The first home win of any season is always an important hurdle. It’s a psychological milestone for the team and its fans, and once it’s out of the way, the season changes in perceptible ways.
But it’s also an important event in terms of revenue, because let’s be honest: The average soccer fan in Charleston — as in a lot of USL PRO markets, I’m sure — is a fickle beast. When the Battery start winning at home, casual fans get on the enthusiasm bus. And the way I know that is that when the team isn’t giving them that regular endorphin rush, not only do they stop attending, they stop reading this website. That’s one of the big lessons I learned from 2013 — Charlestonians like reading about success. Losses and draws? They’ve got better things to do with their time.
Match that first home win with a sold-out stadium and you’ve got something to build on — nd the official attendance on Saturday was 5,415 in a stadium that officially holds just 5,100.
Let’s be clear about that figure. Saturday’s attendance probably wasn’t really built on the team’s performance so far. This was a three-way confluence of factors: 1. S.C. United Mount Pleasant’s pre-game Battery Bash event at Blackbaud, which accounted for most of those kids and young families in the stadium; 2. The three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend, and 3. No Riverdogs competition downtown.
Last season the Battery got a big sell-out in mid-June when jersey sponsor SPARC did a promotion for its employees, who turned out en masse — many of them for the first time. And the Battery responded to that opportunity with an utterly depressing scoreless draw against expansion Tampa Bay. Those prospective new fans were not impressed, and when the team finally got hot in late summer, it took several wins before the fans started to show up again.
So while Saturday’s 1-0 had its disappointments, we may well remember it as a turning point. The fans seemed entertained. The second half was a gutsy performance. And all those kids storming the field? Those Regiment members racing around the sidelines with Battery flags? The players and fans mingling on the pitch for the fireworks? Yes. Yes to all of it.
Gritty gets it done
After that disappointing May 10 loss to Wilmington, I suggested that the experience might be a wake-up call to a young Battery team. Because talent only gets you so far. Everything you can achieve beyond the limits of talent depends on effort, discipline and blue-collar grit. And the team responded by traveling up to Wilmington and getting beaten again.
The good news from training last week was that the team and staff stayed on mission. There was no petulance, no manufactured tension. The public message from Coach Mike Anhaeuser — basically that the team has been performing well enough to win and will have to work on the little things that separate success from meh — seemed to reflect the in-house message and tone of the practice sessions.
Pittsburgh was a gritty win. Which is another way of saying that — for the first time in 2014 — the Battery won ugly. Unlike their first two home draws, the team didn’t let the visitors score a late goal, a feat made more difficult by the one-man advantage the Battery conceded in the 51st minute with Dane Kelly‘s second yellow card of the night.
But here’s the sound of a sure-to-be unpopular second shoe hitting the floor. Charleston played down to the level of its wounded and fatigued opponent on Saturday, and it’s going to have to perform significantly better in order resume its usual spot near the top of the league table. Because what beats the winless Riverhounds in Charleston isn’t going to feed the bulldog down in Orlando this weekend.
So yes, celebrate the win. But understand that a winless team came to Blackbaud less than 24 hours after being thumped 5-1 at Wilmington and the Battery had to sweat it out until the end of second-half stoppage time — twice — before sealing the deal.
Cordoves carries the attack, defense carries the team
In 2013, the Battery offense hinged on its leading scorer, Kelly. He wasn’t necessarily the focus of the attack, but his deep, well-timed runs created space that the rest of the team seldom produced without him.
This year, Kelly is simply an enigma. Saturday was only his fourth appearance, and he’ll miss the Orlando match because of his red card. He’s produced one goal so far, and it was his cross that created Charleston’s goal. But with injuries taking him in and out of the lineup, he just hasn’t fully integrated into the team’s endlessly evolving attack.
Meanwhile, Heviel Cordoves has been taking on an ever-larger role in the offense. He’s recorded four goals and an assist in the team’s past five matches (three of the goals came in Open Cup, not league, play), but those numbers don’t really tell the complete story. The guy is looking more and more like a classic No. 9 workhorse, someone equally capable of scoring and assisting.
That gives the Battery two tall strikers who can play with their backs to goal (the other being Mamadou Diouf). But the question becomes, what’s the team’s best forward combo? Clearly Anhaeuser is intrigued by the potential he sees in Kelly pairing up with either of his two target men. Who wouldn’t be? But so far, it’s just hasn’t taken flight.
Meanwhile, the Battery is once again establishing itself as a stellar defensive unit. The team has surrendered just eight goals in 11 matches — five of them at home — and goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper is tied for the league lead with four clean sheets. His goals-against average is an eye-popping 0.70, and while he’s been asked to make more saves this season, he’s earning those gaudy stats while still averaging fewer than three saves a match.
That means Colin Falvey, John Wilson, Quinton Griffith, Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson are doing their jobs along the back line, night after night. Plus, if the rumors prove true, the team could be on the verge of adding a starter-quality young veteran to that defensive lineup. So figure that with last week’s center-back crisis out of the way, the defense is in good hands. And let’s assume — as I do personally — that the two-striker attack is the right choice for this group. What improves the team’s offensive production?
