Charleston’s players and staff began 2013 with some lofty goals: Repeat as champions, make a run in the U.S. Open Cup, maybe even contend for Commissioner’s Cup, the hardware given to the team with the best regular season record in USL PRO.
With the most grueling stretch of the season now behind them, the Battery has battled its way to a 7-3-4 record with a +9 goal differential, good for 25 points and a tie with Richmond for third place in the USL PRO table. But from a midseason perspective, how are they doing with those big goals?
The short answer: They’ve largely lived up to expectations. Charleston is on track to earn a good playoff seed, and could be a team that peaks at just the right time once again. They upset the San Jose Earthquakes in the U.S. Open Cup, and were a late penalty kick away from shocking Real Salt Lake and hosting a quarterfinal match. But their most ambitious goal — contending for the Commissioners Cup — is on the verge of slipping beyond their grasp, and their chances of regaining the Southern Derby Cup rest largely on the shoulders of Wilmington.
The schedule figures into it
Only Orlando City (32 points) and Harrisburg (28 points) have done better this year, but the pessimist hand points out that the two leaders have played just 13 matches to Charleston’s 14, while Richmond’s 25 points were built on just 11 matches.
The USL PRO season unfolds like no other in American professional sport. Some teams start regular season play weeks before others (regular season play began on March 23, but the Battery didn’t get their first match until April 13). Home-and-away scheduling is often unbalanced (10 of Richmond’s 11 matches so far have been at home). The rolling disaster that is the 2013 Antigua Barracuda squad (0-13-0, with no home games and a -42 goal differential) tends to skew the standings a bit all by itself. And while the league’s emphasis on clustering match dates to help clubs control their travel costs certainly helps the bottom line, playing two road games on less than 24 hours rest is a ridiculous wild card when it comes to evaluating outcomes.
Then you figure in the effect of the U.S. Open Cup. As Mikey Buytas pointed out on Reckless Challenge last week, by Sunday night the Battery had played 10 matches in just 28 days. MLS coaches complain about Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League dates occasionally cluttering their schedules with a fifth or six match in a month, and that whining comes from teams that typically carry 28 to 30 active players, plus upscale academies they can tap for Reserve League matches. The Battery managed its three-matches-per-week stretch with a roster that nominally includes 22 names, but sometimes didn’t include 18 truly healthy and available bodies.
Battery Captain Colin Falvey said adding Open Cup matches to the schedule wasn’t really a problem because players just naturally get up for them. But let’s be honest here: Colin Falvey is a freak of nature. He’s started 14 regular season matches and three Open Cup matches, including both games this weekend. And he’s subbed out just once — in the 79th minute of the 1-2 loss to Harrisburg.
Coaches and players have to put a can-do spin on the effects of the schedule, because honestly and publicly acknowledging how difficult it can be would probably dull their competitive edge. But the rest of us can appreciate and respect what it means. Just don’t expect Anhaeuser and Falvey to stand up and agree.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the Battery played three Carolina Challenge Cup matches and nine preseason games before they went to work in USL PRO and the Open Cup. Which means they’ve actually suited up for 29 matches so far in 2013.
The Great Sorting
With USL PRO playing a 26-game regular season this year, 10 of the 13 teams are now at or beyond the middle of their schedules. And we pretty much know who’s who.
Orlando City appears to be in a class by itself. Harrisburg, Richmond, Charleston and VSI Tampa Bay FC — the expansion team I’ve derided as “The Alphabet Soup Squad” — are all pretty much assured of securing one of the eight playoff spots this year.
The next group — the LA Blues, Dayton, Charlotte and Pittsburgh — are all in contention. Dayton, lead by 2013 Battery trialist Gibson Bardsley, is quietly doing surprisingly well, earning 1.80 points per match to Charleston’s 1.78 ppm. Charlotte and Pittsburgh look like pretty good bets, too.
Wilmington, Rochester and Phoenix would be surprises if they crashed the playoff party. And poor Antigua just hangs on.
