(Editor’s not: Photo gallery at the bottom of this post. Ross Almers’ gallery from today’s match and tonight’s Season Ticketholders Meet-and-Greet at the Three Lions is here. –dc)
For roughly 87 minutes, this was the way the Charleston Battery’s preseason friendly with rivals Wilmington Hammerheads went: Battery possession, building up the field, works into the attacking third, then either breaks down on the final pass, or the Hammers’ solid defense wins the ball back.
And then, in roughly the 87th or 88th minute — there was no clock on the field, so this was a group estimate in the stands — this beautiful little thing happened. Battery newcomer Andre Lewis, the No. 7 pick in the 2014 MLS Superdraft, lifted a return pass from the left into the box toward No. 30 Superdraft pick Mamadou Diouf, who was bracketed by Hammerheads at the corner of the six.
Diouf, mind you, was famed for his aerial ability going into his senior year at the University of Connecticut last fall. And while he points out that, yeah, maybe only about 15 percent of his career goals have come off his head, Diouf acknowledges the reputation. At 6-1, 170, with springy legs, he’s not only capable of getting to balls that come in high, he has a knack for doing something with them. And after training and rooming with Lewis for the past month or so in Vancouver, Lewis — the attacking midfielder — has kinda figured out that Diouf — the forward — has a special ability.
So, back to the play. Lewis delivers this perfect ball to Diouf, who simply rises above the Hammerhead back line, snaps his neck and redirects Lewis’ assist toward the far post of the Wilmington goal. With their keeper stuck in the wrong spot to defend that unusual weapon, it was lights out for Hammerheads and another preseason win for Charleston.
It’s worth remembering here that we are still very early in a Battery season that will run well into September. And while Lewis and Diouf are great Whitecaps prospects, they’re still rookies, subject to all the woes, setbacks and learning curves that afflict all young players, regardless of talent. Their game winner came on a field where many of the opposing starters had subbed out, against a Wilmington team that is still waiting on its first loaned reinforcements from Toronto F.C. to arrive. Neither Diouf nor Lewis is guaranteed a starting spot on a well-stocked and solid Battery lineup.
But just in that moment? Yeah. You didn’t have to squint too hard at the Lewis-Diouf combo to see the first stirrings of a Battery attack in the making.
Because that artful header from roughly seven yards out came within the run of play. And while the Battery scored a lot of goals in 2013, I don’t remember them scoring that goal.
So let’s deal with the requisite stuff right now. Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser rolled out a new lineup on Tuesday, starting Eric Shannon in goal behind fullbacks Quinton Griffin and John Wilson and centerbacks Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson. Central midfield duo Amadou Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik returned, with Sanyang covering the No. 6, and Zach Prince out wide. But then it was Vancouver newcomer Adam Mena out wide on the right, with forwards Heviel Cordoves and Marlon Ramirez operating up top in the classic two-forward attack that so many fans lobbied for last summer.
This group played through to the break, then yielded to a new lineup that would eventually include goalkeeper Andy Ramos, Colin Falvey and Drew Ruggles at center back, outside midfielder Maikel Chang, and rookies Dante Marini and Justin Portillo, who featured at wing and central midfield, respectively. Lewis slotted in on the right, flanking fellow Whitecap Aminu Abdallah, who played centrally. And then Diouf moved in next to Cordoves.
This marked the first Battery appearances for Mena, Abdallah and Lewis. Diouf made his debut on Friday in the Battery’s 2-0 win over an NAIA all-star team, along with fellow Whitecap Michael Kafari, a defensive midfielder who missed Tuesday’s match as a precaution after aggravating a previous injury. Eighteen-year-old Canadian center back Jackson Farmer did not play. Also sitting this one out were veteran Battery forwards Dane Kelly and Austin Savage.
Starting goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper (sprained thumb) has begun catching balls in drills, and said he expects to play soon — although head athletic trainer Bobby Weisenberger said the team will not rush him back to action. He’s expected to be ready in advance of the season opener against Orlando City on March 22.
Coach David Irwing‘s Hammerheads have been through some big changes in the offseason — iconic center back Gareth Evans, for instance, will now be plying his trade for the expansion Oklahoma City Energy — and arrived without a full contingent of 18 players. But the Hammers played their usual tough, competent style of ball, with midfielder Paul Nicholson repeatedly breaking up Battery threats — sometimes single-handedly.
What Wilmington lacked on Tuesday was what the Battery have often lacked in February and March — scoring punch.
