LA preview: Big boys, big game

LA preview: Big boys, big game

When the Los Angeles Blues pulled up to Blackbaud Stadium on July 27 for the teams’ first meeting of 2013, the difference between them could hardly have been narrower. Both teams were in fifth place, with L.A. ahead on tie-breakers, with Charleston holding two games in hand.

And if you remember the outlook before that first match, you’ll also remember that there were plenty of reasons for Charleston fans to be nervous. Los Angeles had one of the highest-scoring attacks in the league, and was actually performing better on the road than they were at home.

Since then, the Battery have lost on the road at Wilmington and won what probably counts as the team’s biggest victory of the year, smacking-down previously undefeated Richmond 5-2 at home. Which makes it easy to forget just how huge the Battery’s 3-0 win over Los Angeles really was. Nicki Paterson, Dane Kelly and Heviel Cordoves each scored, but more importantly, the Battery recorded a shutout against the league’s highest-scoring road team — without goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper recording a single save.

It was then, and remains, the most complete Battery performance of 2013.

And you can be sure that the Blues will remember every detail of that humiliation when they host the Battery tonight at 10:30 p.m., EST (uslnation.com for the livestream, 1450 AM for the radio broadcast).

But first you have to get there…

Charleston trained at home Monday and Tuesday, and after a light session on Wednesday morning, boarded up for the Charleston International Airport and their 1:50 p.m. departure on the first leg of their flight to Los Angeles.

Uh-oh.

The culprit: Severe weather around Atlanta.

Fortunately, the second attempt on Wednesday morning was more successful:

Of course, in sports, whenever one side has its routine disrupted, that’s an advantage for the other side. Why else was I cheering the bad weather around Charlotte on July 24th? A power outage pushed the Blues-Eagles match ahead another night, which brought LA to Charleston with one fewer night of rest and its routine scrambled. So in sporting terms, the troubles with Delta’s flight scheduling were a mini-win for the Blues.

But funny we should mention “routine.” Because when I spoke to Coach Mike Anhaeuser on Monday, we talked about how the original plan for the Battery’s travel to Los Angeles was already something of a departure from the team’s normal scheduling, in that the players wouldn’t get their usual “drive to the stadium and walk around on the field” tour the morning before match day. Yes, teams are creatures of habit, he agreed, but the Battery works to prepare for chaos.

“We’ll have to adjust,” Anhaeuser said of that original disruption in routine. “But you always have to do that on the road. Just like in Phoenix – they changed their field, they changed their game time, so we’ll have to react to that. But you have to deal with it. It’s just something that happens in our league… and we’ll deal with it. Our guys are great. And that’s why I do all the stuff in preseason, to make it hard. Traveling game day, don’t leave ’til late. Try to give them food right before a game and maybe show up an hour right before. Because it can happen. If you get stuck in traffic for three hours in California, which can happen, we’re driving, you show up to the game with 30 minutes, there’s no excuses. You gotta get out there and do the job.”

What we know

It’s an oversimplification to boil the Blues down to one dimension — height — but it’s tempting.

“I know our guys are focused,” Anhaeuser said. “We know what we need to do. We need to exploit LA with our speed and our ball movement, which really hurt them here, and we’ve got to shut down their size and strength. They’re big. We’ve got to make sure we don’t do some silly things out there to give them free kicks, because they’re some big boys.”

Big boys who excel at set-pieces.

“They’re very good, because they’ve probably got four or five guys over 6-3. You don’t see that very often. I mean like, Man City, some Premiership teams. But they showed that they couldn’t hang with our speed, so it’s a trade-off. But we’ve got to limit corner kicks and wide free kicks, and that’s just a matter of being sharp defensively. Not over-committing, just doing your job, getting in and letting them pass. Because you saw, when they did try to over-pass, they actually just gave the ball away. And hopefully that’s what happens, and we do that properly. ”

Officially, the Blues aren’t all that big — according to the team’s roster on the USL PRO website, only three of the outfield players who started at Charleston  were 6-2 and over. And though one of them is very tall by soccer standards — 6-6 defender Duach Jock — he’s not an every-game starter.

That said, I’m 6-3, and after standing next to some of those guys on the field, I tend to agree with the way Anhaeuser remembers things. Besides, the league lists Richmond defender Shane Johnson as 6-3, and that’s about as credible as the 1985 Chicago Bears listing William “The Refrigerator” Perry at 305 pounds (Perry trivia: His team nickname was “Biscuit,” which fellow defensive tackle Dan Hampton bestowed on Perry because “he’s a biscuit away from weighing 350.”). Suffice it to say that the LA Blues are a big, powerful, well-organized machine.

Which brings us to tactics…

When the visitors tried to play their usual high-scoring game at Blackbaud, Charleston overwhelmed the Blues with speed and fitness. With their roles now reversed, it’s Charleston that wants to shut down the Blues’ offense from the kickoff. Which can be a bit of a trick, when your advantage is speed and the home-team has the edge on size and strength.

The keys for the Battery: Do a good job clearing the ball, limit the number of corners and dangerous free kicks, and do a the little things when it comes to marking big guys on set pieces.

