In retrospect, there were so many things that could have gone wrong heading into Charleston’s match against Richmond on Saturday night.
After all, the Battery had just turned in what one knowledgeable fan called the team’s worst performance of 2013 (hard to believe, considering how awful the game at VSI Tampa Bay turned out to be) the previous night. And Richmond was not only riding a USL PRO record undefeated streak (22 matches, 13-0-9), but had proven itself to be better on the road (7-0-3, including a 1-0 win at Charlotte on Friday night) than at home (6-0-6). If there’s a team in USL PRO that could string together back-to-back road wins within 24 hours, it’s the Richmond Kickers.
And just imagine how a sudden two-game losing streak could have affected team morale headed into the Battery’s two-game western road trip this week, erasing all those good feelings from their undefeatd three-game July homestand.
So last night’s remarkable 5-2 win took all sorts of worries off the table. But it also left the team and its fans with a series of fortifying moments and memories. Because while the club will gladly take three points anywhere it can find them, being the first team this season to hang a loss on Richmond — particularly with the style that Charleston showed last night — must mean more to this team and the league than some generic, supposed-to-win match.
“It’s about preparation for the playoffs, and this shows that we’re together,” said midfielder Michael Azira, who scored two goals, earned Man of the Match honors, and turned in the night’s most decisive play. “We’ve been working hard, and we’ve had some spells, some downs, but I appreciate everybody’s work. Everyone has worked hard. Nothing but we’re playing for each other.”
Speaking of Azira…
There are some interesting personalities and some big-league prospects on the 2013 Battery roster, but it felt somehow significant that the man who put the match beyond Richmond’s reach last night would be Azira, the quiet Ugandan singled-out by team captain Colin Falvey in preseason as the returning player to watch in 2013. In his first professional campaign, Azira was introverted, polite and selfless-to-a-fault. He didn’t always look comfortable, but he finished 2012 with a bang, scoring the only goal in the 2012 USL PRO Championship.
“He looks like he’s got a spring in his step since he’s come back,” Falvey said in March. “He’s playing with a smile, he’s playing with confidence. He’s really comfortable on the ball. I think he’s going to have a standout year. I think he feels like he’s a starter now, and he’s got that presence about him.”
Of course, when Falvey said those things, Azira hadn’t yet secured a starting job, and his role with the team remained unclear.
Not any more. With just three regular-season matches remaining, Azira has logged more minutes than any Battery field player not named Colin Falvey or Nicki Paterson. He and Falvey are the only two Battery men to appear in all 23 of the team’s matches. And though he’s not generally considered a top attacking option, two of Azira’s five goals this season have been huge: A highlight-reel volley to open the scoring at Harrisburg on May 6th, and last night’s calm, 84th-minute chip-shot to beat former teammate Andrew Dykstra and end Richmond’s streak.
Battery players like to call out Azira and Jarad van Schaik as examples of under-appreciated team players who do the thankless midfield work that puts everyone else in position to succeed. So when a guy like that wins Man of the Match, it’s a good sign. On multiple levels.
Richmond in the rear-view
The first time Charleston ran afoul of Richmond this season, three players — forwards Joseph Ngwenya and Casey Townsend, plus midfielder Brian Ownby — applied the pain. On Saturday, only one of those Kickers, Ngwenya, was in the lineup. Neither Townsend nor Ownby — both of whom were on loan from MLS teams — were even on the travel roster for the Kickers’ Carolinas road trip.
But other than that, the teams didn’t seem to manage their back-to-back games all that differently. Two Richmond defenders played back-to-back 90s. So did two Charleston defenders (center back Cody Ellison and fullback Emmanuel Adjetey). Four Kickers started both matches. Five Battery players did the same.
But if there was a significant difference in the way the two coaches managed their rosters, it was this: None of Richmond’s players Saturday had the night off on Friday, whereas left back John Wilson and midfielder Bryce Alderson both sat out Friday before starting on Saturday for Charleston. That investment in two pairs of fresh legs paid off, too.
