam Mena — it’s also true that a lot of the team’s focus offensively in the past three weeks has been on bringing Salgado back from his Richmond injury, getting him integrated into the attack, and building some continuity. And less than a week ago all of that progress was negated by a phone call.
Moving forward with the next concept for Charleston’s constantly reshuffled attacking crew is going to require working people into roles and bringing Kelly back to health. When Kelly is full strength, Anhaeuser can use him as the pacey forward who makes runs and stretches defenses. He can use Diouf as a target man. He can widen the field with Mena on the wing, or slip him back to the center as a secondary striker.
That leaves second-year man Heviel Cordoves. I’ve written about his improvement on multiple occasions, but one hold-over from his seven-goal 2013 campaign was his ability to spark the offense off the bench. So far this season he’s split time as a starter and a sub (eight appearances, four starts), but when Diouf logged his first complete game on Saturday it actually pushed him in front of Cordoves in terms of minutes.
Charleston needs these guys to start clicking as a both individual players and as part of a rotation. And until that develops, the pressure will be on Cooper and the back line to keep the scores low.
I’ve been thinking about this one ever since I left Blackbaud Stadium on Saturday night, and when it comes to Man of the Match, I just give up when it comes to Battery players.
Cooper was barely tested. The back line was solid when called upon defensively, but that wasn’t often. Diouf logged his first 90-minute professional match, but his strongest contribution was a lot of running in support of the Battery’s high-pressure defense in the first half, and by late in the game he looked understandably gassed.
Andre Lewis had ideas and creativity in midfield, but was one of the players whose touch looked just about 5 percent off. Maikel Chang boosted the Battery’s performance when he entered the match and appeared to be playing with great urgency. So did Cordoves, who came within inches of equalizing.
But for the Battery, I have to give my nod to Quinton Griffith. He came tantalizingly close to scoring from distance, had a couple of notable defensive plays, and spent the bulk of the night working the right wing on the Hammerheads’ side of the field. I didn’t count his crosses, but there were a lot of them. He was dangerous, but in the end, not lethal.
For this game, even a homer like me has to give credit to a Hammerhead, and I’ll go with Paul Nicholson. I could have gone with multiple Wilmington defenders — particularly Andrae Campbell, Yahaya Musa and Ashani Fairclough — or even goalkeeper Quillan Roberts, who had three legit saves. But Nicholson led the deep-lying Hammers midfield that did a great job of keeping men behind the action and winning second balls off clearances, goal kicks and long passes. Throw in his calm, timely goal off the Battery’s one moment of weakness, and that’s enough juice for me. Nicely played, Mr. Nicholson.
Midfielder Michael Kafari made the Battery 18 for the first time this season, but wasn’t among the five substitutes… Defender Taylor Mueller came on in the 85th minute and essentially spent the rest of regulation and six minutes of stoppage operating like a target forward. One of his long throws from the left touch line set up one of the Battery’s best late chances…
The Battery trotted out in new gray-hooped warm-ups Saturday… Cubans Cooper and Chang both came out with pink dye in their hair to honor the night’s pink theme for Kick for the Cure… Griffith had indicated earlier in the week that he would do the same, but showed up with his hair all gray. Didn’t look quite as good as mine, but it was a nice try… Here’s the joke that “Little Joey” Benton — son of Joey and Caroline Benton — told me after he showed me the hole punched in the visitor’s dugout by Wilmington’s Manu Aparicio: “How many Wilmington Hammerheads does it take to break a light bulb? One, if you give him a red card.”
Charleston plays it first U.S. Open Cup match on Wednesday. I’ll be back with a preview.
TOP IMAGE: Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser made changes that jump-started the Battery attack in the second half, but Wilmington kept the home team off the scoreboard. Dan Conover photos.