Let’s get the most talked-about topic out of the way first. Saturday night’s Battery match at Wilmington wasn’t referee Larry Stroud Jr.‘s finest performance.
But before we talk about how the officiating affected the game — because I simply can’t tap-dance around the fact that it did — I want to make something as clear as I possibly can. Stroud is a decorated, well-respected official in North Carolina, and I’m not interested in suggesting otherwise. How do I know this? Because Stroud is the 2013 Ed Alston Outstanding Referee Award-winner, recognizing him as the best soccer official in the Triangle Referees’ Association. He’s also on the group’s board.
Did Stroud and his crew miss some important calls? I think there was general consensus that they did. And you’re going to read about some of those controversies below.
But then again, Colin Falvey is the reigning 2013 USL PRO Defender of the Year, the captain of the team, and a guy you’d be happy to have leading your defense every week. Yet it was Falvey who got caught too far up the field on the only goal of the night.
Point being: Even great players can make mistakes, and even the best referee is going to miss a few calls in a 90-minute game. You pull up your grown-up panties and play on.
Did the officiating crew mishandle the crucial moment of the game in the 68th minute, leading directly to the chaotic scene that stopped play until the 74th minute? That’s my opinion, and it’s shared by some soccer people I spoke to as well.
But all of that is secondary to these numbers: 14 and 1.
That’s 14 total fouls called on the night, and one yellow card. To put that in context, Saturday night was without a doubt the most physical, combative and occasionally confrontational match that Charleston has played in 2014, and yet the official scorer counted just 14 fouls. Here are the number of fouls called in all Charleston’s regular season games:
May 17: 0-1 at Wilmington. 14
May 10: 0-1 Wilmington, 25
May 4: 2-0 at Dayton, 22
May 2: 4-0 at Harrisburg, 15
April 27, 0-1 at Rochester, 11
April 26, 0-0 at Pittsburgh, 20
April 18, 1-1 Red Bulls, 24
April 12, 0-1 at Orlando, 19
March 29, 2-2 Richmond, 18
March 22, 1-1 Orlando, 21
Got it? The only match with fewer fouls was the 0-1 loss at Rochester — another instance of a local referee making a conscious decision to “let them play.” It’s no coincidence that the Rochester match was probably the most physical game of the year before Saturday night, either. And it certainly couldn’t be news to the officials in Upstate New York and coastal North Carolina that the Rhinos and Hammerheads are rock-’em-sock-’em Route One teams that prefer a physical style of play.
So let’s acknowledge that Charleston can play physical, too, and that the Battery gave as good as it got through much of the night. Let’s also acknowledge that the Wilmington defenders and midfielders are first-rate on defense. But having said all that, can there be any doubt that even without favoring one team over the other on fouls and yellow cards, the officials’ consistent hands-off approach handed an advantage to the home team? Charleston, after all, came out with its fullbacks bombing up the field, willing to risk an open game on the road to counter the home loss from the previous weekend.
Here’s what this lassiez-faire approach produced: 10-0-1.
That’s 10 shots on the night, zero combined saves for goalkeepers Odisnel Cooper, Quillan Roberts and Matt Glaeser, and one goal. Translation? According to the official scorer, nine of the 10 shots on the night weren’t on frame. And one reason the shots weren’t on target is that it’s hard to be accurate when you’ve got one guy holding you while the other guy kicks you.
Despite the fact that players from both teams repeatedly danced all over the line that separates clean contact from dangerous or overly aggressive play, the officials looked the other way. The only yellow of the night (against Wilmington) appeared to be given when a player interfered with a restart on a quick free kick. And after several questionable non-calls in the second half, it was obvious that the frustration on the field had become combustible. The detonation came in the 68th minute, and the handling of the resulting chaos will continue to harm the Battery in significant ways heading into Saturday’s home date with Pittsburgh.
Here’s hoping that USL PRO’s Discipline Committee takes a good look at tape this week and makes the right calls.
As uninspiring as back-to-back 0-1 losses to Wilmington certainly are, Charleston was a better team on the road than they were at home in this back-to-back series.
