After failing to find their first win in three home matches, the Charleston Battery (0-1-3) will be hunting it in Pennsylvania and New York this Saturday and Sunday. It’s a 2/24 road trip against teams with histories and tendencies, and it begins in downtown Pittsburgh Saturday at 6 p.m.
Charleston Battery @ Pittsburgh Riverhounds
6 pm – Saturday, April 26 – Highmark Stadium
ESPN Radio 910 The Team / charlestonbattery.com
Livestream: www.riverhounds.com and youtube.com
Local watch party: Molly Darcy’s Irish Pub
Charleston Battery @ Rochester Rhinos
4:05 pm – Sunday, April 27 – Sahlen’s Stadium
ESPN Radio 910 The Team / charlestonbattery.com
Livestream: www.rhinossoccer.com and youtube.com
Local watch party: Molly Darcy’s Irish Pub
In 2013, Charleston beat Pittsburgh at Blackbaud in April in the match that put Seattle Sounders midfielder Mike Azira on the North American soccer map. Azira scored twice in the 2-0 win. In mid-June, Charleston faced Pittsburgh at Highmark before playing Rochester the following night and escaped Pennsylvania with a point and a 1-1 draw. The game is memorable for goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper‘s seven-save performance. The only one that got past him came in the 71st minute, when a Riverhound player knocked Cooper down on a corner kick.
The Riverhounds started slowly last season, but made a strong surge down the stretch.
The two big headlines out of Pittsburgh (0-2-2) this spring were their affiliation with the Houston Dynamo and the team’s decision to file for bankruptcy protection. It’s probably best to understand the second headline in the context of the first one: The Riverhounds aren’t going under, and have actually evolved into a promising USL PRO club. The bankruptcy move is related to expenses incurred in the construction of their new soccer-specific stadium, the uniquely one-sided Highmark Stadium.
Player acquisitions don’t usually make big news at this level, but Pittsburgh caught the attention of USL PRO insiders by bringing in some quality veterans and prospects. Thirty-three-year-old MLS forward was a major pain in the Battery’s ass last season in Richmond, as was 23-year-old winger Brian Ownby. Both are now in Pittsburgh, along with 2013 Generation Adidas prospect Jason Johnson, a Jamaican forward selected by the Dynamo with that year’s 13th pick. The team also picked up Danny Earls, a former Rochester wingback who spent two years with the Colorado Rapids.
But two of the most interesting Pittsburgh pickups might have been international veterans Anthony Obodai, a 31-year-old midfielder who once played for Dutch powerhouse Ajax, and Collins John, a 28-year-old journeyman striker who scored 20 goals for Fulham in the English Premier League. John scored twice in two games for Pittsburgh, but is in the middle of a three-game suspension and will not face Charleston.
That’s a lot of attacking talent. Yet returning players Jose Angulo and Jhonny Arteaga — both forwards and former New York Red Bulls — and 29-year-old midfielder Matt Dallman still appear to be leading this club. Dallman, you’ll remember, holds the USL PRO record for assists in a season (12), set last season.
So Pittsburgh is much improved on paper, yet — like the Battery — the Riverhounds have played a wicked-tough schedule and are still looking for Win No. 1. Like Charleston, three of Pittsburgh’s first four matches have come against Orlando and Richmond.
What’s different, however, is defense. Charleston’s three points were built on a -1 goal differential and five goals allowed. Pittsburgh has scored seven times, but allowed 10. That’s tied for most in the league.
Part of that is due to an injury to starting keeper Hunter Gilstrap, a College of Charleston alumni. Backup Greg Blum got torched for seven goals in two starts against Richmond and Wilmington, and his replacement, Michael Lisch, surrendered two more in their last game at Richmond.
“They’re trying to put pressure on teams offensively,” Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser said. “But when you do that you also maybe don’t have the same guys defensively and they’ve had to make a couple of changes there and they’ve given up a few goals. So we know that they’re going to be good offensively. We know that they like to cross the ball from wide positions. Dallman’s one of the best crossers of the ball. Danny Earls is great. Ownby can get forward on the wing as he did last year at Richmond.
“So we know they’re going to attack from the wide sides and they play two forwards in the box. They’ll put the ball in there, and you’ve got to be sure you defend it. We talked to the guys. We worked on crossing for two days, even for the keepers, to see crosses.”
The match is the opening act in a Riverhounds three-game home stand.
The Rhinos (1-1-1) have been one of the traditional stalwarts of lower-tier North American soccer, and are the only non-MLS team in the modern era to have won a U.S. Open Cup. That made last season’s 11th place finish and third-round USOC crash-out particularly painful for their fans.
In that context, their 0-0-2 record against Charleston was something of a triumph. Charleston was flying pretty high when the Rhinos limped into Blackbaud on May 25. But with their 6-5-inch German goalkeeper, Kristian Nicht, playing behind an organized, bunkered Rochester defense, the Rhinos frustrated the hell out of the offensive-minded Battery and celebrated a scoreless draw. Less than a month later, Charleston showed up at Sahlen’s Stadium the morning after a 1-1 draw at Pittsburgh and drew the Rhinos 1-1 on Shawn Ferguson’s first professional goal and another stellar performance by Nicht. In his two matches against the Battery last season, the 2012 USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year allowed one goal and made 11 official saves.
