So, quick quiz: How many matches did the Charleston Battery play in May?
Eight. Which makes this the busiest month of the 2014 season. And in that month, the Battery went 4-4-0 with a +7 goal differential (goals for, 13; goals against 6). The month began with the team’s first win and a six-point weekend road trip. It ping-ponged through a lose-win-lose-win middle, and then ended with a four-day, two-loss slump to two teams from Orlando.
So was May good or bad? Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
The glass is half full
The two 4-0 wins (away at Harrisburg, at home against Panama City Beach) prove that the team has the mojo it needs to run with anybody. Four clean sheets (three with Odisnel Cooper in goal) prove the Battery defense is still among the best in the league. Winning back-to-back on the road is a big deal. Only abysmal officiating separated the Wilmington losses from draws or victories. The Open Cup loss in a record-shattering shootout with the Orlando City SC U-23s was a heartbreaking anomaly that left the team depleted just days before its trip down to The Magic Kingdom. If this team had caught only the most minimal of breaks, Charleston comes out of May with a 5-0-3 record and a home date with the Portland Timbers this month.
The glass is half empty
That scoring outburst at the beginning of the month was the supernova of the Omar Salgado era, which ended immediately afterward. There are adult rec-league teams that could have beaten Panama City Beach’s skeleton squad in its first outing of 2014. Wilmington exposed a lack of toughness and experience on the Battery roster. Charleston let a bad Pittsburgh team hang around at Blackbaud. Losing to Orlando’s U-23s proved that the team has issues. Failing to convert on chances at Orlando this weekend proved that those issues haven’t gone away.
The cliches are annoying
The glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. It’s twice the size it needs to be. Duh.
Charleston’s veteran strengths are along the defense and in balanced positions in the midfield, so yeah, the Battery win with defense and hope the offense catches up. Trying to integrate an attacking crew borrowed from an MLS club isn’t as simple as some of us (me) had hoped it would be. Losing Salgado (and defender Jackson Farmer) to recalls was an issue — just like red cards and injuries are issues. Wilmington simply is tougher than Charleston right now — and sometimes the breaks and the calls aren’t evenly distributed. Sure, Pittsburgh was an ugly win, but didn’t we all want to see the Battery prove it could “win ugly” after two ugly wins by the Hammerheads?
Crashing out of the U.S. Open Cup like that was an anomaly with some truly freakish elements to it, but don’t think for a moment that its implications can be brushed away that easily. Charleston’s reserve starters in that match may not be any older than Orlando’s U-23s, but they were professionals playing at home against amateurs in a match that meant something. However things turn out this year, it’s not hype to say that the May 28th loss will loom large in the story of this team.
And what to make of Saturday’s loss? Well, how about these two observations?
1. Orlando is pretty damned good, whether we choose to acknowledge that as fans or not; and,
2. Just when I’m convinced that Mike Anhaeuser is an Old School guy who puts more emphasis on execution and preparation than tactical trickery, he springs a new look on the top team in USL PRO and gives the Lions a scare on their home turf. The Battery still needed a break — more accurately, “a break that results in a goal” — to snap their four-year winless streak at the Lions’ house, and it didn’t get one.
Final result aside, that was a legit professional performance Saturday by a Charleston team on short rest, coming off its most embarrassing loss in years.
Quick tactical history: In recent years, Anhaeuser’s Battery teams have employed some good forwards, but it’s probably fair to say that much of Charleston’s offensive firepower came from players who were either midfielders or attack-minded ‘tweeners: Nicki Paterson, Mike Azira, Jose Cuevas, Zach Prince, etc. And until 2014, it was common to see those players deployed in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation.
With a surplus of fit forwards to start the season, Anhaeuser began this year with a 4-4-2 base formation. Instead of a lone striker looking for support from wingers and midfielders, you got two actual forwards who could work together. Earlier this month that formation paid off with a six-goal weekend.
But here’s the dilemma Anhaeuser faced on Saturday: After the 120-minute midweek loss, he didn’t have two fresh-legged forwards.
In that context, one could argue that the 4-2-3-1 we saw at Orlando was just a personnel adaptation. But I suspect that might be wrong.
Orlando’s talent and Adrian Heath‘s tactics typically give the Lions control of the midfield. But Anhaeuser went down to Disney and almost got a result by using Amadou Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik as his deep holding midfield “two.” He moved right back Quinton Griffith to right midfield in the attacking three, let teenage rookie Andre Lewis live his dream as a Central Attacking Midfielder, and installed rookie Mamadou Diouf at the top as the hold-up striker.
It wasn’t a universally successful experiment. Lewis still tried to do too much, and eventually got frustrated. Diouf is a spry and springy target forward, but lacks the beef to swap sweat all night with a physical center back like Brad Rusin. But with Zach Prince and Griffith on the outside, this was a 4-2-3-1 that could defend and deny.
Still, if Diouf’s shot in the 54th minute bends in instead of clanging off the post… or if goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo doesn’t make a great diving save to deflect Griffith’s wicked free kick in the 61st… well, we might be having a different discussion today.
But here’s the bottom line: The Battery’s tactical adjustments worked for Charleston on Saturday, just like a different approach to challenging Orlando’s midfield dominance (a 3-5-2) produced a draw for Pittsburgh earlier this season. Tuck that thought away for September.
