Charleston hosts long-time rival Richmond Kickers Saturday for the first of three regular-season matches this year, and despite an all-time series that stretches over 48 matches and 22 years, there’s not a dime’s difference between the two clubs (22-22-4).
Plus, 2013’s home-and-away series with Richmond produced two of the most significant and memorable matches of the year.
Charleston, coming off a high-scoring and successful preseason, opened its 2013 season at Richmond in April. The reigning-champion Battery entered the game confident they could give the Kickers an open match and still come away with a victory. In the opening minutes, that looked like a good bet, too. Charleston generated threat after threat.
But then the Kickers — led by loaned MLS players Casey Townsend and Brian Ownsby — stung the Battery twice on two sudden counter-attacks, and 2012 USL PRO Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas left the match at half with a hamstring injury. Richmond pummeled the Battery 4-1, and Coach Mike Anhaeuser shifted back to a more traditional road philosophy for the rest of the season.
By the time the Kickers arrived for the rematch in August, Richmond sat atop the league table thanks to a remarkable unbeaten record. The Battery had been on something of an upswing, but had lost the night before at Wilmington in a match described by several fans as the team’s worst game of 2013.
So when the Battery hung a 5-2 loss on their guests — the Kickers’ first and only loss of the 2013 regular season — it not only stood out as the high point of Charleston’s year, but also the moment when Richmond’s fortunes began to recede. They went on to lose at home to Charlotte Eagles in the playoffs.
THE NEW-LOOK (SORTA) KICKERS
Like the Battery, Richmond returns a solid core from 2013.
Veteran defenders Shane Johnson, Sascha Goerres and Alex Lee are back, as is 6-4 center back William Yomby. He’s been with the club since 2009. Midfielder Luke Vercollone is back for a seventh season, and 32-year-old center forward Matt “Deli” Delicate, the club’s all-time leading scorer, returns for an eighth year.
The club added three significant USL PRO veterans for the 2014 campaign: Midfielder Samuel Asante, who gave Charleston fits last season in Charlotte; former L.A. Bluesmen George Davis, a well-traveled striker; and Shay Spitz, a midfielder who can also play wide on the back line.
But the thing that supercharged the 2013 Kickers lineup was its affiliation deal with D.C. United. United reserve goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra — who helped Charleston to the 2012 USL PRO Championship, won the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award for Richmond, and D.C. players contributed nine goals and two assists.
This year Dykstra’s with the big club, and the man who served as last year’s backup to Bill Hamid — sometime MLS starter Joe Willis — joins Richmond as the club’s new starting keeper. If nothing else, Dykstra’s success after several years in the minors shows the value of USL PRO experience.
Of the other three long-term loaned players — defender Jalen Robinson, midfielder/forward Christiano Francois and homegrown forward Michael Seaton — only Seaton looks like an obvious immediate contributor. He’s famous as the first player younger than Major League Soccer to sign an MLS contract, but as Seaton showed Battery fans during the CCC, he’s more than just a novelty act.
More important than the long-term Kickers loans are probably the players who arrived on what what United is calling “spot-duty” loans.
Alex Caskey, the former Battery midfielder who visited last month as a member of the Seattle Sounders, was traded to D.C. United after the tournament. So he’ll return to Charleston as a Kicker. And Collin Martin is a 19-year-old homegrown midfielder who made seven appearances last season as a rookie after signing in mid-summer.
Gone are several players who made notable impressions in 2013, including Joseph Haboush, who is best remembered here for kicking Battery forward Dane Kelly during a break in play at Blackbaud Stadium last summer. And while several loaned stars contributed the Kickers’ attack, no player meant more to them than Joseph Ngwenya. He’s now with Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
Coach Leigh Cowlishaw typically deploys the team a formation that shifts between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1, with plenty of interchanging at the top when the team feels like attacking.
ANHAEUSER’S TAKE: “(Losing Ngwenya is) gonna hurt them,” said Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser. “He scored the goals out of the midfield as the second forward. They had Ownby from Houston out wide, and he caused a lot of problems.
