Game wrap, Part 1: Luck, and awards…

Game wrap, Part 1: Luck, and awards…

So I don’t know if it came through in last night’s game coverage, but I was irrationally anxious about last night’s match. And with the soggy field and the inclement weather, that anxiety just got worse as the first half wore on.

Dane Kelly had a chance. Jose Cuevas had two. And Amadou Sanyang, bless his heart, caught the same yip-bug, whiffing from short range on a shot that will pester him in his quiet moments for days to come, poor guy.

And so there I was in the 33rd minute, after two implausible endings to two rapid-fire Battery threats, wondering if the players were feeling the same irrational anxiety I was. Thinking that the only thing that snaps you out of that sense of feeling cursed is a lucky break, a big finish, some tangible sign that things are going to be OK.

cloverAnd then — boom! An own-goal by Antigua… and not just any own goal, either. An own-goal from some distance. A freaky bounce to an impossible spot.

Just a bit of luck. How it changes everything.

Every professional athlete oF any seriousness works his or her ass off to get better. The job requires a willingness to accept routine discomfort and fatigue at a level most of us couldn’t sustain for a few minutes, and it’s all directed at being good. But here’s the deep irony: At some level, good is no match for lucky.

So if you want to get faster you can run, and if you want to get stronger you can lift. But how do you improve your luck? I’m not sure, but one way is to appreciate the luck that comes your way. And maybe it was just a little thing, that own-goal by the worst team in the league in the 33rd minute of a game that reason favored the Battery to win. But by Gawd it didn’t feel that way at the time.

From that moment on, I felt like the win was fated. And maybe the players did, too. They looked looser to start the second half, and Lady Luck seemed to reward them for it. Neither of Kelly’s second-half goals were that spectacular, but damn if they weren’t extremely difficult technical finishes that found their way through a dense thicket of opposing boots, any one of which could have knocked them aside.

Coach Mike Anhaueser said that he, too, felt that irrational anxiety before the game, and worried as the missed opportunities mounted. “Yeah, we had chances,” he said, “It felt like one of those games where we’re not going to get one, and then they come back and we make one mistake and they get it. But it didn’t happen. We got the goal, even though it was an own-goal, and we knew we would get more chances in the second half.”

The Battery need a little more luck to finish out what has been a memorable defense of the 2012 Championship. With 45 points in their league account, the first-round home game they desire depends on a win by Dayton over Harrisburg on Saturday or a loss by Charlotte at Tampa tonight or tomorrow at Orlando. So you could say that’s a luck test, too.

Samuel Goldwyn

Samuel Goldwyn

Legendary film producer and studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I’ve always agreed, but as I get older I actually find this Goldwyn quote on the subject to be far more instructive:

I think luck is the sense to recognize an opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it. The man who can smile at his breaks and grab his chances gets on.

So with that though in mind, on to the playoffs!

Player awards

Thursday’s halftime featured the club’s player awards, determined by online fan voting, and each was well deserved.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Colin Falvey

Colin Falvey

Colin Falvey

Though the Battery routinely suit up quality defenders, was there ever any doubt about who would win this award? From what I’ve seen this season, Falvey would have to be a front-runner for league Defender of the Year, and should figure in any 2013 All-League Team. Leading an experienced and cohesive four-man back line — in front of a rookie goalkeeper — Falvey was a big reason why the Battery fought their way to nine league shutouts and two in the U.S. Open Cup, including a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on May 28.

Several other players — particularly Falvey’s regular partner in central defense, Cody Ellison — enjoyed good years. But if you think back on the most spectacular defensive plays of the year, most of them feature Falvey. And if you ask his teammates, they’ll tell you. Falvey is special. Back in May, after I observed out loud that the Battery didn’t seem to be winning as many aerial duels of late, Zach Prince politely disagreed, and suggested that several players were better in the air than they get credit for. After running down the list, Prince laughed and concluded that “And of course Colin plays like he’s 6-10.”