Mike Anaheuser postgame interview:
Coach Anhaeuser was in a talkative mood after the match.
We tried to play a little more. We knew we could find gaps in the middle of the field, with Andre and even with the shape we had. The thing was, we gave up the goal, but I’ll tell you — we played great down 1-0. And honestly, I don’t know how we didn’t get a goal.
If you look at the game, unfortunately, that’s kinda what’s been happening to us. Even in the middle of the week, we make a mistake for a free kick and they score a goal against the run of play.
We deserved to get a goal. OK, if we lose it 2-1, but just even for the guys’ confidence.
We got chances. Diouf got in there nice. I think they dragged him down. We had three free kicks that almost scored. The run of play, we were possessing it in their half.
We tried to do what they did, because we knew we could find the middle of the field with that extra player. They actually looked a little tired. So we thought we had them on their heels. If we could have gotten the goal, I think the game would have been different. I think they would have been under pressure, and who knows? Maybe we could have nicked another one.
We’ve got to regroup, but it’s a good thing. We played a great half. We played a team that’s in first place and probably is going to end there. And honestly, if you ask any fan probably leaving today, “Who was the better team in the second half?” That would be us.
But (we can’t) really worry about that. (We) didn’t pick up any points. We’ve got to take that into our hearts and know that we came out here, we played very well. And unfortunately, you know, we made that one little mistake that they burned us on, and (they) got the two. Because even if we could have made it 1-0, even missing those chances, you know, we come down here and we had those two free kicks, and maybe you scratch it and you get it 1-1. And that’s a fantastic result down here.
So the guys have got to hold their heads high. They played absolutely tremendous, especially after the mental … that’s difficult on Wednesday (losing in a 14-round shootout to a PDL team in the U.S. Open Cup)… it’s a painful thing. It’s very difficult for any player. A player who played, a player who didn’t play, coaches and everybody. And these guys came down here and I think we played a fantastic game.
That’s what I mean. We have to build off of that, and really go into the second half of the season and know that we can play with anybody. Which I know we can. It’s just a matter of them.
We’ve just got to make sure we can, maybe, not make that little (mistake). Even the first goal was miscommunication. Q was going to go for the header and it wasn’t that they really got it. They had a few chances, but so did we. So we were in the game the whole time. That’s what I mean. And they got one off where we didn’t go for a header. So it wasn’t like they really created 10 chances against us.
I think we out-shot them, especially in the second half (officially: Orlando 11 shots, Charleston 10, with the Battery out-shooting the Lions 7-2 in the second half — dc). Corner kicks, free kicks. In fairness to them, they probably dropped back a little and defended, but I’ll tell you — we had them on the ropes. But when we do, we’ve got to score that goal.
We just missed. If Diouf would have got the one, and we had the two shots on target that he saved… They had their two that they got in, but that’s normal. So it was an even-Steven game. We did exactly what we had to down here, and we could be right back down here to play again, and we know that. And that’s what we’ve got to talk about with them, and make sure, because we might end up playing them in the playoffs. Long way away, but something we’re shooting for.
NOTES: If you’re a fan of MLS or USMNT soccer, you know there was a great deal of misplaced optimism in the winter of 2012-13 when 6-3 wunderkind Brek Shea transferred from FC Dallas to Stoke City of the EPL. Despite essentially flopping with the Potters, Shea still figured in Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2013 Gold Cup roster, scoring twice (including the game-winner in the final) in that Cup-winning international campaign. But after missing the fall with another injury and getting recalled from a loan to Barnsley after just eight matches, Shea is stuck in a bad place. He needs to play, and Stoke will probably let him… so long as he’s playing for some team that’s willing to help with that $4.2 million transfer fee the Potters paid for the big blonde.
Anyway, Shea is in the middle of a 10-day training stint with Orlando, which will join MLS in 2015. That made him without a doubt the most recognizable face on the sidelines this weekend.
Other MLS teams have shown interest in the 24-year-old, and a transfer or a loan could get Shea back into action right away. You have to imagine that he’d prefer a comeback directly to the top level. But if Orlando were to sign him, is it possible that we could see a national team prospect making his return via USL PRO?
It feels unlikely on just a gut level. But here’s the thing you need to know about Orlando: Some of the fans at the tailgate are so taken with the club’s current level of talent that they believe that even if Shea signed this week, there’s no place for him in the Lions’ starting lineup. Personally, I think that’s horseshit, but there it is.
For what it’s worth, keep this in mind when you think about where Shea is likely to land: There are three lions on the current Orlando crest because of the club’s close relationship to English football — specifically to Stoke City and the Potters.
THREE CALL-UPS: How good are those Lions? Right after beating Charleston, the team announced that three of their players would be missing time on international duty. Attacking mid Kevin Molino — a good bet for this year’s USL PRO Golden Boot — returned to Trinidad and Tobago. Defender Tommy Redding, an Orlando homegrown player, is on the United States U-18 roster for the Junior Invitational Tournament in Portugal. And Darwin Ceren — who showed up in every other photo I took on Saturday — isn’t just on the roster for El Salvador, he’s also the team captain.
TOP IMAGE: Rookie midfielder Andre Lewis (left) and defensive-mid Jarad van Schaik cut down the angles for Orlando midfielder Darwin Ceren on Saturday. The Battery’s midfield effectively negated the Lions’ usual midfield dominance. Dan Conover photos.