As I mentioned above, Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser came out and offered the Hammerheads a remarkably open game. He paired Heviel Cordoves and Mamadou Diouf as strike-partners in a 4-4-2 for only the second time this season, and appeared to give fullbacks John Wilson and Quinton Griffith the green light to work into the attack. The team moved the ball well in the first half, with Andre Lewis combining well with the two strikers while the fullbacks attempted to widen the Hammerheads’ bunker.
That occasionally left the Battery vulnerable to counterattack. Yet Falvey and Shawn Ferguson — the only healthy center backs left on the team — were stalwart. Until the 65th minute.
When I think about Wilmington, I think about defenders who don’t give an inch, and midfielders who win in the air — or at least bang it back to let their teammates win the second ball. And too often as the game wore down, the Battery put long passes into areas where the odds favored the home team.
The tape also confirms an impression I had on the sidelines: Charleston gave the ball away — even on short passes — far more than I’m used to seeing. Cooper wasn’t called upon often, but that just highlighted some occasionally mediocre distribution.
Some of those turnovers were the result of Wilmington keeping men behind the ball in position to slip into passing lanes. Later in the game there were turnovers that I attribute to exhaustion. But there were several that were just… I don’t know.
If you looked at the gallery from Sunday, you probably noticed a theme: Lots of photos of Wilmington players kicking Charleston players, playing the man and not the ball. Let me be the first to say that still photos from a soccer match can really tell a deceptive story. But these don’t.
See this photo of Shawn Ferguson? He’s lying on top of Wilmington forward Samuel Ochoa, a former Seattle Sounder. The reason he’s lying on top of Ochoa is the same reason his shirt is pulled up. It’s because Ochoa used Ferguson’s shirt like a handle all night long, pulling him this way and that. In this case he slung Ferguson to the ground, and mutual confrontation almost boiled over in the frames that follow this one (click on the picture to see it full size).
And that’s just a taste of the action.
As a group, referees have a great deal in common with cops and journalists. They catch a lot of shit for doing a job that looks easier than it is, have to put up with a bunch of trash talk from people who really ought to try exercising their Constitutional right to shut-the-hell-up, and typically respond to almost all external criticism by demanding that the world respect their authority. I know of which I speak. I used to be the guy you had to convince when you wanted a correction in the newspaper.
The refs on Saturday didn’t strike me as rude or particularly abrasive. But the more the Battery pointed out the crew’s mistakes — and trust me, when John Wilson gives you this look (see photo on the right), there’s a 99.99 percent your opinion is wrong — the less interested they seemed to be in getting things right. It was as if they were the only people at Legion Stadium who didn’t understand that they were losing control of the game, and rather than taking steps to defuse the situation, they were circling the wagons.
During the six-and-a-half-minute stoppage of play that followed Ferguson’s foul on Ochoa in the 68th minute, there were moments when I felt compassion for Stroud. He had that deer-in-the-headlights look that I recall from many of my worst public performances. Somehow his crew had missed the most critical call of the night (See “The Moment” below), then failed to witness all the action in the chaotic aftermath, and now something had to be done. But what?
A Battery player looked over at me in the midst of all this and said “He has absolutely no clue.” And I think that’s probably true. But a referee doesn’t have the luxury of replay and reflection. Stroud sorted things out as best he could. There was some rough parity in the red cards to Ferguson and Roberts, and the resulting 10-v-10 game had the net effect of opening things up for the Battery.
Still, I asked every person I spoke to after the match for an explanation of the red cards, and not a single person knew.
“Absolutely no idea,” Falvey said. “I asked the referee’s opinion and he said, apparently, said I don’t have to answer it. He said, ‘I’ve got my own view on it.’ I’ve never heard that before, but … I have no idea what it was for. Either one of them.”
Like I said, I felt some sympathy for the officials in that situation, even though it was one of their own making. But when it comes to six minutes of extra time given at the end of the second half, they’re entirely on their own.
Six minutes? Seriously?