“(In the July 27th match) they didn’t have many,” Anhaeuser said. “I think they had three corner kicks and only a couple of wide free kicks. So we’ve got to do the same thing and make sure we’re just absolutely smart on our defensive marking on free kicks. Because it doesn’t mean you can’t mark a big guy. If you know what you’re doing, and you get into their body and you do the little things where you just can’t head it on target with a free header, we’re going to be fine. And we do a very good job of that, if you’ve noticed.”

Los Angeles has played once since the loss at Charleston, surrendering a point to Harrisburg at the Blues’ new home field at the University of California-Irvine on Saturday. The City Islanders actually ran out to a 2-0 lead before the Blues fought back for the draw.

Injuries, fitness, etc.

Charleston’s Monday practice looked a bit thin, thanks to the back-to-back shifts turned in Friday and Saturday. While twelve guys and two keepers worked their way in and out of a clever short-field scrimmage, heroes Colin Falvey, Emmanuel Adjetey and Mike Azira knocked a ball around on the other half of the field. Oft-injuried Maikel Chang ran on his own. Substitute scoring-sensation Heviel Cordoves sat with an ice pack strapped to his groin. Jose Cuevas took it easy, recovering from the obnoxious take-down he suffered against Richmond. And Ben Fisk and Cody Ellison spent most of the session indoors.

But player health wasn’t the big story on Monday. Recovery was. Head athletic trainer Bobby Weisenberger said the injuries on the team were minor ones to start the week, and that he expected most of the players to be ready  by game time.

Club president Andrew Bell reported yesterday that only Fisk and rookie forward Austin Savage would not be traveling with the team today. It’s not clear to me whether that means Maikel Chang would be on the flight, but given the slow pace of his recovery and the Battery’s cautious approach to his minutes, I figure it’s more likely he simply wasn’t counted among the relevant options.

So who plays? Well, other than the usual John Wilson rotation and Anhaeuser’s policy of giving the second match in two-game road trips to his backup keeper, your guess is as good as mine. It would make sense for the Battery to stash some size on the 18 tonight, which could mean time for reserves like Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson, though not necessarily starting minutes.

All of the Battery’s attacking options have been in quality form since the Phoenix game, and — no slight to Jarad van Schaik implied — the team has turned in some of its best performances since the return of Amadou Sanyang to the defensive midfield.

However, perhaps the most interesting player on the Battery at the moment is fullback Emmanuel Adjetey. The Ghanaian has turned in consistently high-quality shifts at both left and right fullback positions, worked well as a midfield fill-in, and logged 180 minutes for the Battery on Friday and Saturday. And though he started his loan here as a back-up to Wilson and right back Mark Wiltse, it’s hard to see him as anything other than a starter these days.

Oh, and bear this in mind: This is a big match for Californians Cody Ellison and Jose Cuevas. I haven’t spoken to Ellison about it, but I know that Cuevas’ parents, family and dozens of friends from his hometown in Farmersville will be making the four-hour drive to LA for this one.

In context

There were two big USL PRO results last night: Harrisburg dropped a huge loss at home to Charlotte, and Orlando came from behind to finish its sweep of the league’s other Florida team, VSI Tampa Bay FC. The result assured Orlando of a home game in the first round and left the Lions in possession of second place, thanks to tie breakers. It also dropped Tampa out of the last playoff spot — for the time being, at least.

From a Battery perspective, the more important of the two results was Harrisburg’s loss. Charleston now trails the City Islanders by just two points with a game in hand. So a win tonight could move the Battery into sole possession of third place, with just 11th-place Phoenix away and last-place Antigua at home remaining on its regular season schedule.

For those of you who’ve asked about the playoff format and tiebreakers, here’s the explanation I got from Anhaeuser.

The top eight teams qualify, and play a standard-seeded first round (a.k.a. quarterfinal), with No. 1 playing No. 8, No. 2 playing No. 7, and so on. If the playoffs started today, No. 4 Charleston would host No. 5 Charlotte, but would play the rest of the playoffs on the road unless a higher ranked team lost in an upset. That’s how Charleston managed to host the 2012 championship, but that’s not something anyone would bank on most seasons.

Anhaeuser said on Monday that there’s a roughly 5 percent chance of the Battery earning one of the top two seeds. Richmond holds the top spot on tiebreakers over Orlando at 48 points, and the only way the Battery can finish level would be for both those teams to lose all three of their remaining matches while Charleston runs the table.

“We want a home game, and that’s what I told the guys,” Anhaeuser said. “If we win two games, we’re probably third or fourth. If we win three, we’re really looking at third or fourth for sure, and a possible two.”

As for tie-breakers, they are: Head-to-head points, goal differential, and then wins.

“We’re probably in,” Anaheuser said Monday, allowing for a Black Swan run of bad luck, but acknowledging that the Battery have the inside track. “You’ve got five teams really fighting for four spots, and they’re playing each other. But there’s a chance that if you don’t do well, you could finish in the seventh, eighth spot. ”

The Battery fly to Phoenix on Friday ahead of their match at the Wolves’ new digs in some recreational soccer complex.

2 Comments

  1. Love the artwork on the plane, Dan. I would have said LA despite Delta or Bust – Go Bats.

    Great article as always.