OTHER THINGS WE SAW
When coaches run lots of subs through a game where nobody bothers to run a scoreboard, writing about the outcome in terms of winning and losing is a bit artificial. True, coaches want to get their players in the habit of winning. But there was more on the agenda here than just points.
So what might you have seen if you’d come out to watch some free soccer at Blackbaud on this beautiful Tuesday afternoon?
THE GOALKEEPER COMPETITION: I asked Battery fans in the stands who they thought might be leading the race for the second goalkeeper spot on the 2014 roster, and so far opinions are split. A better way of putting it might be that both Eric Shannon and Andy Ramos have played well, but neither seems to be running away with the backup keeper job. Tough call. And Wilmington didn’t really put either man under great pressure Tuesday.
SHAWN FERGUSON CLEANS UP: If I understand this correctly, the Battery will be without Captain Colin Falvey for their season opener against Orlando — courtesy of a rotten red card handed out in the semi-finals loss at the Citrus Bowl. But if there’s good news, it’s that defenders Taylor Mueller and Shawn Ferguson are both having good preseasons. Ferguson caught my attention on Tuesday, when I repeatedly watched him head aerial threats to safety. The second-year man out of College of Charleston is in a very take-no-chances mood these days, sending the ball to the touch line rather than take any unnecessary risks. Falvey is special, but Mueller and Ferguson look like they’re coming along nicely.
Q DEFENDS: We got another look at Quinton Griffin as a fullback, and if that winds up being his primary spot this season, that’s not a bad option. Considered more of an attacking player last season, the speedy Antiguan looks comfortable and fit in defense.
MIDFIELD IS SOLID, IF A BIT STODGY: If there’s a complaint with the Battery’s veteran midfield lineup, it’s generally with crosses, set pieces and entry passes that look like they’re about 12 inches off. Not bad ideas, not horribly executed — just not quite connecting yet. On Tuesday they did well winning the ball back, starting the attack and maintaining possession, but they just weren’t able to break down that last line of Hammerhead defense. Last season’s unit started the 2013 preseason in midseason form, suffered some setbacks, and didn’t really get back in the groove until late summer. This season’s unit is developing more slowly, but the basics seem to be in place.
MARLON RAMIREZ BOTHERS PEOPLE: He hasn’t really come close to scoring yet, but when he’s in, he and Zach Prince are key to the Battery’s high-pressure defensive scheme.
HEVIEL CORDOVES IS PROGRESSING: The big forward didn’t make any big plays on Tuesday (unlike Friday), but just watching him run that often for that long was good news. He got some shots off, but I think all of them wound up getting blocked — a byproduct of Wilmington’s organization and a Charleston attack that doesn’t create a lot of space right now.
THE KIDS TAKE A LOT OF TOUCHES: It’s pretty easy to see that Lewis has the control, burst and vision to create on a soccer pitch. Several people also noted that there were times when he held on to the ball a bit too long. Lewis said he feels he’s better working in the center of the field than outside, and he — along with Maikel Chang — demonstrated a knack for working through traffic and tight spaces. But integrating that skill into the Battery’s concept is the next step.
IF ANHAEUSER WANTS TO RUN TWO FORWARDS, HE’S GOT THE PERSONNEL TO DO IT: Last year’s Battery had attackers, but it didn’t necessarily have forwards — and it certainly lacked the depth to send waves of them at opponents two-by-two. But once Dane Kelly returns to the action (and he looked comfortable running today), Anhaeuser will have five forwards (Kelly, Cordoves, Diouf, Ramirez and Savage) he can deploy. That’s a big upgrade. And since each one plays with a distinct style, Anhaeuser could get some mix-and-match flexibility he seldom enjoyed last year.
THIS COULD BE YOUR BATTERY ROSTER: Anhaeuser said early last month that he would probably keep 24 players — up two from 2013 — and could add more. He also said he might carry as many as 26, and that Vancouver could provide up to eight players on loan.
Well, we’re at 25 players today, seven of them from Vancouver. One of those three goalkeepers on the roster is likely to be out soon. That would take the roster to the base 24.
Meanwhile, the name Emmanuel Adjetey keeps popping up. He’s is a respected member of the 2013 Battery roster, Abdallah’s good friend from Ghana, and would be the 8th player from Vancouver… if whatever is keeping him from Charleston can be worked out.
If not? Well, this roster could work. And those early worries about whether Vancouver was going to send the Battery quality players? Not so much of a worry today.
COMING WEDNESDAY: Interviews with Diouf and Lewis…
TOP IMAGE: Forward Mamadou Diouf heads the game-winner toward Wilmington’s goal. Dan Conover photos.