It took six-and-a-half minutes just to restart the match during the double-red-card fiasco. That’s not to mention the 69 seconds that elapsed between Wilmington’s goal and Charleston’s restart. Or the five substitutions that weren’t accounted for. Using the 30-second rule-of-thumb that officials have told me they often follow, there should have been at least nine or 10 minutes of added time. Not six.
And yes, with Charleston chasing the game, that mattered.
Things are really getting tense in the 63rd minute after that uncalled Ochoa-vs-Ferguson takedown, which was followed by Falvey body-checking a Wilmington player out of bounds. That went for a foul, racheting up the tension even more.
But after winning the ball back, Charleston responded with another extended possession, building well into the attacking third, bringing up both fullbacks to support the attack.And everything was going well — until Hammers’ fullback Yahaya Musa stole the ball in the 65th minute and alertly passed up the sidelines to midfielder Steven Miller. Miller took space up to the midstripe, spotted substitute striker Jordan Hamilton starting a run on the other side of the pitch, and launched the best pass of the night.
Miller’s diagonal ball caught Falvey too high on the pitch and sent him spinning and backpedaling to defend Hamilton. The only other man back was Ferguson, and he was in no position to help.
As less-accurate pass would have given Falvey a chance to recover, but Miller’s brilliant assist reached Hamilton practically in stride about 40 yards from goal. He controlled it deftly, chesting the ball ahead as the desperate Falvey closed him down. But Hamilton held his edge as the two men tangled at full speed, and after a few strides Falvey lost his footing and sprawled forward just above the arc.
Hamilton stumbled too, but regained his footing a step above the box as Cooper charged to the penalty spot. The Toronto prospect gathered himself for the left-footed strike, and with the two men on collision courses, Cooper went into his slide with his head up and his arms extended. But Hamilton’s well-hit shot went over the goalkeeper at point-blank range and sailed straight into the center of goal.
Anhaeuser wasn’t too impressed, (“If you consider that a good goal by Wilmington, good for you,” he told a Wilmington reporter after the game), but as Route One football goes, that counterattack was a swift high-wire act. Anything less than a perfect pass by Miller, anything short of Hamilton’s individual effort, and that one ends as an afterthought.
But that’s just the prologue to what came next. Because instead of giving up, Charleston fought back almost immediately.
In the 68th minute, a Cooper goal kick found Jarad van Schaik at midfield. He headed it centrally to Andre Lewis, who spotted Heviel Cordoves a few yards ahead, posted up with his back to goal and closely marked. Lewis’ header went straight to Cordoves’ feet, and the big Cuban controlled, turned and passed low and wide to a sprinting Mamadou Diouf. It was, without a doubt, the best Battery combination play of the series.
Diouf’s sudden run down the Battery’s left channel finally stretched a Wilmington defense that had looked compact and well-formed all night. Cordoves’ excellent pass reached the Vancouver forward in stride about 30 yards above the goal line, but even in an emergency scramble, Wilmington’s defense remained decently positioned, with Ashani Fairclough shading to the inside of Diouf’s attack, while Yahaya Musa trailed it. Diouf had a shot if he wanted it, but his best option was probably Lewis running the central channel — in front of all the net that goalkeeper Quillian Roberts had abandoned to confront Diouf.
And then, disaster.
On replay, Musa’s right foot appears to come down on Diouf’s heel, spilling the Battery striker to the ground face-first. Lewis instantly throws up his arm to signal for the foul.
But there’s no call. Battery players and Assistant Coach Troy Lesesne instantly protested. Bedlam erupts even as play continues.
And here’s the point a former referee made to me after the match: There has to be a call on that play. Because it’s not like Diouf and a defender are engaged shoulder-to-shoulder and some amount of contact is allowed.
No, in this instance, Diouf has separation from the two defenders and has just tumbled to the artificial turf like he’s been shot by a sniper.
So here’s the logic: Either Diouf has been fouled from behind, denying him a clear goal-scoring chance — which is at least a yellow and possibly a red card against Musa — or Diouf has simulated the contact and deserves a yellow card for diving.
Anyway, it’s 67:17 on the game clock, and after teetering on the brink of collapse for much of the night, the crew has finally, irrevocably lost control of the match.
