Not to get too geeky about it, but when stats nerds start ranting about the perils of “sample size” and “data sets,” they might as well be describing the early portion of a soccer season.
Charleston left for this weekend’s bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio on Friday riding a six-game season-opening winless streak. Granted, four of those six games were draws, but if you were on the “glass-half-empty” side of things, you could point to team’s goal-scoring average — lowest in the league last week — and conclude that there was something wrong with the this year’s Battery.
Well, it’s Monday, and suddenly the Battery are not only back in third place in USL PRO (that’s where they finished last season, btw), they’re looking pretty good statistically, too. And here’s why: Because we just need more numbers.
As I’ve said before, we’re coming up on the point where the statistics will start to mean something. They’re already at the point where they tell us things — and they’re generally good things, too. It’s just that the story is incomplete.
Six points on aggregate 6-0 road scoring is a quick way to improve in every category. And those results support the conclusion that the “glass-half-full” side reached before the weekend: Charleston played solid, organized soccer in its first six matches, and just needed its talented attacking corps to get healthy, find some continuity and start knocking in a few more goals.
Dear USL PRO: Be afraid.
While the style of play Coach Mike Anhaeuser chooses week to week will likely fluctuate by opponent and situation, this weekend’s breakthrough performances felt like the “real” 2014 Battery’s coming out party. Not because I’m a homer (which I am), but because the team we saw in Harrisburg and Dayton looked just like the team we’d seen before — only slightly better. A solid, versatile midfield. An already impressive goalkeeper on a rapid ascent. An excellent back line. And a platoon of strikers with the ability to break an opponent’s heart… and then drive a stake through it.
Is there a weakness on this team? You could point to depth on defense, as several people did when news broke that Vancouver had recalled Jackson Farmer. But there are lots of reasons to believe that Farmer will return, and he’s the sixth defender behind what amounts to a five-starter rotation. How many other USL PRO teams have five defenders who are not only starter quality, but Team of the Week starter quality?
Is there a “type” of player this team lacks? As we see more of the Vancouver additions, their soccer identities are becoming as distinct as their personalities. While everyone on this year’s squad is a legit player at this level, this is also a collection of young men with specialties. That makes the Battery deadly on set pieces, but also good at defending them. Anhaeuser has players who can match up well for size and strength, but also players who can stretch the field. And he’s also got a few men — particularly Jarad van Schaik, Quinton Griffith, Taylor Mueller and Zach Prince — who can play effectively in a variety of roles.
And toughness? As Colin Falvey said on Sunday before he and several other players turned in their second extended shift of the weekend, “This is where we separate the men from the boys.” Except the test revealed no boys.
Fans who grade on style points might not like the Battery’s bombs away-approach on this trip. There wasn’t a lot of possession for the sake of possession, and Charleston wasn’t shy to put a long pass out to one of its strikers and bet on the Battery’s athlete beating the opponent’s athlete. But so what? Beautiful soccer may be fun to watch, but smart soccer wins. And if you go back and look at the things Anhaeuser said about these opponents and their fields last week, not only did every one of them prove accurate, the Battery also trained to exploit those weaknesses. They went on the road with a plan for both opponents, and the plans worked.
Granted, it would be nice to have another body in the mix on defense (Anhaeuser has said as much, too), but the depth everywhere else means the 2014 Battery is able to make full use of USL PRO’s liberal substitution rules. Most professional leagues limit you to three subs. Our league gives coaches five. And if you can run on four or five subs every match without a meaningful drop-off in quality, you reap all sorts of benefits.
Consider this stat: After eight matches, the 10 players who figure as “attackers” on this squad (Prince, Maikel Chang, Dante Marini, Adam Mena, Andre Lewis, Dane Kelly, Omar Salgado, Mamadou Diouf, Heviel Cordoves and the recently-departed Marlon Ramirez) have made a combined 54 appearances and 27 starts. Prince leads the way with five starts and two complete games, but once he’s out of the way, only Lewis, Kelly and Cordoves have four starts. Only Lewis (twice) and Kelly (once) have played full-90-minute matches.
In other words, of the five forwards now on the team (Mena, Kelly, Salgado, Diouf and Cordoves), only two have four starts, and only once has a starting forward played into stoppage time.
I haven’t run the numbers for the rest of the league, but lets be vaguely correct here and just say that this level of platooning at a hard-to-come-by position is, uh, unusual for USL PRO. And while it probably means that the 2014 Golden Boot winner won’t come from Charleston, it does offer the Battery some special advantages.
One other depth note to make here. He doesn’t get a lot of press because he’s a central midfielder, but Aminu Abdallah should be tied (with van Schaik and Prince) for the league lead in games played with eight (the league gives him credit for just seven). Most of those are substitution appearances (five subs, three starts). And though he lacks the experience of usual starters van Schaik and Amadou Sanyang, Abdallah is no slouch.
Friday night, 4oth minute, Charleston 1, Harrisburg 0
In retrospect, things could have been a lot worse for Harrisburg in the first half. After all, Omar Salgado’s passing had set up at least two of his teammates with quality chances, and Zach Prince had twice stared up at the sky with an expression that said “How did I MISS that?” But that dam of frustration was about to break.
