When I was scanning through my camera roll last night, I gave the image at the top of this article the quick name “futile nicki.jpg,” and looking at it again this morning, it struck me that it does a workmanlike job of telling the story of Charleston’s scoreless draw with VSI Tampa Bay FC.
There’s Nicki Paterson just shy of the midway line, facing a midfield packed with Tampa players, with the passing lanes filled and little to no space, just trying to thread a hopeful pass ahead to a teammate.
You can kinda see the concentration on his face. But you can also sense how static and congested the situation is.
After sleeping on it, for me the Tampa match falls into a group of Battery games (both games against Charlotte, the loss to Harrisburg, the draws against Rochester and Pittsburgh) marked by a frustrating sense of futility. Which is not to say that the Battery should or should not have won those matches. Rather, it’s that Charleston is a team with the quality and intention to play beautiful, surprising, dynamic soccer — and when USL PRO teams effectively counter that intention, the Battery can struggle.
It’s a soccer tradition that evenly matched visiting teams and teams with less talent typically focus on clogging up the attacking third and looking for isolated opportunities — counterattacks, set pieces, mistakes, etc. And Charleston has done this, too, winning back-to-back road games at Harrisburg and Dayton in early May with a conservative road template that took them back to basics in the wake of their a 1-4 loss at Richmond. Charleston has one of the best defenses in the league, and comes well-equipped to win ugly.
That they aspire to something more than victory by the lowest common denominator is one of the reasons to admire this year’s model. And make no mistake — the coaches and players truly wanted to put on a show for the fans Saturday night.
But here’s the problem: In USL PRO, it’s often just too easy for one team to decide make a match one-dimensional. Which reminds me of this Paterson quote from June 9, after the Battery dismantled the Houston Dynamo Reserves at Blackbaud Stadium 4-1. I asked him about the Battery’s four-game winning streak (since broken) against Major League Soccer opponents, and he replied:
Yeah, I wish we had the same record against USL teams (laughs). I mean, it’s not that we don’t have that mentality against USL teams. It’s that MLS teams give you a certain amount of respect, because they want that respect, so they let you pass. And tonight we showed that we can pass and play and break things down. And sometimes you play a USL team and they put 11 guys behind the ball and they make it scrappy. I mean, it’s a better game when we play an MLS team.
Which, as a summary of the game we watched last night, comes fairly close — although Tampa’s quality was probably better than the games Paterson was referencing. VSITBFC generated some legitimate scoring opportunities from the run of play, and didn’t actually play for the draw in the closing minutes, subbing on two forwards and a midfielder in the final 15 minutes. You’ve got to respect that.
I’d say that while the result was the same — a game without consistent flow — the way that Tampa achieved it wasn’t the typical “bunkered third” style (which we actually saw the Battery deploy effectively against Real Salt Lake in the second half of their U.S. Open Cup loss). Rather, Tampa seemed to do a good, disciplined job of sitting in the gaps in midfield and disrupting things.
“They packed the midfield,” said Battery skipper Colin Falvey, who turned 28 on Thursday. “They played with four tucked in, no wingers. I think there was a big clash of styles of play, the way we played and them, (and) it didn’t really suit the game. There wasn’t really a flow to it, I thought. It was scrappy and chippy and we tried to see it out.”
Coach Mike Anhaeuser agreed that Tampa had kept good shape, but didn’t just dwell on their defensive form. “Well, they passed it. They did what we wanted to do and we didn’t pass it and we didn’t move it. And when we did get it, we gave it away.”
When that’s how your coach describes your match, you know it wasn’t one of your better nights.
And yet. Even with all that in mind, last night remains a difficult event to categorize, explain away, and file in my memory. So many little things seemed to point to success before the match.
“It’s a tough one to put your finger on because we had a week’s training behind us, so we thought we were going to be flying,” Falvey said. “And we just kinda played within ourselves a little bit tonight.