He does indeed.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Odisnel Cooper

Odisnel Cooper

Odisnel Cooper

There’s absolutely no more critical position on a soccer team, and no other player group faces the intense mental pressures that keepers do. When you bear those thoughts in mind, you really appreciate not only what Odisnel Cooper has contributed to the 2013 Battery, but also how improbable it all is.

Every first-year professional faces difficulties. But Cooper — a former keeper for the Cuban international team — began 2013 as an impoverished political refugee, cut off from his family, without functional language skills. Sports media was interested in him and his Cuban teammates Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang, but those were human-interest stories, not articles about their achievements.

In the early days of training, Cooper didn’t even look to be a lock to make the roster. Kevin Klasila, the Battery’s 2012 Opening Day starter, opened camp with a starter’s command and demeanor, and the team cycled short-term trialists through training sessions. But when Cooper finally got his chance on Feb. 23, he turned in the most dramatic single performance of the year. Facing the Houston Dynamo’s A-Team, Cooper turned away shot after shot, including a save on a penalty kick, and led the team to a 2-1 victory. MLS took notice, and the Battery’s competition for the starting keeper job got tight. By all indications, the ultimate decision to hand the gloves to Cooper in April was an extremely close call for Coach Anhaeuser.

Cooper was never the most communicative of keepers. And there were some tense moments along the way — like the Battery’s only home loss of the year on May 31. But the 21-year-old keeper stayed focused on his job, learned from his mistakes, and turned in a solid rookie season, compiling an 11-6-5 league record, with seven clean sheets and a 1.09 goals-against average. Figure in the U.S. Open Cup and the Carolina Challenge Cup and his record across all competitions climbs to 13-7-5, with eight shut outs.

This is probably the toughest of the team awards to select. Quinton Griffith has world-class speed on the wing. Emmanuel Adjetey has turned into a force on defense despite a relatively late start with the Battery. And it’s hard to argue with Cordoves’ seven goals.

But realistically, who could have deserved it more? Professional goalkeepers mature over a longer curve than outfield players, but Cooper’s career is off to a great start.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dane Kelly

Dane Kelly

Dane Kelly

Though there were periods when his stats didn’t reflect it, Kelly entered Battery camp as the most improved Battery attacker, and his ability to stretch defenses with speed, strength and relentless fitness has defined the team’s 2013 offense.

Not only did Kelly lead the team in goals with 11, he also led the team in shots with 64. The next closest competitor — Nicki Paterson — shot 19 fewer times than Kelly. And the Jamaican compiled those stats while missing three games entirely.

How important is Kelly to the Battery offense? In the three games he missed, the Battery went 0-1-2, and scored just twice. Take out the Battery’s home-0pening 4-0 win against Antigua (in which Kelly scored), and the Battery managed just one goal in the three other matches where Kelly figured only as a late substitute.

It’s also worth noting that eight of Kelly’s 11 goals and both his assists have come since mid-season. He has eight goals in the last 11 matches, and you can’t talk about the Battery’s late-season offensive resurgence without talking about the maturing star.

Like Falvey’s defensive award, there were few competitors for the offensive honor. True, only some stellar goalkeeping kept Nicki Paterson from padding his stats in the early going, and the Scot led the team in scoring for most of the season. On the other hand, several of those goals came off penalty kicks, and the midfielder’s attacking mojo has faded recently. Cordoves’ late-game heroics as a super-sub earned him seven goals and a mention here, and Jose Cuevas has been recovering his touch as the season wears on.

But in the end, it boils down to this: With Kelly, the Battery are constantly a threat to score. Without him, they don’t average a goal a game.

DAVID VAUGHN MEMORIAL AWARD: Mike Azira

Michael Azira

Michael Azira

By late March it was clear that midfielder Mike Azira would wind up being a major contributor to the 2013 Battery. But where?

Coach Anhaeuser tried him all around the midfield in preaseaon, and even gave him a run as a fullback.  Wherever the Battery put him, Azira turned in a day’s work.

