Welcome back to the second season of Game Wrap, our overly obsessive, overly long look at the most recent Battery match. If it’s on our minds and in my notebook, chances are I’ll talk about it here sooner or later.
First off, a big thank-you to everyone who stopped me yesterday to talk about the site. It was a nice boost for my morale.
I can’t help but think that Saturday was an important day for the club, and not just on the field. The Carolina Challenge Cup is the first event of its kind in North American soccer, and one of the jewels in the Battery’s crown. But for the past two years (at least), unseasonably awful weather rolled in during the week of the the tournament and basically wiped out everything the club had invested in using the event to build regular-season attendance.
Yesterday, everything cooperated. The weather, the soccer, the energy buzzing around the stadium. Hell, we’re talking about a Battery event that required overflow parking, which meant the staff had to rent electric carts to shuttle fans back and forth from Benefit Focus. That’s the kind of problem you don’t mind seeing at your local club.
But here’s the part that gets lost in discussions of attendance. Because the Battery had a big sellout match last summer (many of the seats were given away as part of a promotion), and several people commented to me before the match that a crowd like this could be exactly the kind of thing that converted casual fans to loyal supporters.
And the game started, the visitors bunkered, the audience stopped playing attention, and that was that.
Not so Saturday.
We sat next to some twentysomethings attending their first Battery match in a section where people don’t typically stand for matches, and in the waning minutes of Charleston’s 1-2 loss to Seattle, people all around us were spontaneously jumping to their feet with each attack. This is a preseason match we’re talking about, and people were seriously into it. And when it was over, the guys next to us said they’d be coming back for more, and asked if we could score them a discount on some jerseys.
The first challenge is getting them through the gate, but then you’ve got to give them a quality show. And the Battery delivered this weekend.
Moving the Supporters’ Section from E-10 to E-1. Win. Coordinating with the American Outlaws? Win. Getting rid of the Zach Brown Musical Minute? Thank you.
And it’s also telling that the staff seemed prepared for success, instead of surprised by it. The rented carts and the social media parking advisories were a good sign. So was the decision to open a room under the East Stands and convert it to a pro shop. There were beer vendors in the stands and while there were plenty of lines around the concessions, there were enough options to disperse them.
Not that everything went smoothly. The new people checking tickets at the gate weren’t giving out gameday programs, and the only one I saw all night was one a friend got his hands on about an hour before the first match. The YouTube livestream worked at first, then failed in the second half of the Battery-Sounders match, and the file isn’t reachable yet today.
So there’s no guarantee that this one game will boost the club’s fortunes in 2014. But it’s a great start.
THE GAME ITSELF
In case you missed it, the Sounders beat the Battery 2-1 on a Brad Evans penalty kick in the 89th minute, and the game was every bit as evenly matched as that description suggests.
Seattle often dominates the center of the field, and with big-name strikers in Designated Player Obafemi Martins and the always fun-to-watch Kenny Cooper, they have the talent to strike early and often. But nobody dominated anybody in this match, and it was Charleston in the hunt during the final half hour, not Seattle.
Plus, let’s be clear about motivation. While every MLS match is a big game for the Battey, Seattle rolled out a lineup made up almost entirely of Best XI players (DeAndre Yedlin sat out with a medical, and I’m not entirely sold on 41-year-old Marcus Hehnemann as their opening day starter, but he sure looks like the Sounders best option at the moment).
True, Martins spent much of the night looking like he’d rather be taking a nap back at the hotel, but as a team, Seattle played quality soccer and gave respectable effort all night. They kept most of their starters in for the full 90, and — like Charleston — treated the match like a competitive preseason contest. Both coaches experimented with reserves in the second half who might not be around on opening day.
It wasn’t a great performance for Charleston, but if you’re grading on the preseason curve (and I am), then you had to feel good about almost everything you saw. The only concern out there is the lack of scoring punch, but we are so early in the season that I’d be a fool to make too much of it.
THE VIEW FROM SEATTLE
It’s no surprise that the fans watching from the Emerald City saw things differently.
This observations column from Sounder at Heart is a good description of the match from a Seattle perspective, but I have to disagree with the idea that the Battery “bunkered” on Saturday. Charleston ran the the same 4-5-1 scheme that we saw through most of 2013, and if anything, the Battery pressured higher up the pitch than usual.
High pressure is the opposite of bunkering. High pressure offers advantages to teams that can force turnovers, but it gives your opponent space behind your midfielders if you fail. You bunker in your final third when you’re convinced you can’t win an open game. You press when you think you can win the ball and sting your opponent on the counter.