Wilson played an active match, pushing forward into the attacking third on multiple occasions . None of those plays was more spectacular than this sequence: In second-half stoppage, the 35-year-old passed the ball ahead to himself, out-ran his marker down the sideline, engineered a Battery jailbreak and set up Azira for a shot on goal that went for one of Dykstra’s two saves on the night.
Alderson went 74 minutes and contributed an assist.
“I think it’s tough to play two back-to-back 90s, so I think for the guys who did it tonight, I thought they were fantastic and they put in a real shift,” said Alderson, a 19-year-old Canadian youth international on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps.
“For me, not having played (Friday), the responsibility is more on my shoulders in terms of bringing that energy and that spark, because they’ll be heavy and they’ll be tired, and they have to push through it. I come into the game fresh. So I think there’s a lot of responsibility on me to bring energy to the game and motivate the guys on.
“(The Kickers) are a good team. You can see why they’re top of the table. You have to be turned on the whole time, and I think it showed that we performed well defensively. We put in a good shift. And they still scored two goals on us. So it’s one of those that you have to be focused the whole time, and if for a moment you lack concentration or communication, they’ll hurt you.”
Coach Mike Anhaeuser brushed off the idea that he made the decisions that resulted in a lineup that scored five goals against the best team in the league.
“I didn’t really make any of those,” he said. “We went with a lineup (Friday) night that we’ve been going with, and then just wanted to adjust. And unfortunately we got a red card (Quinton Griffith), Ben Fisk picked up an injury (a dead leg, or deep muscle bruise). Kinda forced my hand. But it wasn’t like we weren’t going to play Bryce, move Nicki out wide, and keep Mike and Jarad in there, because Amadou picked up a little injury last night, too. It works itself out, and the guys did a great job. But we knew we’d need everybody.”
Scrapbook of a win
There’s plenty to remember from last night, and most of it is good.
HABOUSH-IT: The Kickers lived up to their name around the 20th minute when rookie forward/midfielder Joseph Haboush, a 22-year-old Richmond product, went out of his way to stroll casually past Battery forward Dane Kelly — who was seated on the grass after being knocked to the ground — during a dead ball. With the referee otherwise occupied, Haboush deliberately gave Kelly a sharp little kick to the leg, and kept on walking like nothing had happened.
Though that was the most obvious example, Haboush’s extra-curricular represented a Richmond attitude Saturday. The Kickers seemed quite interested in getting as many licks as possible on Charleston’s speedy players — particularly Kelly and Cuevas. Haboush also took down Cuevas in the 40th minute.
GOAL ONE: Charleston generally controlled the early run of play, but finally got something to show for it in the 23rd minute, when Alderson found some space in the attacking third and lofted a ball into the penalty box. Falvey, who had come up for a previous corner kick and hadn’t yet retreated to his back line, saw the threat developing, alertly made a run toward goal, and headed Alderson’s past Dykstra.
“The ball came hard and I think I played it off to Adjetey and Adjetey slipped me in,” Alderson aid. “I just got my head up. To be honest, I wasn’t looking to pick anyone out. We had good runners in the box, and I just tried to put it into dangerous area. We have players on our team who attack the ball well, Falvey being one of them, and he got on the end of it and it was a great finish from him.”
The goal was more evidence of this trend I think I’ve noticed, in which Falvey has become more of an offensive threat. The center back also made a remarkable, improvised run up the field with the ball just five minutes later, and led an attack in the 38th minute.
GOAL TWO: Just two minutes later, Cuevas intercepted a poor clearance and redirected it to Azira’s feet. He collected it, spotted an opening, and fired through the defense from beyond the box. “We kinda pressed,” said Azira. “And the defender, he was trying to clear the ball, and then … Jose just kicked it, and I went for it and I hit the shot.”
Falvey’s goal opened the scoring, but Azira’s changed the match. Said Anhaeuser: “We put them under pressure early in the game. We were able to catch them for those two goals, and I think we were a little unfortunate not to get the third to put them away early… They put out a lineup that was really to sit back and kinda maybe just get it to the second half 0-0. But we did a good job of just catching them on that first goal on a header. What a great ball by Bryce. And then Mike Azira’s goal was fantastic.”
