After all, VSI Tampa Bay didn’t even have a signed stadium deal until about a week before their first home game, and Phoenix kicked off their season with a 1-0 home victory over their expansion partners from Tampa. One side looked organized, with a passionate fan base, and the other looked clueless.
But here we are pushing August, and that’s just not how things turned out.
VSI Tampa Bay ultimately signed a deal to host their first season in suburban Plant City at a vacant spring training baseball facility, changed coaches during the second week in May, and then put together an entirely respectable summer. They’re on the verge of making the USL PRO playoffs.
The Wolves, on the other hand, have managed just 19 points — take away their opening week victory and their back-to-back 1-0 home wins over Antigua and their record is a sad 1-10-7. They recently reduced the number of available seats for their home matches by almost two thirds. They’re the only club in the league that still lacks a functional team page on the USL PRO website, and even if that’s not entirely the club’s fault, the Wolves’ standalone site isn’t much better. It doesn’t list results or statistics.
How bad has Phoenix been? In Antigua’s 21 matches (all losses) this season, only three of them have been decided by fewer than two goals. Two of those one-goal margins came against Phoenix.
The lack of information about Phoenix means that there’s not a lot of insight I can offer into who the Charleston Battery will face tonight. But here’s a stat that should explain why that barely matters: 0-8-2. That’s the Wolves’ road record so far.
One thing you can expect is to see a 5-foot-4 Brazilian midfielder wearing the No. 8 jersey. His name is Joao Inacio de Jesus Cerqueria, but he goes by the nickname “Netinho.” Netinho is 19, spent five years with Brazilian powerhouse Santos FC. He leads the league in minutes played (1,866), fouls (33) and shares the lead for games played (21).
But before you write off Phoenix, remember this. They logged one of their best performances in their most recent match, running out to a 2-0 first-half lead against undefeated Richmond last Friday before bunkering down in the second half and surrendering an equalizer to substitute defender Shane Johnson in the 90th minute.
Both of Phoenix’s goals were delivered by forward Thomas Ramos, who left the match in the 39th minute. Ramos is a Phoenix product who excelled at Cal State Northridge before signing his first professional contract this winter with Arizona’s expansion club.
But a Phoenix sportswriter seemed at least as impressed by the team’s most recent addition: veteran USL PRO goalkeeper Neal Kitson.
A former first round pick in the 2009 MLS Super Draft, Kitson recovered from multiple injuries and worked his way back to Rochester, where he made 43 appearances between 2010-11. Last season he signed a contract with Northampton Town in the English League Two, where he made eight appearances before returning to the United States for personal reasons.
Kitson received credit for four saves in the Richmond draw, but was helped a bit by the officials. Two of the Kickers’ four goals on the night were disallowed.
Charleston comes into tonight’s match off a much-needed 1-0 home victory over Dayton on Friday, which ended a frustrating 0-2-4 winless streak. Tonight is the second match in what has become a crucial three-game home stand that concludes on Saturday when the fifth-place Battery hosts the fourth-place L.A. Blues at Blackbaud Stadium.
Right back Mark Wiltse missed last week’s game with a concussion and was replaced by Emmanuel Adjetey, who is with the club on loan from the Vancouver Whitecaps’ PDL roster. Another player on loan from Vancouver — the occasionally sensational but often injured Ben Fisk — returned to Charleston and joined the team in training on Monday.
What’s at stake
A win tonight would narrow the gap on at least one of the two teams holding playoff positions the Battery can reasonably covet.
Undefeated Richmond moved to the top of the USL PRO table this week despite giving up that draw at Phoenix thanks to two West Coast road wins at the LA Blues and Vancouver Whitecaps Reserves. With 44 and 42 points respectively, Richmond and Orlando have essentially reserved the top two seeds in the league playoffs, and will be fighting it out for home-field advantage throughout.
But everything is up for grabs below that.
Slumping Harrisburg holds the next spot with 34 points, followed by fourth place Charlotte (33) and fifth place Los Angeles (32). Charleston, which enters the night in sole possession of sixth place, could tie Los Angeles for fifth and move within a point of Charlotte and Harrisburg should Dayton win at Harrisburg and the Blues earn a draw at Charlotte.
Tonight and Saturday loom large for the Blues’ playoff story. A winless trip to the Carolinas could drop the Los Angeles from the middle of the pack down to seventh.
With the top two playoff slots likely to go to Orlando and Richmond, the third and fourth seeds — with their first-round home playoff dates — are now the prize for the rest of the league. And it’s hard to write a compelling case for the Battery claiming one of those seeds without a win tonight against Phoenix.
TOP IMAGE: Neal Kitson (left) boosts a Phoenix defense that didn’t absolutely suck without him; rookie forward Thomas Ramos scored twice against Richmond in the Wolves’ most recent match; and Netinho, a Brazilian teenager, has been Phoenix’s iron man and best player. He leads the league in minutes played.