Alright, let’s get the discouraging stuff about the Charleston Battery’s 2014 USL PRO home opener (7:30 p.m., Blackbaud Stadium) out of the way first.
Orlando City Lions are the reigning USL PRO Champions, a title they’ve earned twice in the league’s three-year history. They’ve also finished with the best regular-season record in two of the league’s three years. They’ve got the biggest fan base (8,053 average per match, more than double Charleston’s respectable 3,554), the most rabid supporters (the traveling group that came to Charleston last July made more noise than the rest of Blackbaud Stadium combined), the biggest payroll, and, by the way, this is their last season in the league before ascending to Major League Soccer.
In 2013 the Lions ran up a 2-0-1 record against the Battery, earning a draw at Blackbaud, a one-goal win at the Citrus Bowl, and a 3-2 victory in the 2013 MLS Semi-final. They haven’t lost since, burning Charlotte in the championship, drawing MLS teams from Philadelphia, Toronto, Columbus and New York to start the 2014 preseason, and then running the table in three preseason friendlies against local college teams.
They’ve been signing former MLS players to contracts that will return them to the league in 2015. They’ve been signing homegrown players, and when Sporting Kansas City shipped them their first loaned player of 2014, it turned out to be Mickey Lopez, a first-round pick and a Generation Adidas guy who can play at midfield or foward. They play Charleston three times this season, and two of them will be on their home turf.
Oh, and when they come to Charleston Saturday for what will be the team’s final visit for a regular season league game, the Battery will be without team captain Colin Falvey, USL PRO’s 2013 Defender of the Year. He’s plenty healthy, too. It’s just that he’ll be serving a one-game suspension for a red card he picked up on Aug. 30 in that playoff loss to the Lions.
Yep, the world is Orlando’s oyster right now.
Not so fast
There’s no doubt that Orlando starts every season as the team to beat, and no doubt that they begin 2014 looking even stronger than usual. But even with that in mind — and Falvey on the bench — what appears to be a pretty impressive gap between the teams winds up looking not nearly so big once you look at the particulars.
Orlando racked up the points early last season behind stellar performances from a couple of SKC players. And though the team went through a slump when two of those loaners (forward Dom Dwyer and defender Yann Songo’o) departed, they managed to catch Charleston in back-to-back matches while the Battery was stuck in the middle of a remarkably luckless streak.
How improbable were those outcomes? Consider:
CHARLESTON, JULY 5, 1-1: The Battery outshot the bunkering Lions 18-9 but were repeatedly frustrated by loaned SKC goalkeeper Jon Kempin, who will be playing for Oklahoma City this season. Orlando’s goal came off a freakish bounce on a poorly hit corner kick. Charleston managed to equalize off a dramatic shot by Heviel Cordoves in the 90th minute, but was unlucky not to find the winner in seven minutes of stoppage.
ORLANDO, JULY 12, 1-2: Once again the Battery controlled the flow of the game, and once again the Lions snuck off with a result. Charleston went after Orlando from the opening kick, outshot the home side 16-11, and lost thanks to a questionable penalty kick awarded in the 70th minute. Once again, Kempin was the hero, recording five saves. And Jamie Watson, the Lions midfielder who has traditionally been the No. 1 thorn in Charleston’s side, scored both goals — including the PK that Battery keeper Odisnel Cooper appeared to have blocked.
ORLANDO, AUG. 30, 2-3: The Battery allowed three goals in the opening 19 minutes and looked like they were about to be run out of the Citrus Bowl. But then a strange thing happened. Mike Azira scored a fluke goal before the end of the half, Amadou Sanyang scored a second off a cross by Jose Cuevas, and the Lions held on for dear life as the Battery knocked on their goal for an equalizer in the game’s final half hour. Orlando escaped with a victory and went on to win the Championship over Charlotte, but as Zach Prince put it later, “We feel like they won it that night against us.” And no one in that stadium was under any illusions about who was on the front foot in the second half.