And rather than play for the 1-1 draw, the Battery opened the game up even more in the final 30 minutes.
Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser is the kind of competitor who is typically a lot more fun to interview after wins. That wasn’t the case Saturday.
CHS: What were the good things from tonight’s match?
MA: The game. You look at the team you’re playing against, and go down 1-0, with the quality they have on the field? Our guys really handled themselves very well for the first game.
I mean, really — you get a questionable decision down there at the end (the penalty kick), and we walk away (1-1). We had two or three little chances down here at the end to catch them.
I’m very impressed, but (you) don’t want to lose sight of (the context), you know what I mean? Because you could tell maybe (the Sounders) weren’t flying the same way. But I think our guys had a lot of composure on the ball. We moved it. We played with a lot of confidence. Completely different than Wednesday night (a pedestrian 1-1 draw against Coastal Carolina).
These guys came out and were getting after it. And a couple of new guys came in at the end and did very well.
CHS: People in the stands around me were clearly energized by their first glimpse of Dante Marini.
MA: You look at him, and he’s up against Brad Evans, a national team right back, and he’s not scared to take a guy one-v-one. That’s what we like about him. He really set himself up well.
Justin Portillo did well, Drew (Ruggles) went in the back and handled himself. And our two goalkeepers, I thought they both did very well.
So you’ve really got to say, a great first game. You’ve got to commend the guys on that one, because I was a little nervous that their legs could still be heavy. But they played great, and with a lot of confidence. All the guys.
CHS: What difference did it make to have Mike Azira in there?
MA: You put (Mike Azira) in the middle, and he able to kinda control the flow of the game. Amadou went out and you put him at defensive mid and you don’t miss a beat. But he’s the type of guy who gets forward, and who plays balls forward too. So he’s able to help us defensively, but also offensively, too. So he’s a catalyst for the middle of the field, and that’s very important. And he gets on very well with Amadou and Jarad in there, because they have a good feeling for each other.
In the first chaotic moments after full-time, I got close enough to the Battery skipper to know that he was mad as a hen in a sprinkler. Mad enough I figured I’d give him a few minutes. By the time we spoke, he was back to normal, and sounding quite proud of the Battery’s performance.
Falvey had plenty to feel good about. Once again, he stepped up and made huge plays on a stage with lots of MLS eyes following him, scoring the Battery’s only goal, leading an effective defense, and making stop after individual stop.
CHS: What was your yellow card for?
CHS: What were you told your yellow card was for?
CF: Me and, I think it was Kenny Cooper, a little bit of verbals a couple of minutes before. And I knew he was giving a free kick for the first one, so I was trying to be sneaky, wasn’t I, and just trying to get a sneaky little nudge on him. And yeah, it was a yellow card, wasn’t it?
But sometimes you’ve got to stamp your authority. And I think he went away for 10 minutes after that. Which kinda helped a little bit. But just in case he didn’t give the full, I think he’d had a couple of yards on me, he was already on the move, so just a smart decision really.
CHS: I know you were fired up right after the game ended, but how did the team do?
CF: Really, really, really well, to be honest. I think our shape was really good. The only thing I’ll say is, shape-wise, beforehand, I was a little bit worried. But looking at it now? Most of the boys have been here, so I probably shouldn’t have been so concerned about shape.
But as for ball movement and ball retention, and even off-the-ball movement, I thought it was fantastic for a team that’s two, three weeks behind them in terms of preseason fitness and match fitness. No disrespect to the college teams but (this) level is a lot quicker.
It’s great, though. That’s going to stand us good stead. We’ll take a lot of positives out of that. And again, it’s just another solid performance from our lot against another MLS side.
CHS: Walk me through your goal.
CF: It was a wide free kick. We were rotating going in the box because obviously, people’s legs and stuff, it’s early in preseason. We don’t want to be too silly, too many 60-yard runs up and down. So we were rotating, and I think it was my first time going up.
I’m not even sure who took it. Maybe Zach, was it? Someone took the wide free kick, it was whipped in. It was one of them ones that was in-between heights, and I think it was Jarad and one of their players, and it was like a richocet. It’s come off one to the other, and as soon as the ball was coming in I knew it was in-between heights and I knew the ball could go anywhere.
So I just took a little gamble going one side behind the two of them, and the ball luckily spat out to me, and I was first on the scene. And all I was thinking the whole time was, get good, firm contact from that range, try to get it in the roof of the net so the keeper can’t get near it. And very, very glad to see it fly into the top corner.