Ultimately, it took a March injury to  defensive midfield starter Sanyang to secure a regular role for Azira in the season-opener at Richmond. Twenty-six games later, Azira stands out as the “team-player” foundation of the Battery’s success, appearing in each of the unit’s 26 league matches. Only Falvey can make the same claim.

Last year, teammates considered Azira unselfish to a fault, and he didn’t open his professional scoring account until the championship match. This year, Azira finished in a tie for fifth on the team in shots. He was remarkably efficient, too, scoring once in every 5.4 attempts — the best rate among all Battery players with more than two league goals this season. He was never a dirty player, but he was no longer shy, either.

The Vaughn award honors commitment, loyalty and toughness. Azira — in his personality and play — is a far cry from the stereotypical “hard man” of Old School futbol. But his steady, no-drama presence in the center of the pitch has been the pivot on which the Battery turned.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Colin Falvey

Colin Falvey, photo by Kim Morgan Gregory.

Colin Falvey, photo by Kim Morgan Gregory.

Was this ever a surprise? Where do you begin to talk about Falvey’s importance to this team?

He leads the team in minutes played. He hasn’t missed a league match.

He hasn’t missed a start.

Stop and think about that. With their league schedule and deep cup run, the Battery went through some absurdly difficult stretches in 2013, including multiple games played on less than 24 hours rest. And Falvey answered the bell for every round.

But if there’s one game that might stand for everything Falvey has been for the Battery, it’s Charleston’s 1-0 Open Cup upset of the San Jose Earthquakes on May 28th.

In the 18th minute,  Falvey raced back to make a spectacular kick-save off the line, denying MLS veteran forward Mike Fucito. In the 52nd minute, his teammates covered for a rare Falvey mistake when he gambled on a challenge. It appeared to sharpen his focus.

In the 70th minute, a disciplined, structured Battery defense utterly stymied San Jose on a prolonged attacking possession, and the senior team began to press in frustration. Three minutes later, a beautiful free kick by Cuevas found Falvey in a dangerous spot, and the captain slotted in the game’s only goal.

The stands erupted in joy, and from there on, the Battery held off the Supporters Shield winners.

“I’m not quite sure who was in front of me,” Falvey said of the goal afterward. “I stole half a yard on, I think it’s the boy (Steven) Lenhart. There was great whip and great pace on the ball. All I had to do was help it on its way. I got a nice little touch on it and was delighted to see it fly into the top corner. To be fair, Jose put in some great balls, right down the keeper’s neck, hard to deal with.

“Forget about the goal. These boys tonight were absolutely magnificent defensively. The last 10 minutes they were throwing everything at us, they were throwing bodies, they were throwing the kitchen sink, and we answered everything. I’m absolutely over the moon for them.”

Fans love that kind of play — just look for the “Falvey’s Army” T-shirts in the stands. But so do his teammates.

Falvey poses for a pregame photo with honorary captain Jax Gregory before the Richmond match on Aug. 3.

Falvey poses for a pregame photo with honorary captain Jax Gregory before the Richmond match on Aug. 3.

“Colin’s the heart and soul of this team, pretty much,” Paterson said back in preseason when I interviewed him for a profile of his friend and captain. “He’s a great laugh around the locker room, but he’s very good at knowing when to turn the laughing off and put the seriousness on. He’s the guy that leads by example on the field. He’s the true captain, leader of this team, and just by his blocks in the Carolina Cup or – doesn’t matter if it’s the Carolina Cup, championship game, practice – he throws his body on the line better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Falvey got a chance to start a reserve match for Vancouver last month, played the full 90, and impressed the technical staff. At 28, he’s established himself as one of the smartest, most durable, most competitive defenders in North American soccer, leading the Battery to a 4-3-0 record in all competitions against MLS opponents. His Irish citizenship and lack of a Green Card works against him in MLS, but if any defender in lower-league soccer has proven their top-league quality this season, it’s Falvey.

With the playoffs a week away, Falvey will be playing for his third championship with the Battery. And you don’t have to ask whether that means something to the young man from Cork.

UP NEXT: More from the Battery’s final regular season match, along with news from the relevant other games.