SAVED… FOR THE MOMENT: In the 44th minute, with the Battery up by two, a fierce Richmond attack off a rebounded free kick appeared to have pulled one back. Battery keeper Odisnel Cooper, pinned to his line in the six-yard-box, got low for a kick-save to keep his sheet clean.
But just seconds into one minute of first-half stoppage, defender Alex Lee slipped into space on a Kickers counterattack and used his head to redirect a beautiful pass from defender Sascha Goerres. The quick-hitter caught the Battery on their heels, with Azira scrambling back to pressure the passer and Lee running essentially unmarked between backpedalling Charleston defenders Ellison and Wilson.
GOAL THREE: The tone was as brusque after the break as it had been before, and less than two minutes into the half Charleston earned a free kick in a dangerous spot thanks to a hard Kickers challenge. Taking that free kick, however, wound up being no simple matter, as the Kickers shoved and pushed the Battery players taking up their positions, bringing the referee in for more discussions, more arguing, and ultimately more pushing and shoving on the restart.
It came from the right in the 48th minute, and with two teams’ big bodies grinding away like a mosh pit at music festival, Charleston’s Kelly made a brilliant deep run through the clutter and elevated to snap Cuevas’ kick home for the 3-1 lead.
“Once we got the free kick, I was like, yeah, I’m going to score this one,” Kelly said. “Those guys were trying to play me, not the ball. So I used my height to try to get (to it). Coach always tells me to run near post, so I always try to do that. I started at back post and went to near post and tried to get in.”
The goal was Kelly’s eighth of the season, lifting him to the team lead. He’s now tied for sixth in the league in goals scored.
NOT SO FAST: Veteran center forward Matt “Deli” Delicate almost didn’t return to Richmond this off-season, and began the year injured. In recent weeks he’s been contributing as a savvy substitute, and he paid off for coach Leigh Cowlishaw in the 72nd minute. Delicate’s alert finish on a rebound off Cooper’s gloves came on a Richmond corner and brought the undefeated Kickers to within a goal.
It took a bold move by Cooper in the 78th minute to preserve the lead. The Cuban keeper broke up a counter-attack in the box, but had to come out of his area to clear the ball to safety. With the Kickers pressing for an equalizer, Falvey and Cooper each came up with blocks and saves after the 80th minute. But that push for a result left room on the field for the Battery.
GOAL FOUR: In the 84th minute, heads-up midfield play by van Schaik got the ball to the feet of substitute Zach Prince, who played ahead to Azira with only one defender, Dykstra and a lot of green grass between himself and goal. Azira pushed up the center with his marker trailing on his left hip, but found both the strength and speed to hold him off. This forced Dykstra off his line, and as the former Battery hero tried to make himself big, Azira calmly chipped gently past his old teammate into the empty net.
While the goal lacked the YouTube sexiness of a vapor-trail screamer, or the two-pass-three-touch precision of the Cuevas-to-Griffith-to-Kelly goal from last week, this one will go down in my memory as one of the best moments of 2013. It emerged from the changing flow of play, and left a central midfielder alone, unsupported, in a role usually reserved for a striker. How many USL PRO players, faced with that situation, would have panicked, over-struck the ball, and jogged back shaking his head?
Azira’s calm play was exactly what that situation called for, and his finish was as cold as it was casual.
DOUBLE SAVE: Richmond’s ensuing attack put Cooper in the crosshairs again in the 86th minute, and though he manged to block a shot from point-blank range for his fourth and final save of the night, he was unable to take the ball down with him. With the keeper out of the play, Richmond managed to volley an uncontested shot at the open net — only to have it headed off the line to safety by Ellison.
Ellison is the largest of the Battery regulars, and Anhaeuser often speaks about the need to find ways to give the big Californian a break because of his belief that larger players need more recovery time. Yet Ellison played every minute of both the Wilmington game and the Richmond match. Only fullback Adjetey joined him in that distinction.