Especially after Ozzie’s goal. You have to hold up your hand there. There’s not much you can do with that. Beautiful shot.
The great thing for us was the reaction, you know? Most team that I’ve seen, MLS teams, fold when they go one-nil down agaisnt Seattle. We were disciplined. We kept our shape. We didn’t rush things. We knew set pieces were going to be important to us, because I don’t care where you are, whether you’re playing in an English Premier side, a set piece is a 50-50 chance.
So we played percentages tonight.
I have to give the gaffer (Anhaeuser) credit. He watched them a few times in preseason and they like to pass and they like to play little square balls, and balls in front of the back four, where Ozzie tries to dictate the play. So we were well-prepared tonight.
We tried a little something different. We tried to get high pressure, get in their face, and when we overturned it, we tried to get them turned, because we knew probably that was one of their weaknesses, trying to in behind, especially with Dane’s pace.
CHS: Which way did you think the tide of the match was flowing in the second half?
CF: Yeah, to be honest, their two goals, they didn’t really trouble us. Alonso’s goal (off a deflected pass) was a hell of a strike. And the second one is a PK. They really haven’t broken us down.That’s what we’re going to look at when we go in, when we analyze the game.
We missed the one-on-one (in the 76th minute, when Hahnemann broke up Marini’s attack at the last possible moment). Honestly, I’m not (going to) comment on the half-a-sniff at a penalty (in the 81st minute, when Marini went to ground after contact in the penalty area). I was too far away to see it, so I’m not going to say it was. But what I’m saying is, that’s another one we created.
CHS: If the contact on Marini wasn’t a penalty, why was the contact at your end a few minutes later a PK?
CF: I’ll be honest. That was a PK. I was close. I’m not sure who it was, but it was two young boys, two of the trialists, there was a coming together, and I think it was a tired tackle. There was no need for it. I’m pretty sure they’ll address that inside. I’ll obviously address that as well, but I’m sure coach will.
But we won’t be too hard on trialists. That’s one of them things. But it’s silly, because we worked so hard, kept our shape. We deserved the result. I think the fans deserved the result.
I’m one of the people who paid a lot of attention to the Mike Azira angle before and after this match. It’s a pretty obvious one — the Battery’s most improved player from 2013 comes to town while on trial with an MLS team and then plays against that MLS team at a position that puts him mano-a-mano with former Battery star Osvaldo Alonso, the best ball-winning defensive mid in the big league. Kinda hard to ignore that.
But reflecting on it, what I should have emphasized was the three-man crew at the center of the Battery’s 4-5-1. Jarad van Schaik was another breakout player from last year, and if anything he’s only improved since then. Amadou Sanyang had a disappointing 2013 because of injuries, but he returned to the starting lineup late in the campaign and sparked the team’s late surge.
Last year’s central triangle often featured Nicki Paterson or Jose Cuevas, and occasionally included both of them. This year’s trio isn’t quite so attack-minded, but in their only work together as a trio so far this preseason, the van Schaik/Sanyang/Ariza combo fought Seattle’s big-money midfield to a draw.
It’s not clear whether Azira will ever play another game in Battey stripes, and the team certainly needs an infusion of attacking verve. But so long as Sanyang and van Schaik are on the field, I’m officially not worried about central midfield.
THE STRIKER ISSUE
That said, here’s a worrisome fact. The Battery has only scored three goals in three preseason matches. Van Schaik (who is clearly getting forward a bit more than he did in 2013) got the first. Falvey got the last. And the Battery’s only score in the 1-1 draw against Coastal Carolina came off a beautiful individual play by trialist Miguel Teos — an exciting player who is no lock to make the 2014 roster.
Dane Kelly is a remarkable player if only because of his ability to make run after run with centerbacks hanging all over him, but he isn’t finishing chances yet this preseason. Without Paterson or Cuevas to shoulder the scoring load in midfield, that could put pressure on Kelly — the team’s leading scoring last year — to pick up even more of the responsibility.
So I was all geared up to see Heviel Cordoves on Saturday. As a rookie, Corodoves scored seven goals, mostly in relief, and spent the offseason in Kansas with fellow Cuban Battery man Maikel Chang playing for the the expansion Wichita B-52s of the Professional Arena Soccer League. He managed 10 goals in 16 appearances in the Midwest, and returned to Charleston on Wednesday looking fit and speaking much-improved English.