So here’s the good news: Battery killer Nicht is plying his craft for the expansion Indy Eleven of NASL this season. He’s not the only change, either.
“I think they’ve replaced 80, 90 percent of their starting 11,” Anhaeuser said. “Their goalkeeper, everybody. They’ve got a couple on loan from New England. So they’re a young team trying to figure it out.
“But (Rochester Coach Bob Lilley) is a very good coach at organizing them defensively. They’ll keep compact. They’ll make sure that when they attack, they attack with two or three and do it at the right time. They will never send eight forward to leave gaps in the back. You gotta earn your goals. That’s how he’s always been.
“They might not be as strong offensively, but it looks like they’ve got a couple of new guys (particularly returning attacking midfielder J.C. Banks and new striker Minh Vu) that I watched play (in the Rhino’s most recent game, a 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire Reserves) who have looked pretty good.”
Stats for the Rhinos are sketchy, since details from their Fire match aren’t reflected in their totals, but one of their big new additions is three-game starter Kyle Hoffer, a former Battery defender who spent last season with unmourned USL PRO expansion casualty VCI Tampa Bay FC. They lost their opener at Orlando, drew Dayton on the road and beat Chicago at Toyota Park, which makes their date with Charleston the Rhinos 2014 home-opener. So the sap should be rising in Rochester.
Two late, lingering injuries caused the Battery to rewrite their traveling squad roster Thursday afternoon. Out: Forwards Dane Kelly (bruise) and Mamadou Diouf (ankle). In: Midfielder Justin Portillo and forward Marlon Ramirez. They’ll remain in Charleston with midfielders Dante Marini and Michael Kafari, who is just returning to full fitness after a preseason aggravation of an earlier knee injury. Nineteen players made the Friday flight to Pittsburgh.
Captain Collin Falvey will miss Saturday’s match on suspension, which means 36-year-old veteran John Wilson will probably wear the armband at Pittsburgh. They’ll swap seats on the bench Sunday afternoon, due to Anhaeuser’s policy of sitting Wilson in the second match on 2/24 road trips.
“We’re going to approach the first game first. We’re playing an offensive minded, two-forwards, like-to-get-it-wide, whip-it-in-with-crosses and get free kicks and corner kicks (type of team). They’re very good on set pieces. So we gotta make sure we worry about Saturday first.
“Sunday, when it’s the second game in two days, you’ve got to see who is feeling well, who is available, and then we’ll make a game plan.
“But we’re going in with (the idea) that I’ve got a few guys that are going to be ready to go Sunday that aren’t starting on Saturday, because we want to have those guys fresh and ready for Sunday’s game.
“Pittsburgh went more offensive (in the offseason). Rochester went more defensive, bringing in guys and making sure they solidified that end. So it’s going to be probably two different types of games.”
Defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang sat out some of this week’s training with a knock to his knee that cost him a start against the Red Bulls. Right back/midfielder Quinton Griffith missed time with some painful dental problems. So how Anhaeuser manages their minutes could be telling. And with both Falvey and Wilson expected to sit out a game apiece, the spotlight will be on versatile defenders Ferguson, Jackson Farmer and Taylor Mueller. Speaking of Mueller, I left him out of my Monday Game Wrap through sheer forgetfulness. The former Washington Husky turned in one of the best, most-efficient performances of the night.
Jarad van Schaik has been the best, most consistent Battery man this season. He’s made the USL PRO Team of the Week twice and been named Battery Man of the Match once. He’s tied for the team lead in starts, minutes, goals and assists. But how — and where — he’ll play this weekend will certainly be one of the interesting things to look for. He could even be in line for a spot start at left back on Sunday.
The big question for the Battery continues to be the Anhaeuser’s ever-turning Wheel of Strikers. Omar Salgado — who would have been on a U.S. U-21 call-up this week if not for his foot injury — will return to the action this weekend. He’s joined by attackers Heviel Cordoves, Adam Mena, Andre Lewis, Zach Prince, Maikel Chang and Ramirez, who will be making his USL PRO debut.
That’s an awful lot of attacking talent. Yet with tough opponents and conditions so far this season, Charleston has yet to really rev-up its offensive engine. “Luckily we have five or six forwards, because we keep (getting injuries) up there, which stinks, because we can’t get any continuity,” Anhaeuser said. “But you have deal with it.”
Right now, Salgado is the player that everyone from Carl Robinson to Tab Ramos is keeping under the microscope. But the most proven goal-scorer on the travel squad is the much improved Cordoves, who scored seven times in 2013 but has yet to break through on five shots in four appearances (two starts) this season. He picked up his first assist of the year last Saturday on a beautiful cross to Kelly.
The other thing we’ll see is backup goalkeeper Eric Shannon‘s first USL PRO start on Sunday. Anhaeuser’s policy is to start his backup keeper in the second game of two-game road trips.
“I’m not going to change,” he said. “I’ve always done it. The only way I’d change is if we were on an eight-game win streak or something or he has something going, a shutout streak. That maybe would complicate it. But I’ve got to give (Shannon) a game. Because you never know what could happen in a season.”
TOP IMAGE: Heviel Cordoves is Charleston’s top producing goal threat heading into the weekend. Shawn Ferguson got his first pro start last season in Rochester, and needs another big weekend. Dan Conover photos.