“Yeah, it was horrible,” Ellison said afterward, shirtless and laughing. “But we got through it. It was exhausting and everything, but we did it.
“(Anhaeuser) asked me after the game yesterday if I was good to go. After that loss yesterday, I wanted to go, and I was ready. So we got it done. ”
GOAL FIVE: For the first three months of the regular season, it looked like 2013 might turn out to be a lost year for defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang. Injuries knocked him out of the lineup, and with van Schaik manning the position capably, the team had no great incentive to rush Sanyang back from his recovery. He made occasional appearances in May and June, but didn’t record his first complete game of the year until the team’s fall-apart 2-4 loss at Tampa Bay on July 13. It didn’t seem like an auspicious start at the time — the team was playing on short rest after a disappointing lass at Orlando — and the result was hardly an advertisment for Sanyang’s value.
In the weeks since, though, Sanyang has appeared in every Battery match, helping the team surge to a 4-1-0 record. He played the full 90 against Phoenix, Los Angeles and Wilmington, and subbed on for Cuevas Saturday night in the 75th minute with the Battery leading 3-1.
He recorded his second assist of the season in notable fashion. Late in stoppage time, Sanyang acquired the ball near the midway line facing a stretched Kicker’s formation. So the talented Gambian started taking the space the Kickers were offering him, moving up, moving up, drawing defenders…
“I got the ball and I felt like there was a lot of space in front of me, and then I just took off with the ball,” he said later. “It got to be a 1-v-1, and Heviel was on my right. The only the thing that I could do was just cut back and give him an assist, and I think he did pretty well with that shot on goal.”
CORDO EN FEUGO: In fact, Cordoves did what he has made a habit of doing recently. The 200-pound Cuban held up the ball,
with his back to goal, turned on his man made a move on his marker, and buried a shot.
It was his seventh goal of the season, but perhaps more significantly, it was his third goal in the last three games. His stat-line since the Los Angeles match: 71 minutes, six shots, three goals. He’s now tied for 9th in the league in scoring with Nicki Paterson and four others.
There’s been some talk lately about the best way to put Cordo’s considerable talents to use. Could he be paired with Kelly in a more traditional 4-4-2? Could he be a regular starter? Is his recent run of form a resume for an expanded role, or the result of inserting a powerful, talented player into late-game situations where he’s able to exploit weaknesses in stretched formations?
Whatever the answer, Cordoves has certainly turned out to be one of the best off-the-bench scorers in the league, and a remarkable story in his own right.
The road ahead
Charleston’s dash up to Wilmington meant the team didn’t get back to Charleston until after 2 a.m. Saturday. Next up for them is their second West Coast trip of the season. They’ll play at Los Angeles (University of California Irvine Stadium) on Thursday at 10:30 p.m. EST, then line up for their penultimate regular season game on Saturday at Phoenix in some facility called “Reach 11 Sports Complex.” It’s a long trip in terms of miles, but it should be far from the most grueling experience this team has undertaken in 2013.
When they arrive home, they’ll wrap their regular season with a final home date with Antigua on Thursday, Aug. 15.
And all this matters quite a bit, because there’s precious little wiggle in the USL PRO table.
Charleston desires a home playoff game, which means they need a top-four finish. With 39 points on 23 matches, they’re currently five points clear of the four fifth-place teams (Dayton, 22 games; Los Angeles, 24 games; Charlotte 22 games; Pittsburgh 22 games), with Harrisburg clinging to the third seed by two points. Second-place Orlando is just three-points ahead at the moment, but that’s more or less a tease. The powerhouse Lions have five games remaining (including tonight’s game against VSI Tampa Bay), which could make overtaking Orlando a tall task.
So why is holding on to one of the top four spots so important? As Regiment member Scott Johnstone put it, the worst-case scenario is that the Battery drops to 5th and Los Angeles climbs to fourth, sending Charleston back to the West Coast for a first-round playoff game. Hosting a first-round match would definitely increase the Battery’s chances of moving on, and given their recent run of form, the defending champions could well be the one guest no host wants to invite in the second round.
