(Editor’s note: This post includes our game gallery at the bottom, with my photos and more from the lovely Janet Edens. Speaking of photos, Kim Morgan Gregory’s gallery is here, and Ross Almers has his game gallery here. Corrections, questions or suggestions? Leave them in comments or shoot me a message via the “Contact” link on the gray navigation bar above. — dc)
Charleston’s season-opening 1-1 draw with Orlando will never be mentioned in the same sentence with the words “artistic triumph” — well, I mean, in any other sentence than this one — but I don’t write that by way of an insult.
I came into Saturday’s match at Blackbaud Stadium with a sneaking suspicion that Charleston might win by a couple of goals. Not because Charleston is two goals better than the Orlando City Lions, but because there’s so much newly acquired quick-strike talent on this year’s roster that I thought the Battery might catch the Lions early if they opened things even slightly complacent.
And if you were one of the 3,773 people who decided you’d rather watch a live local soccer match than a bunch of televised NCAA tournament basketball (a.k.a. “March Madness,” a sporting Behemoth with a tradition of crushing local attendance figures during its wildly popular Round of 64 and Round of 32 first week of play), what you might have noticed was that the Battery damn near snuck one in on the Lions a couple of times in the first 10 minutes.
Once those chances come to naught, any fantasy I had about a big win evaporated.
So the home side fell into an ebb-and-flow match with the league’s most dangerous team. True, the Lions generated good stretches of possession, but it was Charleston that kept manufacturing chances. By the 13th minute the game was going Orlando’s way. By the 15th minute it was all Charleston.
Things looked good for the home team around the half-hour mark, but 10 minutes later Orlando had retaken control of midfield, and its long stretches of possession appeared to be on the brink of finally breaking down an organized and resolute Battery defense. Until the Battery flipped the script on their soon-to-be-in-MLS visitors.
And so on.
That, to me, is the story of the scoreless first half. ButI felt pretty damned good about our prospects heading into the second, too.
That’s because when I glanced at the Battery bench, I saw these faces: Former teenage phenom Omar Salgado, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 MLS superdraft; 2013 No. 7 overall pick Andre Lewis, a gifted but unpolished Jamaican attacking mid; and Mamadou Diouf, a Senegalese forward from UConn who looked like the best prospect in the NCAA before an injury in the first game of 2013 ruined his fall.
That’s just an amazing attacking bench for a club in USL PRO. And the thing is, basically no one outside of Charleston has really seen what those guys can do. In fact, with Salgado — who arrived Thursday night — no one here had seen what he could do, either.
I got one part right about the bench. After Diouf joined second-half starter Salgado in the lineup, the duo managed to generate one spectacular play in the 65th minute. To understand how special that moment was, you have to consider how dominant Orlando’s possession-oriented attack had become around the hour mark. Charleston simply couldn’t get control of the ball, and all that chasing around was clearly starting to wear the Battery down.
Diouf, who came on for Mena in the 58th minute, is an uncanny multi-threat talent. He can run, he can hold up and wait for help. He’s good with the ball at his feet, great with the ball in the air. He scored four goals in the Battery preseason, and while it’s true they didn’t come against the best competition, it’s also true that he scored them in just barely more than 90 minutes of playing time.
I started getting excited once he came on, since Salgado had the look of a man who just needed a sliver of hope to make something happen. And fresh legs can change the balance of a close game.
The problem was, the game wasn’t particularly close as the clock clicked past the hour mark. Orlando was dominating possession, bringing their fullbacks up into the attack, pushing the Colin Falvey-less Battery defense to the brink. The Battery looked tired. Frustrated, even.
Here’s how quick that turned around.
In the 65th minute, Quinton Griffin, the 2013 Battery winger re-purposed in 2014 as the team’s starting right back, stepped up into a loose Orlando pass on the West Stands sideline and immediately surged forward. With just the Lions center backs in reserve, Q’s push-ahead pass to Salgado instantly transitioned the Battery from covering up to counterattack.