“I would sum it up as it wasn’t as clean and sharp as we wanted it to be. That would be the two words I’d use. It was just a little bit off. Everything was one or two yards to either side of each other, or was too hard played, or was it wasn’t enough pace on the ball. Just little things like that maybe caught us tonight. ”
A shaky shutout
Cody Ellison won Man of the Match last night, largely off the strength of a kick save that kept the game scoreless. Then again, Ellison might have qualified for the honor even without a big play. He stood up well on defense all night, and his strong, steady clearances were invaluable on a night things often felt tentative.
But even Ellison’s big moment highlighted a problem. “That was a great clear off the line by Cody … but we had it because we didn’t clear a ball,” Anhaeuser said. “He tried to dribble, so the same thing that happened (vs.) Harrisburg. So we’ve got to look at that, and obviously talk to him.”
When Anhaeuser says “he” in this case, it’s not a reference to Ellison, and while my notes are not clear enough to work out which instance he’s referring to, its pretty easy to figure that he’s speaking about goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper when he mentions Harrisburg. In the Battery’s only home loss, Cooper surrendered the Battery’s first goal of the night when he tried to dribble an awkward back-pass out of danger and lost possession. Last night Cooper came off his line in stoppage time and tried to dribble out of trouble again, and only a kick save kept things even. My notes aren’t clear as to whether the person kicking it clear that time was Ellison, as I was on the field and my vision was blocked. but it’s a pretty safe bet it was.
Then again, it could have been a reference to the 63rd minute, when Cooper’s attempt to clear a Tampa free kick from a dangerous spot went back to VSITBFC, and with the keeper off his line, a Battery defender slid back to cover goal and managed to prevent a score off the second ball.
Cooper recorded his sixth shutout Saturday (a figure that includes a clean sheet in the U.S. Open Cup), but it was one of his shakier performances. The official scorer credited him with two saves on 11 shots, and while saves are a subjective statistic, both of them might well have come off the same 40-yard free kick in the 41st minute. Mark Wiltse’s header clearance fell right back into play, allowing a Tampa shot on goal that Cooper attempted to catch, but couldn’t handle. His save on the rebound volley was excellent, but it was one of those great saves that made up for a sketchy series.
Charleston’s big Cuban keeper went down after a hard collision with a Tampa forward in the second minute — aren’t the officials supposed to, you know, protect goalkeepers in situations like that? — but shook it off after about two minutes of treatment and stayed in the match.
Big stuff, little stuff
OPEN SEASON ON CHIVA: Outside attacker Jose Cuevas took an absolute beating last night, and while it wasn’t his best game, it was certainly one of his most valiant. Seeing a talented guy like that writhing on the pitch, over and over, is enough to give you sympathy pains, but the young California kept getting back up and limping back to his position.
It was another hard foul on Cuevas in the 89th minute that won the Battery their last best chance to smash open the game and steal three points. Midfielder Joseph Noone earned yellow when he chopped Cuevas down just above the penalty box and about five yards to the left. Tampa formed a five-man wall to shield, but Paterson’s bending free kick was masterful, barely clearing the man on the far right and then homing in on the far post like a sinking curve ball.
Seeing Tampa keeper Alex Horwath dive out from behind that wall to punch Paterson’s shot away just inches off the turf cemented my personal Man of the Match vote for him. Horwath faced 13 shots and saved three of them, and he came up huge against a perfect strike from Paterson with the game on the line.
MERRY XMAS IN XUNE: Last night’s promotion was the Marine Corps Reserve’s Christmas in June event, and though the pitch wasn’t in shape to allow a vehicle to drive around on it accepting donations, a lot of folks brought out toys to donate.
Meanwhile, Regiment regular Scott Johnstone — the creator of the “Jose Cuevas: Take the Shot” tequila T-shirt — was absolutely in the holiday spirit. Yesterday’s traditional holiday Jello Shots came in festive holiday colors. And to carry the theme to its logical conclusion, Johnstone also arranged them into a decorative Christmas tree shape.
