When Charleston played at Pittsburgh on April 26, the two teams had a lot in common. They’d both faced a brutal early season schedule, with multiple games against traditional powers Orlando and Richmond. They’d both earned tough draws with the Lions and Kickers. And both were looking for their first league win of 2014.
Their first meeting — at distinctive Highmark Stadium in downtown Pittsburgh — ended in a scoreless draw. And as uninspiring as a nil-nil result may be, that single point against Charleston represents the high water mark of the Hounds home schedule so far.
So maybe it’s not so particularly surprising that the Riverhounds — bogged in bankruptcy, winless after seven matches despite a promising offseason — fired their coach on Monday. Justin Evans is a former Battery player, one of the original Riverhounds, and an experienced young skipper with in his fifth year as the boss at Pittsburgh. The Hounds looked like a team on the rise last season, too, and there was great optimism to start 2014. But this is what an 0-4-3 record can do to a club.
The Battery’s record through its first seven? 1-2-4. It’s league record since? 1-2-0.
Results like that are probably ratcheting up the pressure at Blackbaud Stadium, too. Yet the mood around the Battery this week after their massively disappointing 0-2-0 home-and-away series with rival Wilmington has been anything but panicked — and everything about the Evans firing reeks of it.
Two of the Riverhounds four losses came in 0-1 defeats. Five of its first seven came against powers Orlando, Richmond and Charleston, with a sixth to resurgent Wilmington. The Hounds drew at Orlando and at Rochester, and only one of their losses was by more than a goal. Like Charleston, Pittsburgh’s results appear to have come up short of their quality.
Yet now Evans is gone, replaced on an interim basis by seldom-used 27-year-old defender Nikola Katic, a fourth-year Hound who got the nod based on his part-time job as a coach in the club’s youth program. Beyond Pittsburgh’s training facility, Katic’s style and approach are nothing more than speculation. And if nothing else, the Evans story should serve as a cautionary tale about expectations and the razor-thin edge that divides moderate success from abject disaster.
So with that cheery thought in mind, on to your preview of Saturday night’s match!
I’m starting with the Battery team outlook this week because — well, what can you say about a visiting team that just dumped its boss and hung the title “interim coach” a twentysomething center back? Besides, the most interesting story lines this week are really Battery angles — particularly on defense.
Coach Mike Anhaeuser confirmed Thursday what he’d clearly suspected all week: Despite the forlorn hope of a reversal from the league’s Disciplinary Committee, center back Shawn Ferguson‘s red card suspension from Wilmington will stand. And while the team is actively involved in a deal that would bring in a defensive player to replace the departed Jackson Farmer, that deal continues to hang fire over “paperwork.”
With do-it-all-defender Taylor Mueller nursing a knee injury, that left the Battery contemplating emergency moves like shifting left back John Wilson to central defense and dropping a midfielder into a fullback role.
But there was surprising news on Thursday: Mueller, whose return to the lineup had looked doubtful as recently as Tuesday, turned in an unrestricted practice and said he felt great. Though he didn’t know whether they’d clear him to play on Saturday, Anhaeuser expressed so such caveats. The coach declared Mueller 100 percent and said he has enough confidence in his fitness to start him against the Hounds.
Charleston’s five defenders — Ferguson, Wilson, Mueller, Quinton Griffith and Captain Colin Falvey — are essentially five starters sharing four positions. Anhaeuser limited Thursday’s practice to competitive drills in order to reduce the chance of picking up any more injuries on his 20-man squad, and may do the same on Friday, too. But with versatile midfielders Jarad van Schaik, Zach Prince and untested rookie Michael Kafari all capable of playing fullback, it’s not like the team doesn’t have options.
Another interesting area to watch Saturday will be at forward, where injured veteran Dane Kelly looks ready to return to the lineup for the first time since the 52nd minute at Harrisburg on May 2. Fellow front-runners Heviel Cordoves and Mamadou Diouf both went the full-90 as 4-4-2 strike partners at Wilmington, and have been in good form this month, earning three league Team of the Week honorable mentions between them. Rookie Adam Mena, who has been figuring more as a winger of late, rounds out the group.
That leaves midfield, where health and style will figure into Anhaeuser’s lineup decisions. Amadou Sanyang left the home match against Wilmington at the half in order to get stitches to his mouth. He has missed two games, but could be ready to make his return. When he’s 100 percent, he’s the team’s top defensive-mid. That would free Van Schaik to resume his role as the director of the team’s central midfield. Backup Aminu Abdallah is quietly having a solid season. He’s gone the full 90 in the Battery’s last two games.