So yes, the Battery went 0-2-1 against the Lions last season. But there was barely a dime between the two teams over the course of three hotly contested matches. And with the Battery playing at home, with a deep and versatile squad, there’s not a reason in the world for Charleston to go into this game thinking like an underdog.
The Lions come to town with a lineup that lacks 2013 stars Watson (finally!) and forward Long Tan. Defender Bryan Burke, who suffered a broken leg on a sideline tackle at Blackbaud last summer, is still rehabbing.But the team benefits from an infusion of MLS talent.
On defense, former Whitecaps CB Brad Rusin anchors the unit next to returning star Rob Valentino.
In midfield, Cuban player Yordany Alvarez, who played last season in with Real Salt Lake, joins returning Lions Kevin Molino and Adama Mbengue to give the club a tough, explosive core. And that’s assuming Coach Adrian Heath chooses not to go with pugnacious veteran James O’Connor to start.
But maybe the biggest name on the list of new arrivals is Corey Hertzog, the former first-round pick of the New York Red Bulls who helped drive Wilmington Hammerheads to the USL PRO Championship in 2012. Hertzog spent 2013 with Vancouver before being released in the offseason. He signed with Orlando to get himself back to The Show. He’s still just 23, and has all the talent he needs to make a career in the top league.
Hertzog is expected to pair up with striker Dennis Chin, a local player and Orlando fan favorite. And Lopez has to play somewhere.
If there’s a question mark, it’s probably with young defenders Tyler Turner and Thomas Redding, who are the players Lions fan and correspondent Kim Sisneros projected to start at fullback in her game advance on Reckless Challenge. Regular defensive starter Luke Boden could figure outside, but with Burke still on the recovery road, the Lions could be thin at fullback.
“They lost Songo’o, but they replaced him with Brad Rusin, who was with Vancouver last year,” Anhaeuser said Wednesday in describing the Lions defense. “Six-six. Added size and strength. But, you know, with size and strength comes maybe some pace issues and some slowness, which we take advantage of sometimes. So we might be able to open up a little bit on the outside.
“We’re going into it on the front foot. It’s different when we go down to their place, but here, we definitely want to attack. We know we’re playing a good team, but … our guys looked really sharp, they looked focused going forward, and defensively we looked solid. We just need to make sure we’re focused and ready to do that on Saturday.”
The Battery lost some quality talent this offseason (defenders Mark Wiltse and Cody Ellison and midfielders Mike Azira, Nicki Paterson and Jose Cuevas), but the core of this Battery team is remarkably solid, if not particularly sparkling.
Consider the Battery foundation to be returning players Falvey, John Wilson, Quinton Griffin and Taylor Mueller on defense; midfielders Amadou Sanyang, Jarad van Schaik and Zach Prince; and Dane Kelly, the team’s 2013 leading scorer, who returns at forward. Sanyang, van Schaik, Prince and Mueller all appear to have upgraded their games significantly over the past six months.
But there are really three stories this preseason in Battery camp. The first is the progress of the team’s 2013 Cuban players — all of whom have either locked down a starting job or put themselves in contention for one. The second is the massive influx of talent from Vancouver.
First, the Cubans.
Odisnel Cooper returns for his second season as the club’s No. 1 goalkeeper. He missed time with a sprained thumb, but he’s been learning English and seems more integrated into the team. Heviel Cordoves has been through a remarkable transformation, adding speed, endurance and finesse to a game that was a lot more predictable last season. He’s scored three times in the past three weeks. And Maikel Chang, who missed almost the entire 2013 season with hamstring problems, has pushed his way into the conversation for the team’s starting right midfield job.
The Vancouver contingent got even more remarkable on Friday, when the clubs announced that 2011 No. 1 pick Omar Salgado — a 6-4, 210 pound 20-year-old striker/winger — would be coming to Charleston on loan.
Salgado, who could be available for selection on Saturday, was the eighth player sent down by Vancouver. To put that in context, as of Thursday there wasn’t a single other team in USL PRO with more than five players on loan. Nine teams had four or fewer MLS players in camp, and three lack affiliation agreements entirely.