KLASILAS IN THE HOUSE: While it’s no surprise to spot a bunch of Kevin Klasila fans in the Southeast corner of the stadium (in the Battery’s previous home game, a group of Belieber-aged girls stood near the bar section squealing with delight as Klasilla warmed up), but when they’re all wearing Battery jerseys with “KLASILA” on the back, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re looking at family.
I went up and introduced myself, and it turned out I was talking to the Battery backup keeper’s mother (Olivia), father (Matt) and little sister (Amanda), who are in town from California visiting until Tuesday. They’re all very nice people (you can see where Kevin gets it from), all of them athletes (his father coached in college and was a founding member of AYSO as a kid, his mother was on the volleyball team, and his sister is also a goalkeeper), and they chatted with me for a few minutes.
Enjoy Charleston, folks.
MORE STUFF THAN I CAN COVER: So let’s see, what else went on here Saturday?
Well, it was the World Futbol Tour’s 3-v-3 Battery Blast. That’s an international soccer tournament tour that just happens to be based in Charleston and organized by entrepreneur Kenyon Cook. Very cool thing.
And we had the North South All-Star Match (with the girls match being played today). Once again, if I could clone myself, this would be easy…
NO HASSLE HOFFER: Former Battery defender Kyle Hoffer moved on to expansion VSI Tampa Bay FC this offseason, along with two other 2013 Battery players (Tony Donatelli and Sallieu Bundu), so there were a bunch of reunion conversations on the pitch after full time last night.
But only Hoffer — who didn’t dress for last night’s match because of injury — managed to stop by the Regiment tailgate. John Ace will be writing about that one. So check back later for whatever he has to say. UPDATE: John actually filed his story before I filed mine.
MIDSEASON AWARDS VOTING RESULTS: So last week I put up a post with a bunch of polls on it and asked you to chime in on your choices. And we have the envelope here… just opening it… thank you, Anne Hathaway…
BEST GOAL: It’s MICHAEL AZIRA! He took 38 percent of the vote for his volley shot on the road at Harrisburg. Jose Cuevas finished second with his blast from distance at Pittsburgh.
BEST MATCH: Fifty-nine percent of you voted for the 1-0 Battery upset of San Jose in the Open Cup, with the 4-1 win over the Houston Dynamo Reserves finishing a distant second.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE: Colin Falvey won this one in a rout, with 72 percent. He was nominated for leading the shutout against San Jose … and heading in the winning goal. That header also ran away with the voting for BEST MOMENT.
LOW POINT: The dubious decision to give Real Salt Lake a late penalty kick for an off-the-ball collision took 71 percent of the vote.
MIDSEASON MVP: Is there really any doubt? Colin Falvey won with 39 percent of the vote. Second place went to “Other,” which no doubt represented all the un-nominated players’ parents and girlfriends chipping in their two-cents.
Coach Anhaeuser postgame comments
It was one of those games that we’d get one or two chances, but they came down and got one or two chances because of something we did, and in the end, it was almost like you didn’t want to give something up. We just couldn’t get it up front, we couldn’t hold the ball up there, and couldn’t really generate too much, especially in the second half.
But at the same time, you know, we still had one or two chances where, if we could catch them at the free kick there at the end, just missed, good save. It just seemed to be one of those games. And you’ve got to give them credit. They came in, they moved the ball into places that caused us problems, especially in the first half.
I think that’s what knocked us off. I think they used their smarts to knock us off. We wanted to play one and two touch, and I don’t think we were able to do that and get the ball down, even in the first half, to put them under pressure. They were able to do that to us, and just move the ball around. Not even fast. They just moved it slow and made us work defensively, and then we caused a few problems by not getting tight and maybe giving them a some chances.
In the end it was more just a defensive battle, and it almost comes down to who’s going to make a mistake, because you get your heavy legs for both sides. And look: Goalkeeper almot tries to dribble out, loses it. And their guy, we almost caught them on their end. In the end, we’re going to take the point, but I’ll tell you what. We really need to work on it and try to figure out if we can get some pieces in their to spruce things up offensively.
DRAWS INSTEAD OF WINS IN RECENT GAMES?