Catching Orlando might be a tall order at this point. But while Charleston is currently 5th in the league in terms of points per match, there are several reasons to believe the Battery will contend for the No. 2 seed in the regular season table.
While Richmond has had the easiest run so far, their season from here on out looks nightmarish. Dayton’s current six-game league unbeaten streak has been built on five home matches, and most of their remaining games are on the road. Pittsburgh’s weak start obscures its relative improvement since, but it remains a team with just 14 goals to its credit in 13 matches. Charlotte is another team that’s gotten by on draws and defense, scoring 17 times, with a +1 goal differential.
That pretty much leaves Harrisburg and Charleston and Tampa to duke it out for the No. 2 spot over the next two months. At this point, Harrisburg’s schedule probably makes it the favorite to earn the home field advantage in the bracket opposite Orlando’s, but they’ve still got to go out there and win those games.
The next four games probably are key
To understand what Charleston has to do to stay in the hunt for home field in the playoffs, look no further than Saturday night.
Expansion Tampa didn’t look like much of an opponent back in February, but the Alphabet Soup Squad is just three points behind the Battery with a game in hand. Losing to them at home Saturday night would severely hurt our chances of challenging for the Commissioner’s Cup while giving them oxygen. But with Tampa coming into town on short rest from Charlotte the night before, Saturday represents a rare opportunity to open a six-point gap on a rival as we head into the home stretch.
Here’s why that’s particularly important. Because Charleston’s next two matches are against Orlando (at home on Friday, July 5th, and on the road on Thursday, July 11th), followed by the Battery’s first visit to Plant City to take on VSITBFC on Saturday, July 13. That’s all four games against Florida opponents in three weeks.
Charleston could still make the playoffs if it collected zero points from this four-match Florida portion of its schedule. Maximum points would put the Battery in the hunt for the Commissioner’s Cup. But more realistically, it probably boils down to this: Seven points or better is a huge boost, four to six points is OK, and three points or fewer means trouble.
American Outlaws update
So depending on how you count it, we figure we had roughly 25 to 30 people show up at Madra Rua Park Circle to watch the USA play Panama last night. My spot count at one point in the second half was 21 people in the soccer room, most of us standing and making noise.
We’ve picked up multiple new members of American Outlaws in the past 24 hours — including one guy who couldn’t stay, but stopped by the bar just to sign up. I love that guy.
If you’d like to be one of the original founding members, why not go online and sign up? You tell them your T-shirt size. You pick “Other Chapter/Not Listed” from the chapter list, and then you write “Charleston, SC” in the box provided. Then you check out via PayPal. You can pay with a credit or debit card, too.
And then here’s the important part: Once you’ve registered, give us your name and your email address. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be sure to share your info with Mikey Buytas. Yes, that Mikey Buytas, the president of The Regiment. Mikey is pitching in as the president of the Charleston American Outlaws until we can get this thing off the ground.
The next thing to figure out will be what bar to approach as our official chapter bar. And that’s important, because fans of American soccer look for places to watch with other fans, and when they look they go to the American Outlaws web page. Which is the main reason we need a local chapter — it gives everyone in the Lowcountry a place where they know they can find a watch party.
So what would be a good bar? Mikey points out that we need to think about the size of the place because the crowds will be much larger come the World Cup next summer, but other than that, what are your thoughts?
In addition to Saturday’s match at the Baud, we’ve got midweek MLS matches tonight, which will close out the scoring for Round 16 of MLS Fantasy Soccer Manager. Right now Luke Largin leads The Regiment league’s weekly contest with 47 points, but that could change quickly. Largin is currently in second place in the league’s season table.
Another reminder: This afternoon is your last chance to sign up for a spot in Kenyon Cook’s World Futbol Tour 3-v-3 Battery Blast Tournament this Saturday on Daniel Island. These events are extremely cool, and Kenyon does an excellent job with them.
Coming up tomorrow: Vote on our midseason awards…
TOP IMAGE: Orlando City Lions star Dom Dwyer set the USL PRO single-season scoring record … in just 13 games. VSI Tampa Bay FC have been one of the surprises of 2013… along with the Dayton Dutch Lions.