For Battery fans, the home team is always the headliner each February at the Carolina Challenge Cup. But for the some people — including me in 2012 — the first step toward becoming a Battery supporter was the chance to see Major League Soccer teams compete at Blackbaud Stadium.
So that’s one way to think about the Challenge Cup. It’s a gateway drug.
Which means that for the non-Battery-initiated, the most likely headliner for the week-long tournament that begins Saturday at 5 p.m. (combined Regiment and American Outlaws tailgate begins at 2 p.m.! Everybody is welcome!) will be the Seattle Sounders. Not because of regional connections (D.C. United is the club closest to Charleston), or because of recent successes (Houston Dynamo won MLS Cup in 2006-07, and reached the final in 2011-12; Seattle has never reached the final, and DCU hasn’t been back in the past 10 years).
Rather, Seattle arrives as one of the glamour franchises in the modern, expansion-era MLS. They’ve got attendance, passionate supporters, big-city money, the league’s most telegenic rivalry (home-and-away with Portland Timbers) and — not to put too fine a point on it — Clint Dempsey, MLS’ new “Face of the League.” The 30-year-old captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team left Tottenham Hotspur last summer on a $9 million transfer — a deal brokered and financed not by the Sounders, but by the infamously opaque MLS league office.
THE SEATTLE STORY
True, Seattle is still on the hook for Dempsey’s salary (valued at $24 million over three and a half years), but it’s probably more accurate to say that MLS acquired the marquee striker and gave him to Seattle than that Seattle went out and made it happen.
According to Sports Illustrated soccer reporter Grant Wahl, the league reached out to Seattle as its favored Dempsey destination among the three franchises that were believed to be interested in acquiring him — Seattle, Los Angeles Galaxy, and Toronto. Commissioner Don Garber personally offered Dempsey to Seattle majority owner Joe Roth in a July 18th phone call.
“I think it was important that [Dempsey] ended up … how do I say this politely? … not in Los Angeles,” said Roth. “Because from a perception standpoint it would make MLS look essentially like a one-team league when it came to important international players. The Red Bulls are probably in there as well. But if not us, who? We double the attendance of everybody else [in MLS]. We’re in the top 25 in the world in attendance. I had promised the team if there was an available star player we would get him, and I thought he was a perfect match for Seattle.”
Unfortunately for Sounders fans, the deal didn’t turn out so perfectly in 2013. Dempsey’s arrival effectively ended a midseason run of form that had seen the Sounders rise to near the top of the table. Seattle Coach Sigi Schmid worked to integrate Dempsey, but the team sputtered, fussed, then crashed out of playoffs at Portland.
Why talk so much about Dempsey? Because the Sounders are in the midst of aggressively rebuilding their roster around the strengths of its two undisputed stars — designated players Dempsey and former Battery man Osvaldo Alonso. And while the jury on Dempsey’s MLS return is still deliberating, Alonso is obviously the league’s best midfield ball-winner. But it’s not just about talent and system. Even USMNT stalwart Brad Evans agrees it was time to “reboot” the Sounders lockerroom.
It’s in light of those changes that midfielder Mike Azira — the Battery’s breakout success of 2013 — has been making his push for a spot on this year’s Sounders’ roster. The team left for Charleston with four open roster spots and seven unsigned players still in the running.
But here’s the deal: Dempsey isn’t in Charleston. He’s still in London, suffering through the final matches of a miserable loan to Fulham, the English club where he became an international star. While there’s an outside chance that Dempsey could rejoin the team before the end of the CCC, it’s quite likely that the largest impression he’ll make in the Lowcountry will be by his absence.
Credit the Battery for not making Dempsey their CCC marketing focus this winter, emphasizing former Charleston players on the Sounders roster instead. For all their disappointments, the Sounders remain one of the most talented and dangerous teams in MLS. Forward Kenny Cooper, midfielders Marco Pappa and centerback Chad Marshall are all players with distinguished MLS resumes. Obafemi Martins, the team’s big pre-Dempsey acquisition in 2013, is a talented international striker. New acquisiton Jalil Anibaba is a rising defender who visited Charleston last winter with Chicago Fire.
And Lamar Neagle, who earned his place in Battery lore as the league MVP during the team’s 2010 championship season, made his mark last season by consistently outperforming some of the team’s highest paid stars. Midfielder Alex Caskey played here in 2011.
Finally, one last word about Azira. Since he’s a Battery player on trial with Seattle, from Charleston’s perspective he belongs in Battery stripes with the clubs face off on Saturday. While that’s probably likely, what uniform will he be wearing against Houston and D.C. United?
Ben Olsen, United’s young head coach, made headlines last week when he admitted he’s been in over his head at times during his two-year tenure. The club entered 2013 looking like a repeat threat for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. But when injuries and occasionally snakebit play quickly derailed their MLS ambitions, fans began calling for Olsen’s head.
The front office stuck by him, and the team found some remarkable salvation in August. Despite finishing as by far the worst team in MLS, United still took home hardware as the 2013 U.S. Open Cup Champion.
A traditional Battery rival — it’s DCU, after all, that beat the Battery in Charleston’s only USOC final — United is a frequent and welcome CCC guest. They’re also a radically different team that the one that came to town in 2012.
The new star is USMNT forward Eddie Johnson, who resurrected his career in Seattle, helped recruit Dempsey back to MLS, and ironically lost his job with the Sounders to make room for the new order. He’ll be paired with former Real Salt Lake star Fabian Espindola. So there’s plenty of punch up top.