Orlando’s Brad Rusin — at 6-6 one of the few men on the field who could make Salgado look petite — came up to mark the 20-year-old. But the MLS veteran simply didn’t have the wheels to keep up with Salgado that far from goal, and when the new Battery attacker slashed past him toward the center of the field, Rusin was trapped in an unwinnable footrace. Salgado got just enough separation from Rusin and looked up to spot Diouf on the left.
“I saw him make that perfect run and I played him in,” Salgado said later. What that leaves out is just how accurate and swift that long, diagonal pass was. It set up Diouf in front of the E1 Supporter’s section with the ball at his feet, the Lions hustling back into the central channels, and defender Justin Clark charging out to challenge him.
Diouf got a great first touch, but added in a couple quick moves just to get his man moving the wrong way. It provided only minimal space, but it was enough to allow Diouf to put his right foot into a screamer from just inside the left of the box.
Cue one of the more memorable Blackbaud player/fan celebrations in recent memory.
For the next few minutes it felt like the revitalized Battery were going to close this one out and start their 2014 with an exclamation point. In retrospect, that was probably always an optimistic view. Adrenaline wears off, and the Battery defense was fatigued before that goal.
The equalizer came about 10 minutes later from Lions midfielder Austin Da Luz at close range.
“It was deflected,” Battery keeper Odisnel Cooper said during the post-game fireworks display. “And one guy — I think it was Shawn Ferguson — was in front of me, and I couldn’t see the ball.
Staving off disaster
Considering the way the game ended, it’s a miracle the Lions didn’t find a game winner.
This is a smart team, mind you, and if you didn’t know that before, consider this. After getting stung by the Battery counter, Orlando played short-corner after short corner, willingly sacrificing dramatic set-piece crosses for the security of denying the Battery another quick-hitting 2-v-2.
But when center back Taylor Mueller went down at the end of a dangerous Orlando cross and left the field with a head injury in the 89th minute, it looked like the nightmare scenario might be about to transpire. After all, Mueller had filled in capably for Falvey, and now Anhaeuser had no choice but to replace him with 18-year-old Whitecaps Residency prospect Jackson Farmer.
And finally, in stoppage time with the Lions throwing everything forward, Griffin went into a tackle near the corner flag and came up with a red card. The game was in the final minute of four minutes of injury time, and the Battery’s hopes were hanging on by a thread.
Ultimately, Griffin’s ejection had no effect on the match. The game ended probably less than a minute after the restart without the Battery allowing a serious threat.
“It’s tough,” midfielder Jarad van Schaik said afterward. “To be honest, we just get worn down a little bit.
“They’re good in possession… and that can wear you down over the course of a game, you know. I think that’s part of it.
“(But) I don’t know. Maybe they made some (halftime) adjustments, too, that came out and gave us some problems. They were finding the hole well, and you just combine all those things and it just starts to sway more and more in their favor.
“But to be fair, we held on and got a result. So I’m proud of the guys for that. We didn’t play great in the second half, but we showed some grit and got at least a point. So I think that’s a positive, at least.”
One last little counter-intuitive note about the finish. Despite Orlando’s general control of the match, a takeaway by Abdallah sprung Salgado for another attacking run in early stoppage time. He barely kept his feet after contact at the top of the semi-circle and continued into the box, where two Lions tackled him (albeit lightly) and he went down — as the ref blew his whistle.
For that one elongated moment, everyone in the stadium held their breath to see where he’d point. But instead of indicating the penalty spot, the official walked the ball back to the earlier contact and awarded a free kick. Griffin stepped up to take it, but the miss-hit ball went low into the wall and did no damage.
Which just goes to show you. Even when you’re on the ropes, a talented striker can keep you in the game. But the same can be said about your goalkeeper.
When the MotM is your keeper: Uh-oh
A year ago, Odisnel Cooper was a stoic, non-English-speaking, 21-year-old Cuban defector beginning his first professional season in a country not his own. He had undeniable big-time talent, but his mental lapses cost the Battery at least two results. And while he finished the year with the league’s third-best goals-against average, he did it while finishing 11th in saves.