I’m not convinced the answer requires big changes in approach. If you watch them in practice, the coaching staff is usually on the team about passing quickly, making the ball do the work, seeing the field. They drill it. They emphasize it. But the choices the players make in matches don’t always match that emphasis.
As good as Charleston’s defense is, the back line often looks anxious to boot the ball over the midfield. And the staff wants to see fewer extended one-man possessions. Example: In the 12th minute, rookie attacking midfielder Andre Lewis controlled the ball in the attacking third for about 11 seconds before losing it in the middle of the field — all the while not noticing two teammates who had moved into position to help him. Jarad van Schaik was one of them, and he tossed up his hands in a “What are you doing?” expression as Lewis dribbled by. It was a tremendous exhibition of raw skill — but Lewis’ progression as a blue-chip MLS prospect will be governed by what he learns, not what he can do.
Right now the Battery averages just over a goal per match. But it’s easy to imagine this young group averaging two goals a game over the next month — if they can just settle down and trust each other. A 5 percent improvement in offensive efficiency in June could produce not only wins — but some truly beautiful soccer.
What the hell happened in stoppage time?
So in the second half I’m shooting the match from the East sideline and I hear this little kid trying to get my attention a few inches from my right ear. When I turn around I see this blonde moppet, maybe 4 years old, and he’s kind of emotional and very serious. He tells me, with the moral imperative of youth: “Go tell the ref that he’s being mean to the Battery.”
Well, young man, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but this time I just don’t agree.
Yes, the officials made several calls the fans didn’t like — specifically an offsides call in the 35th minute that wiped off a Kelly goal, plus two yellow cards against Kelly, resulting in his ejection and suspension. And then there was that comical moment in second half stoppage, when referee Patrick O’Brian blew his whistle to end the match… about two minutes into what had been announced was four minutes of extra time. Surely this guy must be smoking something, right?
Well, not from my point of view. What I saw from the field was a low-drama referee who communicated with players. Like in the 13th minute, when Zach Prince got overly aggressive on defense. O’Brian gave him the universal “Keep it down” signal. Or around the half-hour mark, when he spent time talking to players from both teams. In some cases I could hear his tone, in others I couldn’t. But the impression I got was one of calm professionalism. Which is refreshing.
How about that goal-negating offsides call? I couldn’t tell at the time, but on replay there’s absolutely no doubt that the officials got that one right. Three Battery players were caught offsides on that one.
How about Kelly’s two yellow cards? That’s subjective, of course, but not only did I think that Kelly earned his first yellow, I also saw O’Brian speak to him on a couple of occasions.
Was the second yellow called for? Anhaeuser didn’t think so, and on the one hand it was a 50-50 challenge. On the other, Kelly had just given the ball away on his previous touch, and he went into that second-half collision with frustrated, reckless intensity. While the challenge was a toss-up, when the ref has spoken previously to a player with a yellow card about toning down his aggressive play, contact like that is always going to be risky.
And finally, what happened with the stoppage time clock? I don’t know. But whether it was a mix-up in wireless communication or just a misreading of his own watch, the responsibility for ending the game belongs to the referee. Which means the mistake is O’Brian.
But here’s the deal. Everybody makes mistakes. The interesting subject isn’t perfection, but how you handle your own goofs. And to his credit, O’Brian appeared to handle his well. He spoke to both sides. He let players and coaches have their say. If he got testy or bitchy, I missed it. He made the decision I would have wanted if the situation had been reversed, and to be honest, it spooked the hell out of me at the time. But I also thought it was fair.
Referees who are primarily focused on maintaining their authority struggle with handling their mistakes. Referees who are actively engaged in trying to get things right wind up with far more respect and authority. They’re the guardians of the game, not of their own personal power.
Let me give Anhaeuser the last word here, because I think he saw thing clearly:
“You know, when a referee messes up, it’s just like a penalty. You don’t usually change your call. You got to let it go. But in fairness to the game, it was an extra two minutes. At least he did the right thing so it gave them an opportunity to do it. Because I would be very upset, probably going after a referee. So I give them credit. I still don’t know what’s right or wrong, but we closed it out, we dug deep, we defended for those last two, and we did the job tonight.”
40th minute, game tied 0-0
Pittsburgh owned the first 10 minutes, but once Charleston settled down and started playing their game, the team produced some nice build-up play. By the 30-minute mark things were really flowing the Battery’s way, with multiple threatening possessions. They might have been set up by long balls over the midfield, but once established in the attacking half, Charleston’s control was quite promising.
The game’s only goal came out of one of the least-promising possessions of the half.
Basically, four things happened in the 40th minute. The Battery recycled a bogged-down counterattack that began with a steal by Lewis. Quinton Griffith overlapped and worked his way into the attack on the right. About 10 seconds before the climax, defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang decided to move up to the point of the attack, level with Cordoves on the forward’s left. And Kelly took a mundane pass and quickly crossed it into the box, where a Riverhounds center back had momentarily backed off Cordoves.