Musa immediately takes possession and passes ahead up their right sideline. Battery midfielder Aminu Abdallah closes down the Wilmington midfielder and shoves him out of bounds and to the ground in front of the Battery bench as the Hammerhead player passes ahead to Ochoa in front of the Wilmington bench.
Ferguson contacts Ochoa from behind as the ball goes out of bounds, and the assistant referee is in excellent position, as the contact occurs within about five yards of where he’s standing. He raises his flag immediately to indicate a foul on Ferguson.
It’s as unclear in the video as it was my from my vantage point, but the contact knocked Ochoa to the ground, and Ferguson appears to step over him and poke the ball away to his right. At this moment, a non-player from the Wilmington staff steps up and shoves Ferguson in the chest, toppling him backward over the still-prone Ochoa. I’m told he was ejected for his actions, but I haven’t confirmed that.
Simultaneous to the action around Ochoa and Ferguson, Roberts can be seen running up from goal, possibly to retaliate against Abdallah for shoving the a Hammerhead. But the camera cuts to the scene around Ferguson. And — according to Zach Prince — that’s when he got shoved by Roberts (“I didn’t see it. I walked over there and that’s when I got pushed. And then they gave him the red for pushing me. I was trying to get Shawn out of there. I didn’t know what really happened.”)
It took a while to get everything sorted, and it involved a lot of walking around the field, and then walking back, and then standing around. Credit Stroud for trying to get it right, if not for explaining things to the participants. Ferguson got his red card, and so did Roberts. Why remains a mystery. Play resumed.
“If they said he pushed him, a push isn’t a red card to me,” Anhaeuser said. “So both guys should have probably been probably still been on the game. But you go from there.”
My favorite Falvey expression is “handbags,” and despite all the tension and drama, the chaotic scene that followed all this was really nothing but handbags between the players. No one was seriously hurt, most of the men were trying to prevent anything serious from taking place, and in the end it was confusion, not rage, that reigned. Ferguson got his red card. Roberts got his, and was replaced by player-coach Matt Glaeser. Charleston got the more open game it wanted.
But the bottom line remains a missed chance on the uncalled penalty kick for Charleston.
“(That) was an absolute stonewall penalty,” Falvey said. “Been 11 years pro, never in my life seen it. He should have gave the penalty, a red card, we go 1-1, they’re down to 10 men. The game changes.”
I liked what several people did on Saturday. Lots of gutsy play by lots of people, and decent offensive flow at times.
But my Man of the Match choice is Heviel Cordoves. On a night when every touch he made with his back to goal probably came with a complimentary bruise, Cordoves played with a big heart and a sharp eye. He got credit for two shots, but he also played at least two of his teammates through for chances, and should have earned the Battery half a dozen free kicks from dangerous spots.
Some of Charleston’s younger players eventually crumbled on Saturday, frustration boiling over, literally tossing up their hands in the face of tough defending and official injustice. But Cordoves never buckled, never showed signs of fatigue or intimidation. He’s still learning, but you gotta love the guy.
The developing storyline for Charleston right now is Shawn Ferguson‘s status for Saturday’s match against Pittsburgh. If he’s suspended, Charleston is down to one healthy center back. So stay tuned for that one.
And after being swept by Wilmington, nothing looks particularly easy.
“We’re not guaranteed anything in this league,” Falvey said. “We know it’s a tough and demanding league with back-to-back fixtures and turf fields and playing against teams like that who play Route One 90 percent of the time. But we’ve been all around the block. We know what it’s like. No excuses. We’ve just got to find a way to get our nose in front and get the job done.”
Said Anhaeuser: “I think we played probably one of our best games that we’ve played up here in the last three years.
“But if you can’t put it in the back of the net, and they just kick it forward one time and the guy holds him off and gets in and scores it. So that’s the tale of a game like that, and that’s football. It happens, and unfortunately it caught us tonight.”
TOP IMAGE: Wilmington center back Ashani Fairclough separates Charleston forward Heviel Cordoves from the ball. Dan Conover photos.