In other words, he was a gifted question mark behind an excellent defense.
On Saturday, he was simply the game’s biggest hero.
Officially, Cooper came up with five saves and faced 14 shots. He was effectively screened off the one he let get past him. But what people will remember about his season opener was the stop he made in the 55th minute.
With the game still scoreless and the Lions choking the life out of the Battery, one of their players (I couldn’t see who from my vantage point) snapped a header to the far post. As you can see in the photo, it was such an obvious kill-shot that Orlando immediately celebrated.
As you can see in the picture on the right (click to see full size), Cooper’s diving save was pretty remarkable. Watching it live, though, I’m still not sure how he did it. The shot might have came from just outside the six, but it if was outside, it wasn’t much outside. And it had venom on it.
But there it is. Somehow, some way, Cooper’s reflexes were sufficient to reach that certain score. And his hands were strong enough to stop that ball on the line.
All the defenders should be commended for their play on Saturday, but let me call out John Wilson for one other game-saving moment. In the early going, an awkward ball somehow managed to get over Cooper and arc toward his empty goal. Wilson, who was behind the play, was the only man with a chance to make the save, and he got there at the last possible instant and kicked the slow bouncer back over his head.
From all of us: Thank you, John.
Number of the Game: 17
Seventeen. That’s how many corner kicks Orlando won on Saturday. Six in the first half, 11 in the second. The Battery managed a measly four.
Which means the only reason the Lions didn’t run the Battery out of their own stadium off set-piece headers alone is that the 2014 Battery are really quite good at defending them.
“We’ve been working on that,” said defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang. “The whole preseason. We never have a doubt on those.”
And with aerial powers like Sanyang, Mueller, Ferguson, Salgado, Aminu Abdallah and Diouf in the second-half line-up, is it really any wonder that Heath had his guys back off and play the short corner.
The bigger question is, how were the Lions able to get to the Battery goal line so frequently?
“They overload,” Anhaeuser said. “They play it on your inside, in between the two midfielders. Then they get the outside back overlapping, and they do a nice job. They have good quality.
“We talk about it. You work on it. And it’s just difficult to defend, because they play it into the feet and then they turn and play it wide. And they’ve got good quality out wide.”
Here’s the link to the official USL PRO box score. You’ll notice that it doesn’t mention Salgado. Don’t worry about it. He played. We have photographic evidence.
The only outfield player on the bench who didn’t enter the match was Lewis.
There’s also a question mark at goalkeeper. While the program listed Eric Shannon, Shannon spent the evening in the stands in a dapper coat and scarf. The guy in warm-ups and in the dugout was apparently a goalkeeper on loan from Wilmington. But he’s not listed anywhere, including the box score, so I’ll check on that later and let you know.
In their own words
(When did you find you you were going to be playing tonight?)
Thursday night (Editor’s note: That’s the night he arrived in Charleston).
(What did coach tell you before the match to get you ready?)
Just have fun, really. I haven’t played in a while, so just have fun again playing soccer.
(According to the fans up in Vancouver you were having a promising preseason. What did the staff there tell you when they told you you’d be coming on loan to Charleston?)
They just said I wasn’t fit enough yet. I’ve been out for two years. To come down to Charleston, get some fitness, and hopefully get back and make a difference.
(How’s your foot?)
It’s good. Finally, after two years, it feels good to be able to play.
We just couldn’t’ get that goal. If you get a goal you can kinda solidify and maybe open things up a little bit. We got it (eventually), but they do a nice job and they’re a very difficult team to defend against. So we’ll have to go back (and look at things), but we got one point, and it’s better than not getting anything.
(Mamadou Diouf’s goal was a great individual play.)
Absolutely. He did a nice job. But it was off the counter. Two-v-two, he pulled wide, got a nice touch, beat the guy to the inside and smashed the shot with his right foot. That was a great goal, and I think you’ll see a few more of those in the season.
(On the equalizer, was that a mental lapse by your guys on their goal?)