Versatile Zach Prince is one of only three Battery men who have appeared in every match this season (van Schaik and Abdallah are the other two), usually filling the left midfield slot but sometimes pushing ahead when the Battery shift into the 4-3-3.
But the final spot in the starting lineup is always worth special attention. Rookie attacking mid Andre Lewis has seven starts in 11 matches this season, with four 90-minute matches in the last six. Meanwhile, much-improved second-year midfielder Maikel Chang (four starts) continues to make the case for more playing time. Both are creative, but they’ve only started together once. Mena could also contend here. Rookies Justin Portillo, Michael Kafari and Dante Marini provide depth.
Odisnel Cooper continues what is already turning into an excellent sophomore season. In nine league starts he’s surrendered just seven goals.
The Riverhounds opened their season on a high note, traveling down to Orlando to earn a 1-1 draw on the Champions’ home turf, and they did it by more or less giving the Lions a taste of their own medicine. Evans’ Hounds flooded the midfield. It’s a style they adopted for much of the season so far — often in an active 3-5-2 look — constricting passing lanes and sometimes dropping the wide midfielders into more of a five-defender style.
The 3-5-2 approach was supposed to help emphasize midfielder Matt Dallman, one of the best ball-crossing passers in USL PRO and the league’s leading assist man in 2013. With quality strikers Jose Angulo (USL PRO 2013 Golden Boot winner with 15) and veteran Joseph Ngwenya up top to receive Dallman’s passes, it seemed like a good bet for success.
Ngwenya, who spent 2013 in Richmond, was one of several big offseason acquisitions for Pittsburgh, which finished 10-8-8 last season. Management signaled its interest in a title push by also signing defender Brian Fekete from Orlando, midfielder Anthony Obodai from Phoenix, fullback/midfielder Danny Earls from Rochester and former Fulham striker Collins John. The team also signed an affiliation deal with Houston Dynamo — an MLS club with an impressive player development pipeline.
Yet for whatever reason, the big-midfield style just hasn’t clicked for them on the attack. In their 0-1 home loss to Rochester on Saturday — apparently the final strike for Evans — the Hounds actually trotted out a nominal 3-6-1 (with striker Ngwenya and Irish wingback Earls listed as midfielders).
Anhaeuser suspects the Hounds may abandon their three-back sets for a four-back formation this weekend. Either way, he said Thursday, the Battery will be ready.
One man the Battery had better be ready for is Collins John. He’s a 28-year-old from Liberia who once held a coveted spot on the Netherlands national team. John scored 11 goals in the Dutch Eredevisie, 20 goals in the English Premier League, and three in MLS. He’s been limited in his Pittsburgh tenure, making just three appearances and missing the first Charleston match with a questionable red-card suspension. Yet he leads the team in points, with two goals and an assist in just 160 minutes of play.
The team has three goalkeepers. Michael Lisch leads the way in starts, goals-against average, and is tied for the team lead in saves.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There are just two big questions that hang over Pittsburgh this weekend: No 1, how will the players respond to Katic’s leadership? and No. 2, how strong will the club be on Saturday after experiencing the meat tenderizer that is a trip to Wilmington’s Legion Stadium on Friday?
As reported earlier this week, Battery goalkeeper Eric Shannon has reported to Wilmington on a one-game loan to serve as the backup keeper for the Hammers. Their backup, Matt Glaeser, starts because of the red card given to regular starter Quillan Roberts against Charleston. Which means Shannon is expected to be the backup for both the teams the Hounds face this weekend. And, of course, Glaeser came to Charleston on a one-game loan on March 22 to fill in for Shannon, whose international paperwork didn’t come in from Guatemala in time for the Battery season opener against Orlando. Only in USL PRO, folks.
The team had a nice turnout at My Father’s Mustache on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant Wednesday night for the second Falvey’s Army event. Lots of good soccer talk, some good soccer people, and some very bad billiards and darts were also played. The less said about that the better. But a very nice bar, excellent service and a great time organized by Suzanne Sudzina Brandon, the team’s director of ticket sales. Come to the next one!
Joe Terry, the S.C. United Battery Academy alumni who has been training with the team this week, got some praise from Anhaeuser after today’s training session, but in response to those who asked, he is not eligible to play for the Battery. An extra defender has been helpful in training this week, Anhaeuser said, but he confirmed what I suspected once I looked Terry up on Tuesday afternoon: League rules allow members of a team’s academy to play, but once that academy player has amateur status with a college, he’s off-limits to play on a team with professionals.
TOP IMAGE: Aminu Abdallah shoots in a finishing drill Thursday against Odisnel Cooper. Dan Conover photo.