A yellow for the officials
In the 68th minute, a Richmond player cued up an optimistic shot from distance just in front of my vantage point in the East stands. The spin on the ball was what you might call “less than opportune,” and the haphazard thing soared, swung, and curved out on the goal line wide of the far post on the left. It was one long, slow, awkward trajectory, but there was the referee, frantically gesturing that the ball had deflected off a Charleston player and awarding Richmond a corner. You can hardly blame the guy for getting it wrong. It’s hard to believe someone could miss that badly without some help.
Anyway, that was the moment when one of the people next to me in the stands looked at me and said “You know, the league really does need to do something about the officiating in the off-season.”
Saturday’s officials were actually only moderately troublesome compared to some of the face-palming crews we seen this year (don’t get me started on the 1-2 loss at Orlando). I disagreed with some of their calls and didn’t understand what they were doing from time to time. But I’m writing about them because of an incident in the first half, when a police officer who works game security approached Regiment member Scott Johnstone in the E-10 Supporters section and told him that she’d been instructed to come warn him and other fans that the officiating crew had complained about fans taunting them, and that she would be forced to remove them from the stadium if the officials complained again.
Johnstone said the officer approached him again after the match and apologized, saying that the information that had been relayed to her was inaccurate.
Which I already knew, just based on knowing Scott. He’s a big Battery fan who makes the most of home games — wears a black and yellow sombrero, sings and chants, bangs on drums. But he’s not a jerk. And if he did “give a ref a bit of stick,” it wouldn’t be of the threatening or abusive kind.
Soccer officials have a lot of power. But come on.
More than a game
The match began with Jim and Kim Morgan Gregory‘s son Ben and grandchildren Jaxon and Olivia standing with the team as honorary captains during the player introductions. The Gregories are longtime Battery fans who are deeply connected to the club. The team honored their son Thyler Greory, who died in a car accident last summer, during their 2012 championship ring presentation ceremony.
Kim can often been spotted working the sidelines as a photographer, and when I’m feeling flush I buy her shots to use on this site. But last night she simply stood with her husband Jim and soaked in the moment while her grandkids posed with the team. And while I won’t quote what she said to me privately in conversation, I figure it’s OK for me to paraphrase it and write that the family has been moved and lifted by support from the team over the past year. It’s a sad story, but I think the connection between the family and the team is both real and mutual.
Speaking of long-time Battery fans and game photographers, Ross Almers, who can usually be found standing behind the north goal with a camera, got a chance to participate in the club’s halftime “Kick for Cash.” The drill: You stand at the penalty spot and try to shoot a soccer ball through a small hole in a piece of plywood. Most participants are lucky to get it in the goal, but the promise is that anyone who nails it receives $10,000.
Anyway, Ross stepped up calmly, struck the ball cleanly, and chipped it softly toward the target. It missed, but I mean it only BARELY missed. Apparently, this was the closest anyone has ever come to winning the prize — although I’m told that club President Andrew Bell has actually accomplished the feat… without receiving the money.
Oh, and speaking of contests, I ran into Regiment member Randall Phillips and his wife, Debbie, before the Los Angeles match, and apparently Randall managed to win the Five Guys frisbee toss a couple of weeks ago. Terrible throw, missed the whole target, but it stayed on its edge, reversed course, rolled back on the target and fell over for the win.
Oh, and if the Battery need any good luck charms as they head into the playoffs, the club might want to consider these bits of trivia: No. 1, Molly Darcy’s co-owner Tommy Snee has sung the National Anthem before Battery matches twice this season. The results: 4-1 over the Houston Dynamo Reserves, and 3-0 over the Los Angeles Blues; No. 2, our daughter, Callie Hartsell, has attended roughly a dozen Battery matches over the past two seasons — and has never witnessed a Battery loss.
Yeah. You know whut it is.
TOP IMAGE: Colin Falvey poses with honorary captain Jaxon Gregory on Saturday night before the player introductions. Dan Conover photo.