I think it was a deflection. We’ll have to see. But it looked like they went in and we were a little late coming across. And he hit the shot and it deflected in.
We scored a nice one, and they got one in. I mean, they could have had one or two other ones, too, where Cooper made a great save.
So it kinda ends up a fair result. They maybe could have had one more there at the end, but we held on defensively.
It’s disappointing that Q (Quinton Griffin) got a red card, because we’ve got to really look at that one and make sure we readjust.
(I’m sure you want to win, but can you take any solace in a draw with a quality team like Orlando?)
Yeah. We’re disappointed, though. I mean, we want three points here. We went up 1-0, not saying we played great, but you want to hold on and maybe seal a 1-0 win. And then you come out of here and it gives you a little breathing room.
But I’ll tell you. One point is good. You’re playing Orlando. You’ve got them three times in the season, and they’re going to be tough match-ups every time we play them.
We gotta get a few guys fit. We gotta get some guys out there and moving a bit more. And some of them, for their first time, they could see it’s a different speed. A different pace. The way they pass it. And they’ve got to be ready to go.
Our guys ended up defending pretty well. We didn’t give up too many chances, even though they did move it around on us a little bit in the second half.
(The good news is that y’all did a good job defending set pieces. The bad news is that there were an awful lot of them. Why were they able to get so many corners?)
They overload. They play it on your inside, in between the two midfielders. Then they get the outside back overlapping and they do a nice job. They have good quality.
We talk about it. You work on it. And it’s just difficult to defend, because they play it into the feet and then they turn and play it wide and they’ve got good quality out wide.
We had a few clearances that we’ve got to do a better job. A straight header, that should go out for a throw-in, not a corner. We had three or four we could have done a better job.
The ball’s wet. It’s a little slick. And this is a team you don’t want to play in these type of conditions, because they cross it in. In the end we did a good job, because they only had the two or three really on goal. And Cooper made the great save on the header. Which was fantastic.
(The team looked more direct than I’m used to seeing in the second half. What was that about?)
We worked so hard in the first half, and then Cordoves, I took him off to get Omar on. And I think some of our guys, the 45 minutes isn’t an easy battle when you’re defending and working and back and forth. And sometimes, the way we play, you get tired up front. And that causes us to not be able to keep the ball.
But the goal came from us getting it 2-v-2, and we caught them. So they did a great job.
That’s the transition that you pay. They spread out, and we caught them with a great goal. So it’s a tradeoff.
(You were able to run on five players in the second half, and your goal came off a combination of substitutes. Did you have the ability to send on that many substitutes last season and stay at that level?)
Unfortunately we had a couple of injuries, so it wasn’t really kinda the plan, so you have to adjust. They did a great job, the guys who came in.
We were scrambling a little, our two forwards. We’ll have to work with them, because they weren’t covering the spots that they should have been in. But that’s
something that’s easily fixed.
Having the two forwards and coming in, because if we didn’t have that, we might not have been able to do anything. So you’ve really got to give them credit for coming in and doing the job. And we had a couple of guys who didn’t dress tonight.
You need that depth in games like that, and you gotta have the guys to come in and do the job. They had (some) come in and cause some problems in Dennis Chin and the guy out wide. I couldn’t remember his name, but he did a good job too, getting around outside and causing us problems.
I’m happy with the guys who came in. That’s a lot of pressure and you’re in front of your home crowd.
(In the first half it seemed like a back-and-forth game, but in the second half it looked like Orlando was really starting to control the midfield battle.)
The first half was a little bit difficult for us, and I think we did well keeping our shape and trying not to let them have the ball.
It was a little bit hard, but most of the time when you have new guys that come in, and it’s one of your first games of the season, it’s always going to be like that. But we can always go back and go through our mistakes and get back on it again.
(Looked like the team did well defending set pieces tonight. What went into that?)
We’ve been working on that. The whole preseason. We never have a doubt on those. I think the defense did well.
(So that was your professional debut. Did you have any butterflies coming in?)