They also added veteran help in defenders Bobby Boswell of Houston and Sean Franklin of the Galaxy, plus former Montreal/Sporting KC midfielder Davy Arnaud. Top draft pick Steven Birnbaum could be a back-line starter for years to come.
But the strength of this team might just rest on the shoulders of three rising young midfielders: 21-year-old DM Perry Kitchen, 23-year-old LM/AM Nick DeLeon, and 25-year-old CM/AM Luis Silva. If that trio can resume its positive trajectory as the team’s affordable foundation, the rest of the unit could rise with them. Another young player, 23-year-old goalkeeper Bill Hamid, returns with his usual truckload of potential.
Still, the most interesting player to watch might just be 26-year-old Chris Pontius. The winger/forward made the MLS All-Star team in 2012 with a breakout year, but struggled with injuries last season. With new offensive pieces arranged ahead of him, does Pontius have what it takes to reclaim his role as the club’s leader in the attack?
Sure, Coach Dom Kinnear isn’t one of those MLS managers who tries to seduce the league with sexy soccer and big-name international players — but damn if he doesn’t produce consistently excellent teams, year after year.
And he does it without a lot of turnover, either, building a core that he augments with young talent and the occasional mid-career pickup. Brad Davis, Boniek Garcia, Jermaine Taylor, Tally Hall, Corey Ashe, Giles Barnes, Will Bruin, Ricardo Clark, Kofi Sarkodie. They’re familiar names to serious MLS fans, and while they’re all quality players, none of them are exactly famous. Although some of them — particularly Davis — clearly should be. And others — like Warren Creavalle — might yet be.
Last year’s offensive addition — former Colorado Rapids foward Omar Cummings — didn’t exactly pan out. But there’s a new face on the roster that probably bears particular attention in the CCC, it’s another former/current Rapid — third-year veteran Tony Cascio.
Cascio was a surprise star as a 2012 rookie, but his playing time regressed in 2013. In early 2014, he became the first MLS player ever sent out on an intraleague loan, a move that raised more questions than answers. As in, “Why would Colorado send a prospect to Houston?” Both are 2013 playoff teams with roughly equivalent talent. It’s not like Manchester City loaning a kid from the bottom of its roster to Norwich.
The answer turns out to be that the loan is actually a loan with an option to buy. Which makes 2013 Cascio’s extended audition for what could be a lengthy career in Houston. Kinnear’s base style is physical, organized and smart, but adding disruptive players to the mix is the key to breaking open low-scoring games.
Another interesting addition is former Timbers centerback David Horst, who lost his starting job with an injury. When healthy, Horst is a tall, burly and charismatic defender with the ability to energize a defense.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE BATTERY
This year’s Battery team only began its training in earnest a week ago, with the official start of camp on Tuesday of this week. They’ve played two unremarkable tune-ups against college teams. So there’s not a lot of data to go on.
But from the looks of things, the early version of this club looks solid on defense, particularly when Amadou Sanyang and Jarad van Schaik are on the field together in deep midfield roles. Possession isn’t really a problem, either.
But when it comes to attacking? Not exactly dynamic just yet.
Coach Mike Anhaeuser has mentioned an interest in shifting from last season’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid into a formation that makes use to two forwards up top. He hasn’t had the option of experimenting too much with that so far in 2014, given the shortage of players at the position.
But with the return of Heviel Cordoves and Maikel Chang from Wichta yesterday, reinforcements have arrived.
Cordoves flashed potential as a classic No. 9 in 2013, but lacked the fitness at more than 195 pounds to stay on the field. The new version of “The Cuban Missile” looks much more svelte, without losing any of the power that defined his playing style. Wichita listed him at 180 pounds, and after seeing him last night, I don’t think that’s far off. Pair him with the channel-running style of 2013 leading scorer Dane Kelly, and you could have something special in the making.
But the player who might attract the most attention is Chang. No one on the current team has yet made the case for himself as the Battery’s next No. 10 — the go-to creative playmaker — and pending the announcement of Vancouver’s loanees, Chang stands as one of the most interesting candidates for that job.
Chang barely saw the field in 2013 due to injuries and fitness issues. But after a year in professional soccer, he’s fit, nourished and strong. He scored nine goals and recorded eight assists in 15 matches for the indoor Wichita B-52s, and if he’s ready to contribute the level of talent he once flashed on the international stage for Cuba, he could be the first answer to Charleston’s No. 10 question.
One player who won’t be part of the Battery’s attack in 2013 is Gibson Bardsley. The nine-goal-scorer (for Dayton in 2013) spent the offseason in Charleston training with friends on the club, but was notably absent when the Battery began its final open tryout a week ago.
That’s because he was out in his home-state California, competing for a starting job on the recently rebranded O.C. Blues.
Bardsley reports that things are going well with his new team, which has moved south from Los Angeles to Orange County. So mark him off your “Maybe” list for Charleston.
And some good news about ticket sales. The Battery Tweeted Thursday that fewer than 500 tickets remain for this year’s CCC. More good news: Fewer than 50 seats remain in the stadium’s relocated Supporters Section, thanks in large part to cooperation between the club and American Outlaws Charleston.
TOP IMAGE: Clint Demspey may be the marquee face of MLS, but the most valuable Sounder is quite possibly former Battery star Osvaldo Alonso, who became the first former Battery player ever named an MLS Designated Player this offseason. NASORB photo.