There’s a saying (at least, there’s a saying around our house) that a friend is someone who will stand by you in hard times, but a true friend is someone who will show up at your door a few minutes after receiving a midnight phone call that says “I can’t explain right now, but bring a shovel, a rope and some plastic sheeting.”
By that standard, if the Charleston Battery want to understand who their true fans are, all they needed to do was look around Blackbaud Stadium Friday night. While it’s not clear exactly how many people actually showed up in that occasionally sideways downpour (527 paying customers scanned through at the gate, though that doesn’t include everyone — including children — who attended), it’s worth pointing out that those who did deserve a salute. The players and staff were at least paid to go out in those ridiculous conditions. The people in the stands paid to be there.
It was worth the money, too — in a bizarre way. Because as weird as as the weather made things on the field, it also made the match memorable — like, say, The Fog Bowl in 1988. And with a few exceptions, the fans who braved the weather seemed to be in excellent spirits, too.
So yeah, it’s hard to explain, but in retrospect, Friday was actually kinda awesome.
Let the USL PRO schedule begin
To say that the opening month of Charleston’s 2014 season was a bit tough is kinda like saying that the Bubonic Plague was a real bummer. Orlando, Richmond and then Orlando again, followed by an MLS Reserve game — this time against the Red Bulls. That’s three games against the Battery’s toughest rivals to start the season, with an enigmatic chaser.
The Battery emerged from that five-week stretch with an 0-1-3 record with four goals to their credit and five against.
Friday’s match put the cap on that first portion of the season in truly bizarro style. The Battery now enter a four-game away stretch… and in a bizarre way, the “normal” part of their schedule. Pittsburgh, Rochester, Harrisburg and Dayton aren’t cream puffs, but in recent years they’ve been middle-of-the-bell-curve USL PRO teams. Orlando has always beaten Charleston in Orlando, and usually draws the Battery at Blackbaud. The Kickers-Battery series, which dates back to 1994, is still a draw. So while the Battery remains entirely capable of beating both, the club’s winning tradition is built on its tendency to beat up on the other teams in the league.
The team will fly up to Pittsburgh later this week, play Saturday night, rent a bus, and then make the 285-mile drive to Rochester for their second match in 24 hours. After a short week here in Charleston, they’ll head back up north for the second leg of their Northern swing. And in doing so, there’s an excellent chance they’ll find their first win of the season, too.
Thank God Interleague Play is Ending
Friday night was the second — and final — interleague game to be played at Blackbaud Stadium. And good riddance.
Granted, the first one was a blast. Charleston romped over the Houston Dynamo Reserves 4-1 on June 9th, 2013. But USL PRO’s domination of interleague play last season also hinted at several imbalances in the format of the series, in which the results counted in the standings of both leagues. It wasn’t just that proven USL PRO veterans were routinely better than talented young MLS prospects (although they certainly were). It wasn’t just that USL PRO players got psyched by the chance to prove themselves in front of MLS coaches, either.
At some level, you just got the sense that the MLS reserves were kind of phoning it in. Perhaps understandably. What was in it for them, except for a chance to be humbled by a third-tier team?
On Friday, in the rain, that MLS apathy hit bottom. The Red Bulls didn’t bring a backup keeper to a match in which they would wind up needing not one, but two. Hell, they didn’t even bring 18 players, and finished the night with nine men on the field because they ran out of bodies.
Who were those players? Damned if I know. MLS players don’t even show up in the official USL PRO box scores, for reasons that are entirely beyond me, and the Red Bulls were so disinterested that they didn’t even bother to do a write-up of the match for their own website.
The low point came after the National Anthem, when Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser looked over to his counterpart to shake hands. Whoever it was who drew the coaching duty on Friday — and presumably it was Reserve Team Coach John Wolyniec — just headed back to the Red Bulls dugout to get out of the rain.
Charleston outplayed New York from the opening whistle to the end of a suspiciously short stoppage period, but simply reporting that doesn’t give enough credit to the grit displayed by Red Bulls players down the stretch. Charleston should have won Friday night, but weather alone doesn’t account for the draw. Credit the fill-in keepers, particularly midfielder Ian Christianson, for heroic effort.
But when an organization takes a competition so lightly, it insults its opponent. I don’t think the Red Bulls set out to do that. I just think it never really crossed their minds. Which is actually worse.
The Battery get a final taste of interleague play at Montreal on Aug. 3, and that will close the book on this transitional bit of future North American soccer trivia. With so many affiliations in 2014, the MLS Reserve League is essentially a vestigial appendage this season, and next year it goes away entirely.
