So here’s the ugly truth about Charleston’s series with Orlando, expressed in three unpleasant numbers: 1-10-2.
One victory, 10 losses, and two draws. That’s the long-and-the-short of Charleston’s brief history with Orlando City SC — an ambitious franchise that moved a successful PDL club from Texas to Florida, bought into USL PRO and constructed a hegemonic MLS expansion bid in just three seasons.
Orlando is a soccer success story of a particular kind. It was founded by aggressive owners who picked a ripe market, built a winning team and cultivated a thriving local fan culture. Not only are the Lions generally acknowledged as the most expensive payroll in USL PRO, they also lead the league in wins, attendance and passion. They’ve never finished less than second in the league table, and have won the league championship twice in their three-year history.
So let’s keep this simple. This is the last time Charleston will ever play Orlando in the regular season, and in eight USL PRO meetings between the clubs (six in regular season), the Battery have never beaten or drawn Orlando in the Sunshine State.
So this is Charleston’s last chance for redemption in the Land of Disney, barring a playoff visit.
And — not to put too fine a point on it — there’s another reason for the Battery to be motivated. Though the club is currently 7th in the league table, it has the fewest points of any USL PRO team that’s played 11 matches. In other words, our homeboys need results, because we’re getting close to the time of year where everyone breaks out their calculators and starts sweating playoff scenarios.
BRIGHT SPOTS & THE ABYSS
There are a few bright spots in the series history. Charleston’s regular season-record against Orlando at Blackbaud is a respectable 1-1-2, with the one win coming in the clubs’ first regular season meeting in 2011. The Battery’s two draws have come in 2013 and 2014.
It’s also true that the series has been stacked in Orlando’s favor by USL PRO scheduling and playoff seeding. The two teams have played six regular season games at Orlando (Charleston is 0-6-0), compared to four in Charleston. Charleston is 0-2 in playoff games at Orlando. The teams’ first-ever meeting was a U.S. Open Cup match at Blackbaud in 2011, which the Lions took 1-0.
So no, it isn’t pretty. And to make matters worse, Orlando’s U-23 squad that beat Charleston in a 14-round shootout Wednesday in the Open Cup would have made their parent club’s first team giddy just by coming to Blackbaud and taking Charleston’s no-longer-so-deep squad into 30 minutes of Added Extra Time. Eight Battery men — Eric Shannon, Quinton Griffith, Colin Falvey, Shawn Ferguson, Aminu Abdallah, Justin Portillo, Dane Kelly and Heviel Cordoves — played 120 minutes Wednesday night. A ninth, forward Adam Mena, had a mere stroll in the park with just 117 minutes in his first start since May 10.
Meanwhile, in Orlando’s Wednesday Open Cup match, the Lions made a leisurely meal of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of NASL, beating them 4-1. The victory extended their winning streak against their Central Florida rivals to five games. Purple people celebrated this fact on Twitter with their usual in-your-face subtlety.
How good is Orlando this season? Undefeated, 8-0-3 good. Plus-eleven-goal-differential in 11 regular-season matches good. They’re 4-0-1 at home. The Purple Lions have already started signing players to MLS contracts in advance of their 2015 ascension to North American Soccer Valhalla, and they’re turning their USL PRO Farewell Tour into something that looks more like Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
But if there’s a silver lining to this Mordor cloud, here it is: Despite Orlando’s 1-10-2 record, only one of the 13 matches has been settled by more than a single goal after 90 minutes. And if you witnessed Charleston’s two games in Orlando last season (which I did, first-hand), you know that the visitors played well enough to win both. So either Orlando is a good team with a killer instinct, or a good team with good luck, or a good team with a killer instinct, good luck and the occasional home-cooking from the refs and the league scheduler.
Whatever. They’re a good team that can be beaten. It just doesn’t happen very often (seven times in three and a half seasons).
I’m not going to rehash the Orlando lineup. Charleston has already played them twice (1-1 at Blackbaud, 1-2 at Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports). They’re big along the back, fast and swarming in their flooded midfield, and Kevin Molino is off to a great start with eight goals in 11 appearances. Forward Dennis Chin is still their super-sub, with four goals. But the Corey Hetrzog Experiment is not off to its anticipated start. The former MLS and high-scoring Wilmington striker has yet to earn a point for his new masters.
Battery coaches and players know what they’re going to get with Orlando. Hell, so do Charleston fans. The Lions are going to possess and pester in midfield and exploit their opponents’ mistakes with aristocratic disdain. They’re very good, and they have the most vocal, energetic fan base in the minor leagues.
And personally, I’m really looking forward to cheering against them in MLS, where they belong.
Look, there’s no sense in pussyfooting around this one: Everyone on the Battery team looked personally gutted in the silent aftermath of their historic shootout loss Wednesday night. I’ve seen them disappointed before. Seen them angry and bitter after a loss. But the mood Wednesday didn’t remind me of anything I’ve ever seen with the Battery before.
They didn’t leave the field. They didn’t speak. They stared into the mid-distance, avoiding eye-contact with each other.
So here’s the question: What does that mean?
Because we can talk all you like about which players should be fresh for the trip (Odisnel Cooper, John Wilson, Taylor Mueller, Amadou Sanyang). We can speculate whether rookie forward Mamadou Diouf (bruised foot, left out of the 18 last Saturday and Wednesday) is going to be capable of carrying the load on offense for a depleted and potentially run-down striker corps. We can talk tactics, to the extent that either Adrian Heath or Mike Anhaeuser is likely to make any radical departures from the styles of play they’ve established over the past three months.
But none of that will add up to the significance of Wednesday night’s post-game silence.
A loss like that is a milestone in a season, but its most profound effect is on the psychology of a team. How will they respond? Because every competitor says “We have to pull together and get things done” after a heartbreaking loss to an underdog, but experience teaches that many either fall apart or simply fade away. A few say the words and mean them, but still can’t change. Rare teams rally and become something different and better, both individually and as a group.
But no one outside the Battery locker room really has a clue how this team will react.
On Saturday night and Wednesday night the Battery played down to the level of its opponents, winning a close one and losing a close one. Will they play up to the level of league-leading Orlando and give a good performance on the road, win lose or draw? Or will they recede?
Game starts at 7:30 Saturday night. Live stream on Orlando’s YouTube channel.
TOP IMAGE: Charleston rookie forward nails a brilliant strike to put the Battery up 1-0 over Orlando in the season opener. The home side allowed a late equalizer. Dan Conover photo.