Unfortunately, I think a few of the guys – I mean Colin Falvey, you could really see his heavy legs kick in. And sometimes it’s not the second or third game back-to-back, sometimes it’s when you have a break that your legs actually get heavy underneath you. And I think that actually caught up with a couple of the guys, even some of them who were sick a little bit. So we’re trying to make some decisions and put some guys out there, and in the end, now we’ve got to turn around and say we’ve got the point, we didn’t let them get three points on us. We want the three points though.
We’ve got to get buckled down. We’ve got a break. We need to get organized and get ready to go, because we’ve got Orlando back-to-back. And I’ll tell you what: That’s going to be the difference in the league.
DID DANE KELLY’S ABSENCE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Absolutely. They’re tired in the back and they don’t have too much pace, and obviously Cordoves he got in the one time on them, but he can’t do it. Dane can do that five, six times. But we’re not going to look at that. It’s just a different style. And you do get used to playing with a guy, and now we’ve got to go back and make sure. Dane could be back next week. But we can’t worry about it, because guys have got to step in. We’ve got to learn to play. But Cordoves has to hold the ball for us. He didn’t hold the ball. He’s gotta be a big man and keep it, and if he does that, we bring the other players into play. But we weren’t able to do that the whole game.
WAS THIS MORE ABOUT WHAT TAMPA DID OR HOW CHARLESTON PLAYED?
We had some bad touches that caused us some problems. In the midfield we never moved it from side to side, we didn’t move it through the midfield two times, but they did. And when we picked it up, we didn’t keep it and put them under pressure. We even had chances with the guy with no pressure on him, and what did we do? We gave it away. You can’t do well, you can’t have success if you give the ball away, but you know what? It comes down to a few of the guys, and we’ll have to look at that. But the good thing is we’ve got a little break, we’ve got to try to get organized and see where are cards fall right now. Having those three or four days it might have caught up with them a little too much. We’re going to work them hard these next three, four days, give them a couple of days off and come back fresh to make sure we run the second half of the season. Because we’ve got to win games. We can’t tie them.
BIG DEFENSIVE PLAYS?
Yeah, but we had it because we didn’t clear a ball. He tried to dibble, so the same thing that happened at Harrisburg. So we’ve got to look at that, and obviously talk to him. But they kinda did their job. They had experienced players who held their position, and we didn’t move the ball.
Well, they passed it. They did what we wanted to do and we didn’t pass it and we didn’t move it. And when we did get it, we gave it away. We took too many touches. We wanted to play one and two-touch, and then the game comes down to one mistake. The good news is it didn’t hurt us. That was a great clear off the line by Cody, it wasn’t clear off the line, he was in good position, he actually dropped. Glad that he got back there. We just gotta make sure that we get the pieces in there offensively.
Colin Falvey postgame comments
We had a nice week, couple of days off, fitness levels are good. I feel good. Everyone feels good, to be honest with you. We had a nice regrouping this week, and we fell a little bit short tonight of playing our best. On another night I think we might have nicked that one back over. But they’re an experienced side. The boys have been around the league. I think you’ve seen that in the last 10, 15 minutes. They knew what to do to get a result, and how to play in the break. As I said, I think an inexperienced side would have lost that one to us tonight.
It’s a tough one to put your finger on because we had a week’s training behind us, so we thought we were going to be flying. And we just kinda played within ourselves a little bit tonight.
I would sum it up as it wasn’t as clean and sharp as we wanted it to be. That would be the two words I’d use. It was just a little bit off. Everything was one or two yards to either side of each other, or was too hard played, or was it wasn’t enough pace on the ball. Just little things like that maybe caught us tonight.
They packed the midfield. They played with four tucked in, no wingers. I think there was a big clash of styles of play, the way we played and them, it didn’t really suit the game. There wasn’t really a flow to it I thought. It was scrappy and chippy and we tried to see it out. We’ve done that here a few times when we needed to see out a win and try to get a one-nil win. The only positive is it’s another shutout. So I’ll take that.