In addition to Salgado, at least three Whitecaps are clearly pushing for regular roles — if not outright starting jobs — in the Battery’s early season rotation. Forward Mamadou Diouf and Adam Mena each scored four goals in the Battery preseason, and attacking midfielder Andre Lewis flashed superstar potential in limited action. Lewis is the No. 7 pick in the 2014 Superdraft.
Finally, the third story of the Battery preseason is just center back Shawn Ferguson. All by himself.
Ferguson was a seldom-used reserve in a rookie season in which he split time between finishing up his degree at the College of Charleston and training part-time with the Battery. But the 6-4 powerhouse from Rock Hill returned from the offseason in spectacular shape — winning the team’s Manchester United Conditioning Test and turning in shift after shift of no-nonsense, zero-drama defense this preseason. He steps into the hole left by Ellison’s departure.
On Saturday, however, he’ll start next to someone other than Falvey — most likely do-everything defender Mueller. Fullback looks set, with Griffin on the right and Wilson beginning what he says will be his final season on the left.
The heart of the Battery this preseason has been the center midfield, where Sanyang looks better than ever and van Schaik has played almost flawlessly. Whitecaps Aminu Abdallah and Michael Karari provide depth, along with Battery rookie Justin Portillo.
But here’s what’s amazing.
Coming out of the Challenge Cup, the Battery looked like a solid, smart, veteran team without an offensive spark. Since the Challenge Cup, the Battery’s biggest challenge has been finding places to put its surplus of attacking talent.
Cordoves, Chang, Prince and Mena all started the last two matches as Anhaeuser tried to dial-in a reliable starting lineup for Saturday. Each played well in both contests.
But so did Diouf — who scored three goals in the second half in Tuesday match. And so did Lewis, who missed some training last week with knocks. And then there’s Salgado, flying in at the last minute.
So figure it this way: The Battery’s foundation for Saturday — back line and central midfield — looks set, barring any surprises with international or domestic clearances. But the part of the team that’s paid to get forward? Anhaueser has plenty of options, and lots of ammo to bring off the bench — even with forwards Dane Kelly (hamstring) and Marlon Ramirez (ankle) nursing injuries.
As for the formation, Charleston has had equal success running a 4-4-2 and an attacking 4-3-3 this preseason. Anhaeuser favored a 4-5-1 in 2013, but that may be something we see more often on the road. Besides, with the versatile talent on this squad, the Battery can move in and out of these looks without changing personnel.
“Training is never the same as the game… so we just gotta be prepared for it, and I know we are,” Anhaeuser said. “There’s a lot of respect on the field, but guys definitely want to win from both sides. That’s the great thing. That’s why we’ve been the two champions from the past three years. This is a big game, and we play them two out of our first three games. So definitely a big matchup.
“I think (my players) are ready. We’ve played well from the Challenge Cup. You see in every game we’ve gotten better. It’s gonna be a great game.”
WEATHER: It’s gonna rain on Saturday, but the forecast calls for it to lift about an hour before the match. Otherwise it’s just partially cloudy and low 60s. Sounds perfect.
TAILGATE: The Regiment tailgate will commence at 5 p.m. There’s a bus coming in from Orlando full of fans, and the two groups of fans have always gotten along well. Drop by the tailgate — even if you’ve never been to a Regiment party before — and at the very least pick up some CHSSoccer.net stickers.
GAMEDAY: Tickets were still available in the West bleachers and the East box seats around noon on Friday. The club is hoping for strong walk-up sales. Also, there will be post-game fireworks. Keep an eye on the E-1 Supporters Section, where longtime fans John Jo and Johnathan Ace (who writes for this site) will be serving as capos — soccer jargon for fans who lead the cheering, chanting and singing in their section.
TOP IMAGE: Amadou Sanyang heads in a cross from Jose Cuevas as the Battery put the Lions on the ropes in the second half of their classic 2013 USL PRO semi-final showdown. Dan Conover photos.