The Battery open their 2013 home season against a sketchy squad from Antigua in a game where one of the bigger storylines has been whether the visiting team would actually show up. But more on that later in the post.
While this match lacks the rivalry angle of last season’s return game against the Richmond Kickers, there are still plenty of memorable moments to anticipate.
TAILGATE: The Regiment tailgated on the first night of the Carolina Challenge Cup, but lousy weather dogged the event all week. Tomorrow’s weather could be overcast, but the forecast for kickoff actually looks good as of Friday afternoon, so the group will be prepared for a party. Members will be on-hand as early as 3:30 to test their new display (see below), with the cooking beginning at 4:30 and the party underway around 5 p.m. The forecast calls for tenderloins and sausage, with a 100 percent chance of beer. The organization will be handing out membership packs to members at the tailgate tent before the match, too.
T-SHIRTS: The club’s new jersey sponsor, SPARC, will be handing out Battery T-shirts t0 the first 500 fans. SPARC is also the “presenting game sponsor” for the night.
CHAMPIONSHIP RINGS: S.C. Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, will present USL PRO Championship rings to the 12 returning players from the 2012 season just before kickoff. Coach Mike Anhaeuser, Assistant Coach Dusty Hudock and athletic trainer Bobby Weisenberger will also receive the honor.
NEW TIFO: One of the big mysteries of the off-season has been the design of The Regiment’s new banner. Everyone who came out to Molly Darcy’s for the Richmond watch party got a peak at the central portion of the display, but we’re told there’s more to it than that. Group members will be working to set up and test the display around 3:30, and at some point in the festivities — and my guess is before kickoff — we’ll finally get to see the Full Monty.
BTW, if you’re an American who is, like me, still learning soccer lingo, “tifo” is the term used to describe banners and other graphic demonstrations of support in a stadium. It’s short for the Italian word tifosi, which means an organized group of fans. You also hear it used to describe cycling fans in Europe. Anyway, that’s your word of the day.
POSSIBLE SELLOUT: The club says it’s already sold more than 4,000 seats for Saturday night, and given the fact that it’s the home opener, they expect to push for a sellout. Considering the surprising turnout at several early matches around the league this spring, a sold-out home opener would keep the Battery in good company.
FIREWORKS: Boom! Pop! SHHHHWREEEEEELLLL-BANG! Also sponsored by SPARC.
The game itself
INJURIES: No doubt injuries are the big story headed into this home opener, and the big one has been a concern all week. Last season’s league Rookie of the Year, attacking midfielder Jose Cuevas, has been ruled out with a hamstring injury.
“He strained his hamstring in the final minutes of the first half of the Richmond game,” said Weisenberger. “He is progressing nicely and should not miss a lot of time. We will take it day by day and make sure he is at full strength and ready to return before we put him back out there.”
Additionally, star defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang will miss his second consecutive game as he recovers from a concussion sustained on March 30th. For the second week in a row, versatile midfielder Michael Azira will take his place in the lineup.
With two central midfielders out, Anhaeuser said he plans to move Azira forward to Cuevas’ position while dropping outside midfielder Jarad van Schaik into Sanyang’s central defensive midfield spot. All of which opens the way for 20-year-old Canadian youth internation Ben Fisk to make his first USL PRO start out wide. Fisk replaced Cuevas in the second half against Richmond.
“We’ll probably do that again, play (Fisk) out on the wing, because they’re a team that defends,” Anhaeuser said. “They could be a little bit tired from traveling, so if they sit back, he’s very good on the wing one-v-one.
“Mike Azira played more of a holding role in the first half (last week), but he has the ability to get forward and score goals, just like he did in the championship game. So he’s going to be a key player for us. He’s going to have to get into the box, but he reads it very well. He’s going to have to get on the end of crosses, like Jose. And then we’ll push Nicki up a little higher. He has a nose to score goals.”
SWITCH AT FORWARD: Freshly signed Jamaican forward Dane Kelly scored four times in the Battery’s preseason and appeared to lock down the top spot in the Battery’s rotation at forward. He could be seen icing his groin after Friday’s training session, an injury that Anhaeuser waved off as just “a little something.” Anhaeuser didn’t cite that little something in explaining his decision to give former Cuban international Heviel Cordoves the start against Antigua.
“I’m going to get (Cordoves) in there because he holds the box and holds his line. You gotta keep guys playing and fresh a little bit, and you know, keep Dane on the bench, because he’s so effective for tomorrow coming off the bench,” Anhaeuser said.
Though Anhaeuser discussed the move mostly in terms of keeping both players fresh in the Battery’s rotation. he also touched on a tactical angle. “Fast guys are something they see every day. So it’s something that we need to give Cordoves a little run, but Dane did fantastic. It’s never about someone doing poorly. I want to have guys on the bench who can come in and change the game. And Dane can do that.”
Kelly scored against Antigua in Charleston last season, but his celebration in front of the opposing bench earned him a yellow card.
NOT AVAILABLE: New Vancouver loaner Emmanuel Adjetey, another speedy but diminutive midfielder, is signed and training, Anhaeuser said. But his work visa paperwork hasn’t cleared, which means he can’t particpate.
WHO STARTS IN GOAL? One of the toughest battles on training camp was for the starting keeper job. The stakes were higher, too, because unlike field players, backup keepers don’t tend to get many minutes. Former Cuban international Odisnel Cooper edged out Californian Kevin Klasila for the start at Richmond, but looked to suffer from mental lapses at times.
I didn’t ask Anhaeuser about his keeper, because the traditional move would be to keep the kid in goal. But one of the things to watch early this season is to see whether the team plays both or sticks with one. They have different strengths and weaknesses, but there’s not much daylight between the two.