To be honest, not really. I felt I was very prepared for this all preseason. I felt like the coaches trained us well throughout the preseason. I was more anxious than anything. Ready to get on the field and have my debut as a professional.
JARAD VAN SCHAIK
(The game looked very even during the first half, but by the second half it looked like Orlando was winning most of the midfield battles. What caused that?)
It’s tough. To be honest, we just get worn down a little bit.
They’re good in possession a lot of times, and that can wear you down over the course of a game, you know. I think that’s part of it.
I don’t know. Maybe they made some adjustments, too, that came out and gave us some problems. They were finding the hole well and you just combine all those things and it just starts to sway more and more in their favor.
But to be fair, we held on and got a result. So I’m proud of the guys for that. We didn’t play great in the second half, but we showed some grit and got at least a point. So I think that’s a positive, at least.
(So is the mood positive?)
Ah, naw, probably not super positive. We want to win. We’re at home, we want to win.
But if you look at the big picture, tying Orlando in the first game, it’s not a bad result. So I think we’ll look back tomorrow and say, pretty decent result.
But for right now? Especially being up, and it felt like we could have held on? It hurts a little bit.
(How did it feel to not be playing next to Colin Falvey?)
I think it was extremely different at first, just because we look at Colin as our leader. He’s been there, and he just kinda anchors that back. So me and Taylor tried to get our name on the game real quick, to communicate, and to have people hear a different voice coming out of the back.
(Did you have a mistake tonight?)
I had a couple. I had a couple of balls that hit off my foot funny. Orlando’s really good at getting it down and whipping it in, so I had a couple that kinda went out. But altogether I thought I played pretty well. It was pretty nerve-wracking at first, but overall we had a good game.
(One of the things I’ve noticed with you this spring is that you’re playing very low-risk, no-nonsense football. If you’re not comfortable with a situation, you just get it out of there and reset.)
I knew coming into this game, especially this first game, we didn’t want to mess around with it too much. Orlando comes in with a lot of pressure, especially with Corey up top. He’s really running hard.
So I knew coming into the game I didn’t really want to mess around with it unless I was really 100 percent sure.
We had Cordo, a good man to hold the ball up, and so I could just clip it in to him.
(Next week you get back Colin but you lose Q.)
That’s going to change things a little bit. We’ve got to get back and see if Taylor’s OK. They hit heads at the end of the game there. Taylor would probably play out wide, but we’ll see if his head’s OK. If he’s not OK and Quinton’s not (there), Coach is going to have some thinking to do.
But we’re excited to get Colin back, one, and we hope Taylor’s OK.
(And you can play outside on the right, too.)
Yes, I can play out right. So who knows? That’s up to coach to see what he wants to do.
(Which save tonight was the most difficult?)
The most trouble was the last one, when I caught the ball. But every save wasn’t hard. (But) Orlando, they know how to put the ball.
(From my vantage point, it looked like Orlando’s goal came off a deflection. Is that right?)
It was deflected. And one guy — I think it was Shawn Ferguson — was in front of me, and I couldn’t see the ball.
(Last year you had a great goals-against-average, but not that many saves, because you had such a good defense in front of you. But tonight your defense really had to rely on you. Do you feel like this was a special game for you, or just a normal game?)
For me it was a special game, because it was the first one. But the defense played very well.
The Battery stay at home next Saturday, but there are no gimme games to start this season.
So this week we’ll be previewing the upcoming match against traditional Battery rivals Richmond Kickers, who won the Commissioner’s Cup (given to the team with the best regular season USL PRO record). Game starts Saturday at 7:30.
We’ll try to catch some practice later this week, and do our usual coverage to get you ready for the match. If you’ve got any questions you’d like me to ask, click the “Contact” button on the gray navigation button and send them my way.
BTW: Hat tip to Bradley Cooper for the reminder that Mike Azira made his MLS debut for Seattle Sunday in the Sounders 2-0 win at Montreal.
TOP IMAGE: An Orlando free kick sails over the Battery wall… and everything else. Dan Conover photos.