It will not be missed.
Damned if I know
Without being too much of a smart-ass about it, the things that we’ll remember from this match have less to do with great moments on the pitch than they do simple things like the players adjusting to the conditions and making the best of a ridiculous situation.
Yes, the low was the foul that led to that penalty kick, but even watching it again it’s awfully hard to tell exactly what happened. Yes, there was a nice through-ball, and yes there appeared to be some contact from behind as the Red Bull’s player tried to run it down. But was that a dive, or a legit call? And really, who knows? I don’t want to relive it — or re-adjudicate it — here.
The Battery’s goal was a nice one from a team standpoint, particularly under the circumstances. But there were other chances that were in some ways much more dramatic.
But here’s what I’ll remember. During the National Anthem, as the teams and the fans directed their eyes toward the south goal and the flag, three members of the Blackbaud Stadium grounds crew worked frantically on the midfield behind the action, poking holes in the sod with big forks. That, along with the image of a soccer ball spinning atop a puddle as players from both teams converged on it, is probably the lasting story of the night.
How is Dane Kelly?
Maybe the most dramatic moment of the night came in stoppage time, when a race between fill-in keeper Christianson and Battery forward Dane Kelly ended in a collision right in front of goal. Both men stayed down for an extended period (hence my earlier statement about the length of stoppage being suspiciously short), and both had to be helped off the field.
Kelly appeared to have taken the worst of it. He came off with his arms over the shoulders of the Battery’s athletic trainers, putting zero weight on his right foot. The initial diagnosis was a groin strain.
Generally speaking, groin strains are not good news. Nicki Paterson missed more than a month of the 2013 preseason with one. Kelly had one and it affected his play early last year. Quinton Griffith missed seven games and eight starts with a groin strain he picked up last May.
But Battery Athletic Trainer Bobby Weisenberger reports that Kelly was cleared for full training this morning.
So there’s some good news for your Monday.
The Envelope, please:
MAN OF THE MATCH: Yep, the Battery officials who pick the Angie Gainey Bailey Man of the Match hit this one square. Dane Kelly might have been worthy of the honor even without the goal that leveled things up.
In his breakout 2013 season, Kelly became the focus of the Charleston offense by making hard runs in dangerous areas. On Friday, in his second start and first full-90 of 2014, Kelly not only broke down the Red Bulls back line repeatedly, his contributions to Mike Anhaeuser’s high-pressure defense helped make the Battery counterattack the most potent threat of the night.
At his best, Kelly is a kinetic-energy weapon who can slice open an otherwise organized defense. One of this year’s big experiments is going to be the ongoing exploration of what happens when Anhaeuser pairs him up with a strike partner — presumably someone who can hold the ball and distribute. So while he isn’t the most complete striker on this year’s team, the Jamaican forward brings a specific set of skills that could be quite valuable.
If he can keep healthy and stay on target. Stay tuned.
THE MACGYVER AWARD: The first player on either side to really throw out the status quo and adapt to the conditions was Battery central midfielder Aminu Abdallah, who got the surprise start after Amadou Sanyang picked up a knock in training late last week. After observing the difficulties other players experienced on the right side of the Battery attacking third in the first half, Abdallah largely avoided that area — and took his chances from range whenever he found an opening. He didn’t connect, but he had the right idea.
Jarad van Schaik and Quinton Griffith figured things out, too, with Griffith adopting a chip-shot passing style in the wettest parts of the field. Second-half substitute Zach Prince not only entered the match with the idea of going Route One at every opportunity, he also hit a series of accurate long passes.
But I’m giving this one to rookie Andre Lewis. During the worst of the weather, with the Battery attacking on the wettest end of the field, Lewis used his stop-and-go ball skills to send Red Bulls sliding past him like out-of-control bumper cars. He then took space well into the box to set up his shot… which failed when his plant foot appeared to slide on the loose footing in front of goal.
Lewis gets criticized for taking too many touches. I doubt he got criticized for that play.
THE DAMN-YOU AWARD: This one is yours, Ian Christianson. Yes, you started out shaky. No, I’m not convinced you didn’t foul Kelly in stoppage time. But any outfield player who steps into that situation as an emergency keeper, a man down in the rain, on the road, deserves some respect for keeping a clean sheet. You did a good job, damn you.
TOP IMAGE: John Lotterhos shows off his Battery jersey at the pregame tailgate Friday evening. Dan Conover photos.