In the 40th minute, two City Islanders sandwiched forward Dane Kelly in Charleston territory on the right sideline. The crunch resulted in a free kick, and Quinton Griffith stepped up to launch a right-footed, parabolic pass from five-yards across the midstripe. The ball descended toward Salgado, who had his back to goal about two yards above and to the right of the arc. He was well-marked, but his strength and size were too much for the Islander behind him.
To his right: Dane Kelly, with a man on his hip, began his run toward goal, attracting the attention of a free defender who turned to run back into the 18 to cut Kelly off. To his left, Zach Prince, engaged with his marker on the other side of the arc.
Salgado won the header easily, looping it diagonally to Prince, who reacted to the trajectory better than his defender. As he stepped back toward the ball, his marker and the man who had run toward Kelly scrambled to recover.
And this is where the beauty starts.
As Salgado’s flick-on settled toward the turf, Prince stuck out his right foot and popped the ball up and ahead toward the left side of the field, spinning left as he began the maneuver. With his defender closing down the angle from the back side, Prince had just a fraction of a second to complete the turn, stick out his left foot and volley a low shot toward the right post. It passed under the defender’s boot, beat the trailing defender, and froze Islanders’ goalkeeper Matt Williams, who had moved to his right to cover Prince’s threat at the near post.
But Williams never really had a chance, falling to his knees as Prince’s low-bouncing change-up rolled just beyond his reach — and just ahead of the man who had marked Kelly’s run — into the side netting.
No, it didn’t leave a vapor trail, but the degree of difficulty on the touch, spin and left-footed volley is absolutely stunning. It gave the hard-working Prince his first goal of the match, and broke Harrisburg’s spirits. Andre Lewis and Mamadou Diouf would swap goals and assists in the second half, but Prince’s wonder-goal effectively settled matters.
How much better is Odisnel Cooper?
Goalkeeper are supposed to be like bourbon — the really good ones have a few years on them. That’s because goalkeeping is something of a dark art, this mixture of athleticism and presence, personality and foresight, like chess played in three dimensions in the middle of a demolition derby. That’s why a 42-year-old guy like Brad Friedel still has a job in the English Premier League, while the outfield players he grew up with are all off coaching somewhere.
And then there’s 22-year-old Odisnel Cooper, defending the Battery goal like one of the Knights Templar at the gates of Jerusalem. Ferocious. Intimidating. Focused.
Don’t get me wrong. Cooper was a solid keeper in 2013, and you could certainly see the potential for growth. But rarely did the team look to him to save the day.
This spring has been another story. Cooper has allowed just five goals in seven starts, and one of those was a penalty kick. That’s a goals-against average of 0.714. He’s averaging better than 3.5 saves per match, and is tied for the league lead in shutouts with three. During Charleston’s winless streak, with the offense sputtering and defenders Falvey, Griffith and Mueller in and out of the lineup with suspensions and injuries, Cooper was the glue that held things together.
I expected — incorrectly — that backup Eric Shannon would start on Sunday, even though it wasn’t a 2/24 road trip. Anhaeuser generally likes to give his second keeper a start when he can. But he also said before the last trip that there were some circumstances when he might reconsider. Like if his starter was on a streak. Cooper went into Sunday’s match with two consecutive clean sheets. He left Dayton with three.
It’s asking a lot, but a few more weekends like this one and people around USL PRO may be asking another question: If Cooper isn’t the best keeper in the league, who is?
Before we get to Man of the Weekend, let’s give thanks to a few players for their yeoman work. Cooper, Griffith, Falvey, Ferguson and van Schaik all started both games and — with the exception of van Schaik’s sub-out in the 75th minute at Harrisburg — went the distance. Abdallah, Mueller, Prince, Mena and Diouf also played in both games.
Goal of the Weekend? There are plenty of candidates, obviously, but I gotta go with Prince’s.
Individual Play of the Weekend? How about Heviel Cordoves’ theft, quick counter and score in the first half against Dayton? That’s what high-pressure alertness, good ball skills and a calm finishing presence will do for you.
And there ought to be some kind of award for Best Throw-In, except Taylor Mueller would win it every week, and that wouldn’t be sporting.
But my Man of the Weekend has to go to Omar Salgado, and not just because of his two goals and one assist.
Salgado was simply a game-changer this weekend. He knocked down long passes like a man dropping eggs into a straw basket. His passing was both accurate and creative. Neither Dayton nor Harrisburg had any kind of answer for his size, strength and aerial ability. And while it’s not clear yet what kind of strike he possesses, he gets the ball on frame.
In MLS the debate about Salgado’s future is whether he’s a winger or a target forward. Anhaeuser has used him in both roles. But based on this weekend’s action, it’s pretty easy to imagine this 20-year-old enjoying a long and successful career in the middle of the action, winning balls and setting up his teammates.
UP NEXT: After going 2-1-1 on their four-match, two-week road hiatus, the Battery return to Blackbaud on Saturday for a date with rival Wilmington Hammerheads. Then on Wednesday it’s their first match of the 2014 U.S. Open Cup against the Panama City Beach Pirates.
TOP PHOTO: Los Hermanos Cubanos — Odisnel Cooper, Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang — during 2014 preseason. Sunday was the trio’s third time starting together this year, with Cooper logging his third clean sheet, Cordoves scoring his first goal, and Chang putting in 74 quality minutes in his sixth appearance. The three friends defected from Cuba to Canada in 2012 and lived in poverty together before making their way to Charleston in early 2013. Dan Conover photos.