“But they’ve got other players. It looks like they got Seaton back. Maybe Caskey on loan. I know they have Willis, who is going to replace Dykstra. So it’s going to be a little different, but they they got Yomby, they’ve got Lee, they’ve got Goerres, they have Vercollone, they have Matthew Delicate. So they’ll have their nucleus of players that always cause you a problem, and (Cowlishaw) is probably going to interject the new ones.
“They play a certain style. They try to keep one guy up high and bring the two wingers off the forward a little bit. So I don’t think that will change much.
“The one thing we know is they’re going to be good defensively. Their back line, if that’s Goerres, Yomby, even (center back Steve Birnbaum) I think is there on loan, who was the No. 2 pick, and Lee, who was the starting right back last year. So you’re talking about a solid back four. And they won a lot of games because of their defense last year. Obviously Dykstra had a great season last year, but Willis for Dykstra might be an even trade in their minds. So we’ll see.
“He’s filled a couple of the gaps that he lost. But you just don’t know what it’s going to be like. They’re going to be good defensively, and they’re very good on the counter-attack. That’s where they caught us a few times last year. They caught a lot of teams.
“And Seaton, we saw him here in the Challenge Cup. You give him space, he’s got the speed and he’s dangerous and can score goals. So we’ve definitely got to be aware of him if he’s up there on his own, or if they play Delicate and (run Seaton) off of him.
“So we’ll have to adjust to what we see Saturday, because you don’t know because they’re not the exact same team. Where does Caskey play in reference to Vercollone? Do they have the other midfielder (Michael Callahan)? I looked at it, they’ve got about six or seven that they’ve had, and then they’ve put about four or five. Kinda like us.”
THE NEW-LOOK CHARLESTON BATTERY
Battery fans who came out to the home opener saw how this team stacked up against the MLS-bound Lions. And things don’t get much, if any, easier against Richmond.
But what does change is that the team we saw last Saturday has had another week to integrate the players that Battery fan Jim Gregory calls “Batcaps.” That is: Players on loan to the Battery from the Vancouver Whitecaps. And since the loaned players figure most prominently in the attack, it’s that end of the field that could see the most change.
There will be at least two changes to last week’s defense, however. Captain Colin Falvey returns from his one-game suspension just as right back Quinton Griffin leaves for his. Taylor Mueller missed some training with a head injury this week, but was cleared to train on Thursday and Friday. If he doesn’t replace Griffin, expect to see 18-year-old Jackson Farmer out wide. Left back John Wilson (USL PRO Team of the Week) and center back Shawn Ferguson (Team of the Week honorable mention) will start, as will last week’s Man of the Match, goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper.
Look for Jarad van Schaik and Amadou Sanyang to fill their usual roles in central midfield. And veteran Zach Prince is a pretty safe bet to start, whether its on either side of the midfield or further up the pitch in more of a striker’s position.
After that, who gets the start is really anybody’s guess. Midfielder Maikel Chang nursed a tight hamstring this week, which could hurt his chances at a second-consecutive start. And while forwards Heviel Cordoves and Adam Mena started and played well in the first half, second-half substitutes Omar Salgado and Mamadou Diouf both made tremendous cases for more time last week.
Vancouver prospect Andre Lewis is still looking for his professional debut, and could get the call to replace Chang in the lineup. Forward Dane Kelly is back from injury (hamstring) and could start or figure as a substitute. Marlon Ramirez is a Vancouver forward whose specialty so far has been pestering opponents when the Battery switches to Anhaeuser’s high-pressure defensive scheme. Central midfielders Aminu Abdallah and Justin Portillo made their Battery debuts last week.
TOP IMAGE: Kicker (literally) Joseph Haboush and Battery striker Jose Cuevas were two of the big contributors to last season’s match at Blackbaud who not only aren’t back for 2014, but have apparently fallen out of professional soccer. Dan Conover photos.