Anyway, I keep talking about them here, but the truth is, we really won’t know how they’ve progressed until we see what they can do. But Anhaeuser elected to sub-in second-year forward Austin Savage for Kelly instead of Cordoves, and Chang stayed on the bench as well. So the wait continues.
THE BACK LINE
True, the loss of Nicki Paterson and Jose Cuevas is a setback for the Battery attacking crew, but the team also lost half its starters from 2013’s routinely excellent four-man back line.
Centerback Cody Ellison‘s burly style freed Falvey to freelance within the flow of the game. Like Cuevas, he was last seen playing for the Fresno Fuego of PDL and looking for a new pro club. Right back Mark Wiltse returned from injury to win back his starting job and turned in a good season. He retired when a good professional sales job came his way. And with Anhaeuser likely to deploy 36-year-old veteran John Wilson sparingly, rather than grind him down with a series of 90-minute starts, depth at left back isn’t just a luxury.
So one of the good news stories Saturday was the play of versatile defenders Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson. Mueller went the full 90 at centerback, while Ferguson — the largest man on the team, and also the fittest — gave way at half so Anhaeuser could get a look at centerback prospect Nurdin Hrustic.
Mueller was a regular contributor off the bench and a sometimes starter at centerback and full back last season. As an established veteran just entering his soccer prime, 2014 could be a big year for him. He looks faster, stronger and more assertive in this year’s camp, and didn’t back down one bit from Seattle’s big players, dogging Kenny Cooper whenever he came close, even tag-teaming him out-of-bounds once with the help of the increasingly scrappy Mike Azira (“Gentle giant, man,” said Mueller of Cooper. “He’s like the nicest guy ever.”)
Ferguson’s progress has been one of the topics in this camp, since he possesses rare physical tools. But he and fellow rookie Austin Savage were also the least-used players in Anhaeuser’s 2013 rotation, and the 6-4 defender wasn’t even able to train with the team full-time until after graduation from College of Charleston. So experience is big question mark.
On Saturday night, both his coach and his captain mentioned him as someone who played well.
“He’s come on a lot,” Falvey said. “He’s definitely developing.
“It’s good, you know — obviously I’m not the biggest — so it’s good to have someone like that alongside you. I can leave them majority of the time to go deal with that, and I can go sweep or get in front. So it works well.”
THE NEW GUYS
Some clubs call them “unsigned players,” others “trialists.” But in Charleston, they’re always “the new guys.”
One of them got a start on Saturday. Andy Ramos, whose friendship with Battery starter Odisnel Cooper dates back to their childhoods in Cuba, went 45 minutes against the Sounders. It’s a testament to the Battery’s defensive organization that he didn’t get more work. Ramos gave up Alonso’s volley, and otherwise was up to whatever the visitors sent his way.
Eric Shannon, a goalkeeper out of the University of California Bakersfield who played professionally last season for Antigua GFC of the Guatemalan First Division, replaced Ramos in the second half. And as the game opened up down the stretch, Shannon found himself having having to work to keep Seattle off the board.
In the 63rd minute, Seattle sprung Cooper on an attack that left him with only Shannon to beat. Isolated against a veteran forward who has scored 88 goals at the professional and international level since 2006, the backup keeper made what probably counts as the second-best play of the night. From my perspective in the stands, it looked like he dove left and plucked Cooper’s shot out of the air at short range.
“There was a ball out right that got played through, and I think it was Kenny Cooper that was coming on to it,” Shannon said afterward. “I took a couple of steps out, thought about coming out to it, and decided he was going to get to it before me. So I stopped and got set, and he touched it and took a shot to the left and I got down low to the ball and got a hand to it. It was my first save, and I needed to get that in and calm my nerves a bit.”
The other new guys who got in the game on defense were Nurdin Hrustic, a big Bosnian centerback out of Jacksonville, Fla., who replaced Shawn Ferguson at half, and Drew Ruggles, a Georgia Southern prospect who subbed on for John Wilson (with Quinton Griffith rotating into left back from midfield to allow Ruggles to play at right back). Both Anhaeuser and Falvey had good things to say about their performance, though Falvey pointed out that the 89th-minute penalty kick came off contact with one or both of them.
But the new guy most of the fans probably noticed was 5-3 midfielder Dante Marini. He came within inches of putting the Battery ahead — twice — sent a nice cross into the box, and generally energized the team and the stadium after replacing Zach Prince in the 66th minute.