Caribbean Soap Opera
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, less than a month ago there was no real assurance that Antigua Barracuda FC would be around to make this appearance. While Charleston represents more of the USL PRO norm — a stable, small-market team from the East Coast — Antigua has been one of the league’s anomalous franchises throughout its history. Operating with government support as a club opportunity for Antigua and Barbuda’s successful national team, the team played a home-and-away schedule in the newly formed USL PRO in 2011, but after the demise of the league’s “International Division” at the end of the season, ABFC’s place in the league got tougher. Travel expenses forced the team to play the league’s most difficult schedule, with 22 matches clustered within two days of each other.
Not surprisingly, the Barracudas finished at the bottom of the table last season, and when their coach quit in November, it looked like the club might not return for a third go. In addition to its own problems, ABFC represented a financial drain on other USL PRO clubs, which had to book air travel to matches outside of the U.S. instead of taking their usual bus trips. So when Antigua returned in 2013, it was with one of the oddest schedules in professional sports: 26 matches, every one of them on the road.
That wasn’t the end of the weirdness. As the calendar drifted through winter into spring, the ‘Cudas lack of staff and players began to raise alarms around the league. By late March, even the coach was skeptical. Thirty-four-year-old player/coach George “Sowa” Dublin told the Antigua Observer that, having missed all their registration deadlines, participation was doubtful.
“I have been reading on the website that the deadline has passed for registration so I would want to believe that it is in doubt. There are 20 plus Antiguans who depend on jobs through Barracuda and if there is no Barracuda then 20 plus Antiguans are out of a job. How much of these people who come on the radio and ridicule Barracuda is willing to give a job to some of these individuals or give that individual something out of their salary at the end of the month?” Dublin asked.
The club didn’t publicly confirm its intention to participate in the 2013 season for another two weeks. An April 5th article in the Antigua Observer said the club had “received financial assistance” and was in negotiations with players. To put that in context, by April 5, the Battery were almost a week past the final match of their 12-game preseason. And nothing in the rest of the article exactly gives the reader confidence that the club has enough cash to make it through August.
Manager of the professional football club, Fernando “Nando” Abraham, confirmed that the privately owned entity has received some funds but is still in need of a significant amount.
“A full Barracuda season would be approximately EC $1.6 million and a lot of it is still outstanding, but we are still trying to see where we can make ends meet,” he said.
“But we do not want the young men of this country to not use the opportunity to get a chance to expose themselves in the United States and throughout the world so they could have an opportunity to get a better contract than they could have with the Barracuda.”
The former national player added that it’s no secret the team has been struggling financially for the past two seasons and encouraged potential investors to come onboard as it is mainly about giving Antiguan players an opportunity to showcase their talents to a wider market.
“I am not saying we have received the necessary finances because at the moment we are still looking and we are still waiting for everybody to jump onboard and make sure they assist this programme because some young men need to expose themselves and we need to give them the opportunity; and if you can say to the public, ’yes, support the Barracuda as best as you can because they are trying to make an effort to be in the USL for 2013,’” the manager said.
So who is on this Antigua team? USL PRO confirms that Dublin is still in charge, and the league site lists 18 names. The club’s site lists only 14 players, however — and one of them is Quinton Griffith, Anhaeuser’s prized off-season acquisition and a projected starter at left midfield for the Battery against Antigua. Mikey Buytas‘ preview of the match for Union Dues points out that club only had to meet a 14-player minimum to qualify by USL PRO standards.
The Battery’s match preview highlights three players:
Orlando Mitchum: Mitchum is a talented defender for the Barracudas with the ability to score goals and produce assists. Last year he had 3 goals and 3 assists for 9 points for the Barracuda.
Randolf Burton (#14): Burton is a strong midfielder who is going to be a scoring threat. Burton had 3 goals last season and also has 12 for his national squad, Antigua and Barbuda, over 28 appearances with the team.
Tamorley Thomas (#13): Thomas provides the Barracuda with some solid veteran leadership as well as some quality play through the midfield. He had 3 goals last year and is not afraid to shoot the ball as he took a team high 30 shots in the 2012 season.
The ‘Cudas began their 2013 campaign with a loss to Charlotte last Saturday, but while the Battery are taking the night off in advance of tomorrow’s match, Antigua’s 18-man roster is in Wilmington tonight for a match against the Hammerheads. They’ll be on 24-hours rest when they suit up against the Battery Saturday night.
Anhaeuser said he’d watched tape of the Antigua-Charlotte game, but that wasn’t really the emphasis for this match.
“You know what? I’m not even going to worry about it,” he said of the matchup. “It’s not about what they do. We’re playing at home, it’s our home opener, it’s what we do.
“We know how to press. We know how to pressure. And if they want to give us the ball, which is what we’re hoping for, we need to make sure we’re hitting the back of the net and not squandering our chances. I think we’re going to create plenty of chances, we’re going to keep the tempo up, and we’re going to take the game to them.”
Last season, the Battery compiled a 3-1 regular season record against the Cudas, winning the series 9-1 on aggregate.
As last week proved, both for Charleston and for Orlando City, soccer is a maddening sport. You don’t dare take anybody lightly. And yet you almost have to feel sorry for the boys from Antigua. They’re really up against it this year.
Of course, I did say, “almost.” When the team in need of a hug is playing against the home side, compassion is hard to come by.
TOP PHOTO: Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser talks with Jamaican forward Dane Kelly after a light practice on the field at Blackbaud Stadium on Friday morning. Kelly, who was icing his groin after picking up “a little something” in practice, will come off the bench as a change of pace for the Battery against Antigua Barracuda FC, Anhaeuser said. Dan Conover photo.