The big Cuban was well-marked when the ball arrived, but he screened off his man, let the pass bounce once in front of him, and re-directed it across the face of goal. Meanwhile, Sanyang continue his movement toward the near post and volleyed the assist from Cordoves from seven yards out with his right foot, beating charging Hounds goalkeeper Michael Lisch.
The more I look at it, the more special this goal seems. First off, Kelly’s contribution won’t show up on the score sheet, but it was absolutely the key that unlocked the play. Second, Cordoves’ handling of Kelly’s cross shows that you simply cannot give him any amount of cushion in the penalty box. And finally, Sanyang doesn’t score if he doesn’t volley. And he doesn’t volley if he doesn’t read the play perfectly. And he wouldn’t have been in position if he hadn’t decided to make himself a forward for about 10 seconds.
Nicely done, gentlemen.
Amadou Sanyang won the Battery’s Man of the Match award, and afterward I told him he might have gotten my nod even without the goal. He played an integral role in the Battery’s defense, particularly in the second half. And I don’t mean that in just the generic stay-in-position, keep-the-shape, connect-the-back-line-the-attack sense. I mean that he also made two or three of those precise, risky, possession-changing tackles that really frustrate an opponent.
Sanyang has been good all season when healthy, and it was his return to the lineup last summer that keyed the Battery’s late run. And maybe he was just fresh after missing two games with an injury to his mouth. But when Sanyang is in top form like this, good things happen.
I’ve already sung Cordoves’ praises here, and you could make a solid case for giving him top honors. Cooper had his usual solid.
But the other man who deserves a shout is Taylor Mueller. I don’t know that he played any better or worse than the rest of the back line, but his quick rehab from an injury similar to the one that cost him months last fall saved the day for the Battery, who had no center backs left after Shawn Ferguson‘s red card suspension. As late as Tuesday Anhaeuser considered him questionable, if not doubtful. But there he was on Saturday, right when his teammates needed him.
After the match I asked Mueller when he first thought he might be able to make it back for this match.
“About five days after I injured it against Wilmington here,” he said. “Every day was gradual. Every single day. And then I started knocking balls, curling them in, whipping them a little bit harder. That’s when I started actually knowing that my knee would be better. Last year it was really bad. It was about three months out. So it sucked, but this year was much better.”
Here’s one thing we know about midfielder Aminu Abdallah: When it comes to shooting, the man is not shy. Abdallah subbed in for Lewis in the 76th minute, and quickly made his presence known by reading perfectly an otherwise mundane Riverhounds pass near the midstripe. Abdallah burst on it and almost immediately unleashed an ambitious strike. From probably more than 40 yards out. It didn’t come anywhere close to goal, but it left a vapor trail.
After the match during the fireworks display I congratulated him on a brilliant steal and asked him whether he was passing or shooting.
“I was shooting,” he said. But the thing that quote doesn’t convey was the smile on his face when he said it. “Mischievous” might be a good description.
Abdallah hasn’t connected from long range yet, but like Quinton Griffith, he’s one of those players whose range and power makes him a threat from almost anywhere. One of these days one of those guys is going to score from out there, and it’s going to break the Internet.
SHORT ROTATION: Saturday marked the first game this season in which Anhaeuser used fewer than three substitutes. Abdallah and Adam Mena saw time, but Maikel Chang, Michael Kafari, Justin Portillo, Dante Marini and Eric Shannon did not. Mamadou Diouf wasn’t even on the 18.
That could be partially due to the team needing defense in the second half and not having any defenders (beyond midfielder/defender Kafari, who is still waiting for his first Battery minute) on the bench. It might also have something to do with Wednesday and Saturday games against Orlando’s U-23s (Open Cup) and first-team (regular season).
So while the Battery can’t afford to take the PDL’s U-23 Lions lightly if the club wants to host the Portland Timbers in June, Anhaeuser will have to manage his roster for the midweek game to give him the best chance down in Florida next weekend. That might mean building Wednesday’s attack around the suspended Kelly, since he’s suspended for the weekend anyway, and looking for midfielders to drop back into fullback spots in order to keep the regulars fresh.
Of course, if fullback help arrives, that would be nice, too.
SAVAGE START: Currently unsigned Battery forward Austin Savage went 70 minutes in Irmo Friday night in the opener for his new PDL club, Palmetto Bantams FC. Savage served as the lone striker, had his best chance of the night saved by the keeper for the West Virginia Chaos, and took a seat when the Bantams’ keeper picked up a red card.
S.C. United purchased the Bantams this offseason, moving the PDL franchise from Greenwood to Columbia. The Battery and the Bantams have been working to build closer ties, and Savage trained with the Battery up until last week. Anhaeuser hopes that playing a year of PDL ball will help Savage progress faster than he would if he spent the year as a substitute in USL PRO.
TOP IMAGE: The Battery huddle lasted a little longer than usual Saturday, because Captain Colin Falvey had a lot to say. His “Do whatever it takes to win tonight” message took root, and the 1-0 result was a true “team win.” Dan Conover photos.