Unfortunately, it’s preseason for me, too, and because of user error with an audio recorder, I don’t have any Marini quotes to share. But I can tell you that I asked him about his style of play, and he talked about injecting energy into the game, generating chances and scoring goals.
With a batch of Vancouver players set to arrive soon, it’s not clear to me that any unsigned player on this roster is a lock to make the 2014 roster. But the 21-year-old Marini — who played for Northeastern University in the Colonial Athletic Association, where he was an All-Conference selection last fall — is certainly making a strong case for himself.
SPEAKING OF VANCOUVER
If you’ve been following our Twitter exchanges with the soccer bloggers up in British Columbia, you know that Emmanuel Adjetey has been something of an offseason mystery. Despite being the most productive of the Vancouver loaned players last season in Charleston, our contacts up North said he’d been missing from Whitecaps training. That led to speculation that the fullback/outside midfielder might be available through other means.
Well, his name showed up on the Battery’s game-day program Saturday. But Adjetey wasn’t in the building.
“We’re waiting,” Anhaeuser said. “That’s a Vancouver decision. Obviously we thought he was coming in, we thought he would be here with us, but he isn’t right now. So he’s just one of the players that is in with their mix, and we’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t know what’s happening exactly. I really don’t know.”
Charleston staff initially thought we’d have our first loanees last Tuesday, a date that got pushed back to Thursday. When I checked on Thursday, it had been pushed back again to early this week.
The general expectation since the affiliation, based on the terms of the MLS/USL PRO agreement, is that the Battery will get a minimum of four players off the Whitecaps MLS roster. And maybe Adjetey is in the mix somehow.
But on Friday, the Whitecaps mentioned two players they’re sending our way, without actually announcing anything.
The first one is Jackson Farmer, an 18-year-old member of the Whitecaps Residency Program. He is a 6-2 centerback from Alberta who captained the Whitecaps’ U-18s, played sparingly with the Whitecaps Reserves, and earned an international call-up to camp with Canada’s senior international team in September. He was named to the Whitecaps preseason roster, and the team describes him as “dependable,” and “one of the club’s brightest up-and-coming prospects.”
The second is Honduran midfielder Marlon Ramirez. His age is an open question at this moment. When he was acquired by loan from C.D.S. Vida in Honduras in May, press reports listed him as 22. But when the Caps listed him on its preseason roster in January, it listed him as 19. Unlike Farmer, Ramirez doesn’t have a profile on the Whitecaps website. Not one that I’ve been able to find, anyway.
So are those three of the four? Or are there more en route? And will any of them come off the Whitecaps’ MLS Roster?
So I’ll admit, last night’s officiating stressed me out. At first.
I don’t know anything about the head official or his crew, but from what I overheard in the first half, the tone of the communication started snippy and went downhill. The official established a “no-sass” tone early, holding up play when Battery midfield Zach Prince walked away from a call with some kind of comment, and from the stands he appeared to be aggressive in policing anything that looked like dissent.
So when the Battery got four yellow cards to Seattle’s one, and contact in Seattle’s penalty box in the 81st minute went unpunished, but contact on the edge of Charleston’s box went to a game-deciding penalty kick in the 89th, the fan side of me was pretty much apoplectic.
I mean, who gives a yellow card to Mike Azira?
I’m not capable of critiquing the technical side of officiating, but since I know a lot of fans were angry about the calls, I thought I’d mention that — after talking to several players — I’m over it. If Colin Falvey thinks the decisive penalty kick call was the right call, I’m inclined to agree. And when he explained his yellow card as being deserved for contact on Cooper — which I completely missed — it makes me feel a lot better about a confrontation that appeared to be about Falvey getting on the official’s nerves.
Taylor Mueller, who picked up a yellow after contact with a player who got up and came after him, conceded that the takedown of Marini in the 81st minute was a “coulda called it, coulda not called it” kind of play. Truth is, even though I was mad about Seattle’s penalty kick (shades of the officiating that keyed RSL’s U.S. Open Cup comeback in Sandy, Utah, last year), I wouldn’t have called a penalty on that earlier play at Seattle’s end, either.
So no red for the official.
(MONDAY MORNING EDITOR’S NOTE: After poking around on Google Image Search, I’m able to report that the familiar-looking referee is Hilario Grajeda. And he’s the MLS Referee of the Year for 2013. — dc)
TOP IMAGE: Mike Azira of Charleston tries to run down the deceptively fast Kenny Cooper of Seattle. ROSS ALMERS photo. All other photos by Dan Conover.